It is budget season again which means the annual battle for water and sewer rates. The costs for power and chemicals go up every year, and billions of dollars of deferred maintenance obligations exist. So why is it that utilities find it so hard to get the revenues needed to update and operate? The easy answer is politicians, but the issue is more complicated than that.
Much of the growth and expansion of the US and Canadian economies can be traced to the development of water, sewer, storm water and transportation infrastructure. Without water, and associated wastewater disposal, the public health suffers, people get sick, and are less productive than if they are healthy (and you don’t need transportation then). The lack of clean water is a major barrier to growth and development in many parts of the world. So going back over 100 years, the federal government saw the benefit of improving drinking water quality. Utilities responded, building filtration and disinfection facilities which were so successful that we are still reaping the benefits of those improvements. Many central cities began expanding their systems as a means to provide service to surrounding communities.
Development of regulations relating to metals in water occurred in the 1940s, and developed through the 1962. The Safe Drinking Water Act reaffirmed many of these standards, and of course added new ones as new constituents. Over 90 percent of the US population has access to safe, potable drinking water on a 24/7 basis.
Unfortunately we do too good a job and have for 100 years. People take safe water and sewer for granted. Regulation or not, people assume it’s all good (the bottled water folks aside (see Peter Gleick’s new book).
The solution? Marketing. Local governments, their employees, their systems and their solutions are all kept under wraps. No one actively markets the benefits of utilities? Why not? Why don’t we use our CCRs, monthly newsletters, meetings, and community involvement to market ourselves. True most of us in the industry are not great marketers and we see so many other issues it is not a priority. The private sector sees the benefits of marketing, but utilities often see the lack of active marketing in the attitudes of our elected officials, who do not often understand the value of the service. IF people value your product they will pay for it. The difficulty that many utilities have in getting rate increases to update and improve their inrastructure is an indication of failure to understand the value of the product. That’s a marketing failure! I once had an elected official tell me marketing was not something the public sector should do. I asked why. There was no answer, but he acknowledged it would help. So we need to make marketing our efforts, and products. So who’s got some great ideas out there to market? Who has some great success stories we can all use?