The Romance of Wastewater

wastewater treatment plant (Wikipedia)What could be more romantic for Valentine’s Day than to take your date on a tour of the local wastewater plant? That’s how the New York City Department of Environmental Protection promotes its highly successful tours, now in their fifth year (1). In 2015, three Sunday tours of 100 people each were booked. Participants took home a commemorative card and lapel pin.(2)

During the tour, participants got a quick course on how the city treats its wastewater before they are taken around the plant. It all takes about 90 minutes. The event has developed a bit of a cult following and reservations for a spot fill up rapidly. The website tells people what to expect and – importantly – what to wear.(3)

The result of each tour is dozens of media articles, hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts, a couple of YouTube videos (4), all free publicity for the municipal water services. Plus, it creates a growing public appreciation of municipal water treatment and its infrastructure, which can only help recruitment.

Public understanding of utility services is at best sketchy. After all, most of the infrastructure is hidden below ground or behind walls. There’s a disconnect between what comes from the tap and how it gets to it, safely and cleanly. That can be changed.

A tour is an opportunity to open the doors and let people see what their tax dollars are spent on. And they get to put faces to the process, meeting the workers and seeing their environment, which helps them connect to the service better than any charts or numbers will.

Water treatment may not seem sexy, but surprisingly many people want to know more, especially when issues like water quality have become news. Tours and similar activities can draw crowds eager to understand the issues behind the headlines, especially if the event is gamified in some way. Have a contest, offer prizes, make it fun.

Mix science and engineering with entertainment. Show videos and have some hands-on experiences. Seattle had a local poet create water blessings in their Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant, which people experience on their tours.(5)

San Francisco hosts monthly tours that attract 2,000-3,000 people annually (6). A lot of Canadian municipalities offer tours of water and wastewater facilities, but few go out of their way to publicize them. That’s why a Valentine’s Day tour can garner a lot more attention: it’s so counter-intuitive to the romantic notion that you can have fun building it up; make people want to attend.

You can also build special events around World Water Day or Earth Day to capitalize on the media attention both get. In Milwaukee, the water reclamation facility is one of the major attractions of the Doors Open event and around 2,000 people tour the plant in a single day. (7)

It’s like retail: get people through the doors and they will do the rest. Give away a few souvenirs, like those lapel pins. Have some publication handouts with basic information including the numbers and statistics of treatment and flow that people can take home with them. And don’t forget to invite the local media.

It’s also an opportunity to build positive public opinion. For many people, their only association with wastewater treatment is a bad odour. A tour can show them how and why everything happens, to explain the challenges and underscore how vital the service is. Make yourself visible. And while you’re at it, educate people on what is and isn’t flushable. After all, it’s a captive audience.

It takes careful planning and active publicity to get established, but once it’s in the event calendar, it will develop its own momentum. Build it and they will come.


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