Written by: Sarah Diefendorf, Director of Capacity Collaborative (formerly EFCWest)

The Capacity Collaborative is working with wastewater utilities in vulnerable communities across the United States on communicating septic management and care. What we have found, in each case, is that outreach efforts are starting at the end of the story, rather than the beginning.

Public outreach always seems so simple: if we just tell people what they need to do, they’ll do it. If we just give them more information, they will change their behavior. But in reality, how’s that working out for us? Motivating people to change their behavior is an age-old conundrum, especially for wastewater experts who struggle to understand why their customers can’t just do the right thing. Whether it’s keeping the wrong things out of the drains and toilets, reducing water use, or repairing and replacing old septic systems, we often need to start at the beginning: building awareness.

Providing multi-page maintenance pamphlets to renters and homeowners does little good if there is no understanding of why these investments need to be made in the first place. For example, we have found elders who have been living with sewer and septic backups for so long that they have accepted this reality as part of their lives. We have learned from health departments that owners of cesspools and bad septic systems have not made the connection between their leaking waste and their children’s health problems. We have seen and smelled closed beaches in communities that are unaware that their own septic systems are the cause.  

So while the quickest answer may be a septic maintenance pamphlet, the long-term solution requires a step further, starting at the root of the problem.

In an example communications campaign in Hawaii regarding faulty cesspool impacts on water quality, homeowners and renters needed to understand:

  1. The problem: leaking cesspool impacts the health of their ocean and streams,
  2. How the problem impacts them (hint: you’re swimming in it, as shown in the t-shirt above) and finally,
  3. What homeowners can do to solve this problem

People must feel personally impacted by water and wastewater health issues if we want them to care, especially if they need to open their pocketbooks to fund a solution. And once you start a communications campaign, wastewater managers should understand that effective campaigns are lengthy and must evolve over time. This effort is an ongoing process. Otherwise, true change is never realized and lessons learned are forgotten and the status quo quickly returns.