In Milwaukee, the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility consistently ranks as a top attraction with thousands of people taking tours every year.
The public’s fascination with the facility is partly the result of its history and legacy as a technologically advanced wastewater treatment plant. The popularity is also the product of a carefully designed community outreach program intended to develop a connection with the company operating the facility on behalf of the sewerage district.
When Veolia North America began operating the treatment plant on behalf of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) under a public-private partnership in 2008, the company also soon recognized the buildings, pipes and pumps were an ideal learning opportunity.
Veolia, whose primary role is to provide municipalities with environmental, operational and engineering expertise, often brings to these contracts an experienced public affairs and communications program that assists local governments with enhancing its community outreach and educational efforts.
This much is known – the general public usually has little concern or appreciation for the nuts and bolts of a city’s infrastructure until it breaks or shuts down. If an unfortunate and unexpected event occurs, the level of public outcry often depends on the amount of investment in goodwill made weeks, months or even years earlier.
Typically, public outreach and education programs are designed and implemented to increase understanding and appreciation for immediate issues or concerns, such as an upcoming tax measure or a major construction project. In the California suburb of Santa Clarita, for example, the Valencia Water Company was preparing to implement a tier system of rates based on water budgets. Valencia officials knew imposing this system for water bills was bound to raise questions, so they implemented a multi-faceted outreach program with positive results.
Absent a pending project, ongoing outreach and education programs are most definitely a worthwhile investment for a public project, says Scott Royer, general manager of Veolia’s Milwaukee project.
“Our goal in Milwaukee was to demystify the science of wastewater treatment and to give the public the sense that this is a facility with significant importance to the Lake Michigan watershed. Once people are on site, discussions can range far and wide – from infrastructure and funding to the species of birds who call Jones Island their home.”
But how do you make a tour of a wastewater treatment facility an appealing proposition?
Veolia approached the challenge by treating the facility and its processes the same as any complex system or resource that requires interpretation. A walking tour was developed that followed the path of wastewater treatment throughout the facility with stops where the guide provides narrative on the process and positive impacts on Lake Michigan water quality. With a little help from some key contacts with local school systems and colleges – and an annual “Doors Open” event that brings in 2,000 visitors in a single day - the plant tours soon became a hit and attendance grew year over year by double digits – from 750 to well over 4, 000 visitors each year.
To date, more than 25,000 people have toured the Jones Island plant.
Similar to the outreach program for tiered rates in Valencia, the Milwaukee education campaign soon helped the public realize there is a bigger story behind the massive complex of steel and concrete humming away beneath the Hoan Bridge.
“It’s one thing to try to present information in a museum exhibit behind glass, but it’s much more meaningful when you are sharing this story in person with residents wearing hardhats and safety gear touring your wastewater treatment plant,” adds Royer. “Once the public understands the bigger picture, they get a better sense of the effort it takes to clean wastewater and the impacts their actions have on water quality.”