An Equation for Decline: Invisible Waterworks + Silent Water Workers = Lost Customer Trust
April 30, 2006
Why are Americans spending so much money on bottled water, when they can turn a tap and get the same, perhaps better quality water at a fraction of the cost? You could assume this is merely a manifestation of a wealthy nation of consumers, who have more disposable income than good sense (see "Bottled Water: Better than Tap?" an article on the FDA website that also addresses water filters and "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" from the Natural Resources Defense Council).
But this trend has lasted too long and goes too deep (see The Definitive Bottled Website for just one example of its extent) to be written off as another passing consumer fad. What we've got is a growing crisis in declining public trust in our public water resources.
That's "public" as in your customer. And while your facility, your career, your livelihood may be insulated from close public interest by layers of commissions and local, state and national bureaucracies, a decline in public trust must ultimately result in a decline of the very thing you have invested your life's work in.
In fact those protective layers, and the invisibility that comes with them, may be at the heart of the decline in public trust. Water as a public utility has become water taken for granted. You turn the tap and water comes forth. For most of human history, this would be the stuff of miracles and epic legends.
A Place Wondrous to Behold
Waterworks were once considered miraculous things, worthy of front page news. In Philadelphia, the Fairmount Waterworks was once one of the top tourist attractions in America, if not the world. There's a great essay on its history on the Delaware River Basin Commission's website. You can also listen to some of the story (or read the transcript) of the Fairmount Waterworks on "The Engines of Our Ingenuity Episode 310" from The University of Houston's College of Engineering.
From Benjamin Franklin bequeathing 100,000 pounds to Philadelphia to develop its waterworks to "insure the health, comfort and preservation of the citizens," to a young Mark Twian writing of Philadelphia's wondrous Fairmount Waterworks in 1853, to today's Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center we can see there are stories to be told about water. There are stories about the works and the workers who deliver water to our homes and businesses. There are stories to be told about the technology and engineering, the environment, the finance, the politics, the conservation and protection of our water.
Perhaps you think you've already told your story. You may have your own website like the Philadelphia Water Department. But have you entered into any online conversations about water, as is possible in a blog like this? Have you thought about starting your own conversation? If trust has been lost in our waterworks, it didn't happen overnight. And if trust is to be rebuilt, one way is to enter the conversation here.