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When is Enough, Enough?

Posted By Karen E. Menard, Friday, April 28, 2017


Education Division – Consumer Outreach Committee Blog


All Things H2O                                      May 2017 Issue




When is Enough, Enough?


Imagine that you work at a well-known cellphone company and you are sitting in your family room reading while your spouse watches TV.  You hear a commercial begin by talking about cellphones.  Your curiosity is peaked.  You put down your book and watch. The commercial has set up a display of various cellphones. An actor is asking consumers which one they would like to try while letting them know that putting it up to their ear comes with the acceptable chance of contracting a brain tumor, as approved by the Federal Government.  The ad concludes by hocking their protective cellphone cover that reduces potential radiation by 99%.  I am pretty sure you are on the phone and subsequent defamation suits are filed defending the honor of the cellphone industry.  You find it almost unfathomable that one company would do that to an entire industry, especially one they are dependent upon to exist.  If you find it hard to believe than you have not watched the PUR water filter “Water Bar” ad.  That is exactly what happened to me watching that ad, minus the lawsuits, because everyone knows it is fair game to say that about public water suppliers.  It has become a calling since the Flint Water Crisis. 

Armed with my usual righteous indignation, I tapped some of my fellow water providers to gauge their outrage.  Sadly, I found more resignation than riot.  Somewhere along the journey to deliver one of the greatest health advances in the 20th Century, we accepted that this is our lot.  We will toil away: the last infrastructure considered, the silent and invisible utility and now also passively accept the assumption that despite our best intentions, we provide poison straight to your tap. 

Well, for this water provider, that is one bridge too far.  My colleagues say “Why fight it?  We can’t change it! It is not worth it.”  I hear that, but I refuse to listen to it.  I won’t take it in and hold that in my heart.  Instead, I choose to heed the words of Dylan Thomas:


“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”


I won’t sit back and just accept that this is where we are.  That a profession, so full of the people I admire most, is painted as violating their most sacred duty, the provision of clean and safe drinking water.  I can’t do that when I know, not through an irresponsible website or inflammatory commercial, that it isn’t true.  If you will indulge me for a minute, let me tell you what I do know.  

I know men and women who run into danger, who run in when others are running out.  I know men and women who forsake time with their families to work a single alarm that indicates something might not be functioning.  I know that everything these men and women do is subject to enormous scrutiny.  I know they aren’t there for the glory and the pay.  They are largely invisible, just like the infrastructure and service they provide.  They are the water heroes who work 365 days a year regardless of weather; 7 days a week regardless of weekends, and 24 hours a day whether 4 am or 4 pm.

There is a danger in silence.  We are trained to accept silence as consent.  As an industry we cannot consent to the idea that the drinking water we provide is tantamount to poison.  I have heard some of my colleagues say, “Who cares if they drink it?  That is such a small amount of what we sell.” That is a slippery slope.  Water is not a widget, it is not simply a commodity.  Clean water is the one of the greatest public health advancements of the 20th Century.  If we acquiesce to the idea that the water we provided is good enough for grass, but not for making baby formula we have lost the trust of the public.  The moment our customers look at the water coming from their tap with suspicion instead of appreciation our industry has stepped back in time.  Being silent and accepting is costing us every day in a million small ways. 

If no one appreciates the value of clean drinking water, how do we as an industry make the case for billions of dollars in infrastructure investment?  That eroded trust plays out on the phone in your call center every day.  A filter company thought nothing of maligning an entire industry and creating a website full of misinformation and fearmongering with the complete confidence that we as an industry would sit silently and let it happen. 

We have a story to tell.

It is a complicated, long, and often difficult narrative.  We are fooled into thinking that if we don’t talk about it, no one else will.  That belief has been demonstrated to be false in so many instances, yet still we refuse to tell our story.  We refuse to stand up for the water industry.  That is baffling to me.  It is difficult to explain that water has chemicals in it, that it is not “pure”.  It is even more difficult to explain that if it was pure, it would kill you because it is so corrosive.  I do not suggest we start there.  I am not naïve. Engaging citizens in discussions about water may lead to these difficult topics, and you should be prepared to discuss them. 

I believe water is a very local issue and you begin by telling the story of water in your community.  Have you ever asked children if they know that clean safe drinking water and sanitation are the reason they can attend school and get an education?  They are skeptical at first, but once you tell them how many people in the world (women and children) have to spend their days finding and carrying sources of water (that are potentially deadly), they figure it out. They could not go to school and do that. 

When did you last speak at your local civic organization and talk about the invisible foundation of the community running beneath their feet?  We have a graphic with a map of the U.S. and a line from Atlanta, GA to Seattle, WA.  We tell them if we lined up our water pipes end to end, that is how far they would reach.  Then we talk about maintaining and replacing the pipes, and the true cost of water, which pales in the face of the value it brings. 

You work in an industry that provides: better health for the citizens, education for the children, and economic prosperity for your community.  Without you and what you provide, your community ceases to prosper and may even cease to exist. Don’t your citizens deserve to know that?  I understand that Flint opened the lid on a Pandora’s Box for the water industry.  Some of our detractors would say it shined a light on the problems with the industry.  I don’t know anyone more heart sick about what happened in Flint than water providers.  I understand the desire to hide from the light.  This moment in history is like the early 20th Century.  It will set the course for the water industry’s next phase.  What will that be?  From greatest public health advancement to…greatest public health threat?  I do not think that is inevitable. 

If we stop standing idly by and letting others tell our story, I think the next chapter is far brighter.  I think the next chapter is ripe with possibility.  We are the economic engine of our communities.  We are the environmental stewards of our most essential resource.  We are innovating sustainable water supply into the future.  We don’t need a celebrity spokesperson, we just need to raise up our heads and our voices and tell our stories.


About the Author:

Kathy Nguyen graduated from Berry College with a BA in Speech/Communications.  She studied Environmental Management at the University of Maryland.  She has been with Cobb County Water System since 2001.  In 2004 she became the Water Efficiency Manager, where she developed, implemented and manages the Water Efficiency Program.  She is currently the Senior Project Manager for Water Resources.  She is a member of many professional organizations: American Water Works Association, Alliance for Water Efficiency, The Irrigation Association SWAT Promotions Group, Georgia Association of Water Professionals, Technical Coordinating Committee for Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, Department of Community Affairs WaterFirst Adjudication Team, Technical Advisory Committee for both the State-wide Water Plan and the State-wide Water Conservation Plan. She is also the Past-chair of the Georgia Water Wise Council, and the Georgia Section of American Water Works.

Tags:  environmental stewards  flint water crisis  PUR water bar 

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