The online RCAP Resources Library has a variety of resources that are useful to small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

We All (Even Water Utilities) Need Somebody to Lean On

Last week was Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate the most important relationships in our lives. Many people did something to show appreciation for their husband, wife, partner, child or other loved one. If you were among them, chances are you reflected upon the importance and depth of that relationship.

We know how important relationships are to us as individuals. Among the things they provide us are support, stability and security. For these same reasons, relationships are also important to groups of people like communities or towns or entities like utilities.

This Valentine month is a good time to consider what relationships you might establish or strengthen within your community and beyond. Here are some good places to start:

Good customer relations

There is huge value in establishing good relations with your customers. Even when everything seems to be going well, you should be cultivating goodwill with them, which may pay off later when you need to propose a rate increase or when something goes wrong. Provide regular messages about the services you provide and your reliability. Establish various means for customers to communicate with you. Many appreciate being able to communicate in modern ways, such as by email, through your website and via Twitter. Establishing a Facebook page to share information both ways is an easy, low-cost way of connecting with customers.

Help in an emergency

There’s never a better time to have friends than during tough times. For a water system, this means during emergencies, whether it’s a natural disaster or a human-caused accident. A formal way of establishing relationships with adjacent utilities is a WARN (Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network). These networks are basically formal agreements among neighboring utilities to help each other during an emergency if desired. The assistance can be as minor as loaning some supplies or as major as providing some staff time to make repairs. During Hurricane Sandy, one basic but common problem was lack of fuel, which many systems were using to power their generators when they lost electricity. Some systems shared gasoline with others, which made a huge difference in maintaining their operations. As an EPA official who helps water utilities prepare for emergencies recently said, “The worst time to exchange business cards is in the middle of an emergency response.” Find out more about starting/joining a WARN

Another good practice is to keep an up-to-date list of all important contacts, such as fire/police/EMS, equipment suppliers, local construction contractors, electricians and others that you may need to call upon in an emergency situation. Before an emergency occurs, get to know emergency responders and even those who clear the roads of snow and ice because you may need to call on somebody for special help later. Consider showing first responders around your facilities to point out any special needs or areas of critical operations.

Friends in high places

Establish good relationships with staff of your state’s primacy agency, state infrastructure funding agency and federal agencies, such as the regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. While regulators are often seen as rule enforcers, they are really the friends of water systems. Their main goal is to protect the public’s health and ensure the safety of your system’s customers, and it’s far easier if that is your goal as well as the leader of a system. One benefit of connecting with federal and state agencies, even just through email, listservs, blogs or newsletters, is that you can be in touch with networks where information flows. Also, look for opportunities to join or participate in state and regional advisory committees or groups concerned with water resources and water utilities. Through many of these types of connections, you can be alerted to opportunities to apply for grants and loans for improvements in your community or learn about resources available to your community.

In short, if you’re a small-community water system, chances are you don’t have a lot of staff and resources to do everything on your own. In good and bad times, it can benefit you to reach out through acquaintances, alliances and networks in order to accomplish something big or get through a challenging time.