The topic of the day at the September communications workshops for communities with combined-sewer systems was how to engage stakeholders and communities on the importance of improving water infrastructure. As Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage noted at the Jersey Water Works session on Sept. 21, “Participation and investment begin with public awareness.” Hackensack Mayor John P. Labrosse Jr. started off the Sept. 22 workshop with his perspective on what he wants for his city. “Clean water is important,” he said, and the City of Hackensack is committed to improving its water infrastructure in the years to come. Mayor Labrosse shared with the audience of local municipal employees, elected officials, and regulators Hackensack’s own approach to rehabilitating its water infrastructure. The Hackensack project, he explained, is already on its second phase and includes both stormwater retention and sewage separation. As Mayor Labrosse remarked, the goal is “to bring Hackensack from an aging-infrastructure city to a state-of-the-art city.”
Michele Putnam, director of the Division of Water Quality at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, followed Mayor Labrosse, providing context on the issue of combined-sewer overflows, or CSOs, and aging infrastructure in the state of New Jersey. Putnam outlined various ways to tackle the problem, including green infrastructure, sewer separation, and CSO storage facilities, and stressed that any approach would need to engage public interest in infrastructure: Collaboration will be key to this process of improving quality of life. As Putnam stated, “We’re all going to have to work together to build an iterative process that will result in improved water quality.”
Collaboration was a key theme in the multimedia presentation on connecting with stakeholders prepared by Alan Heymann and John Lisle of DC Water. The two talked about their experiences with the DC Clean Rivers Project, the goal of which is to clean three important waterways in the Washington, D.C., area. They began with “the why,” which included providing clean waterways for generations to come, permit compliance, and building strong cities for their current constituents. They stressed the importance of branding, or having something recognizable for the life of the project so that people are aware of what is going on in their neighborhoods.
The DC Clean Rivers project started out as a tunnel construction project but, following community feedback, was later modified to include green infrastructure. DC Water was then confronted with the common challenge of funding. They tackled this problem by seeking federal assistance and investments, but financing primarily comes from ratepayers. Local residents help pay for maintenance projects through their water bills. Heymann and Lisle explained that communications and outreach is essential to infrastructure projects because people want to know what they will be paying for when they receive a bill. As Heymann put it, “The old ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach no longer works. They’re paying so we want them to know what we’re doing with the project.”
For the past few years, DC Water has led a campaign of “unearthing infrastructure for the community,” as Heymann put it. They work to establish a partnership with local residents by meeting with them, asking for their input and being transparent. They also publicize their progress on multiple platforms, from Twitter updates from an account made on behalf of the tunnel boring machines (@LadyBirdTBM, @LucyTBM, and @NannieTBM) to educational cartoons for children to public events. Finally, they celebrate project milestones with residents by hosting events with invited community leaders and elected officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden.
In their engaging presentation, Heymann and Lisle also cautioned against the potential pitfalls in communications and outreach. They mentioned that it is important to consider how some residents might receive an increase in rates to finance projects. Some may question the science of green infrastructure or the necessity of any improvement measures at all. The two suggested that municipalities take ownership of their projects and talk to constituents about what they are required to do to improve their cities. They also reminded us that “community input should be meaningful … but finite.” Though community feedback has been important throughout their project, it is also important to have a balance and to “let the experts do their thing.”
DC Water left the eager audiences with a number of takeaways. They emphasized the importance of branding and maintaining visibility in the neighborhoods where projects are under way. Heymann and Lisle also recommended integrating planning with other municipal departments, in order to maximize investments and minimize disruptions in residential neighborhoods. Finally, they reminded us that improving infrastructure requires collaboration across stakeholder groups, including engineers, communications professionals, elected officials, investors, and local residents.
In addition to the workshops in Elizabeth and Hackensack, a third workshop is scheduled in Trenton on Oct. 20, to be hosted by Mayor Eric Jackson. These workshops are all in preparation for a free, full-day workshop on Oct. 24, specifically for leaders, staff, and communications teams at CSO permittee municipalities and utilities, to learn from DC Water how to communicate effectively in order to build support for necessary investments in water infrastructure. DC Water will also present an overview communications workshop the next day, targeted to community organizations and open to anyone interested.
Kessie Alexandre is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University and an intern at Jersey Water Works.