How well are you communicating about water quality?

Every June, if they haven’t done so already, more than 50,000 public and private water systems in the U.S. will put the finishing touches on their annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), a.k.a. their water quality report, and send it off to customers to arrive by the federally mandated July 1 deadline.  

When you think about it, water quality is a water systems’ essential function. It’s the main way customers judge their water provider, or at least, it’s a close second to customer service. But, we often find that this report is the only time during the year that a water system proactively communicates about its water quality. What if customers don’t see the report? Or they see it but don’t read it? Or they read it, but don’t understand it? Did it fulfill its mission of building consumer confidence in their tap water? 

I wrote in an AWWA Journal article in 2023 that while the goal of these reports has been to increase public confidence in tap water, it’s unclear whether that goal is being realized. The research does not provide a definitive answer. A 2021 Penn State Study concluded that 60 million Americans are not drinking tap water due to a decline in trust in drinking water quality and safety, while AWWA’s annual Morning Consult study shows that trust in tap water is highly correlated with communications about it. The trick is having a CCR and a water quality communications program that customers read, recall, and understand.  

If your water system struggles with this, Raftelis can help. Members of our team of communicators have been working on CCRs since they were first required in 1998. In addition to helping many large and small systems with their CCRs, our staff has helped AWWA issue guidance on meeting the CCR Rule; we have won an award for reimagining the CCR with more accessible language; we have created templates that are free and publicly available in cooperation with the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) and funding from AWWA; and we have developed a water quality communications toolkit to help water systems build out a year-round effort to communicate about their water quality, which in turn, builds trust. Here’s a little more about each project: 

Raftelis Takes First Prize Reimagining the CCR 

In 2020, the Environmental Policy and Innovation Center (EPIC) launched its first Water Data Prize competition aimed at improving and reimagining CCRs. More than 30 entries were submitted from consultants, water agencies, data scientists, and others, and EPIC awarded $15,000 to five stellar entries. Raftelis took first place for an entry that demonstrated accessible language and design. EPIC hosted a workshop with more than 75 participants from diverse water disciplines to solicit more ideas and input on how to turn the ideas from the entries into action. Highlights from the top submissions were captured in this report and interactive website. 

Raftelis Develops Free CCR Templates 

Building on the 2020 Water Data Prize and with support from AWWA, in 2021, EPIC focused on creating an actual tool that water utilities could use to communicate annual water quality data. The top Water Data Prize Winner in 2020, Raftelis, won a competitive proposal to develop a CCR template for EPIC, with an esteemed committee of reviewers from utilities, nonprofits, and the regulatory community. Raftelis’ solutions included two templates, in Microsoft Word and a digital version in Squarespace, that are available for free to all utilities at EPIC’s website.  

The intent is that these two templates—along with an instruction manual—will help public water systems create a CCR that’s clearer, more engaging, and more accessible to broader audiences by following these simple principles: 

  1. Complex information is translated into plain language, making information easier for a broader audience to understand 
  2. Simple graphics to explain complex ideas are used 
  3. Local water quality concerns are elevated and featured prominently 
  4. Customer engagement is prioritized 
  5. Familiar tools, like Microsoft Word and Squarespace, are leveraged for budget-friendly features and widespread access

Water Quality Communications Toolkit 

The Virginia Health Catalyst has a mission of ensuring all Virginians have equitable access to comprehensive health care that includes oral health. Knowing the impact that clean, safe tap water can have on oral health, Virginia Health Catalyst hired Raftelis to create a Water Quality Communications Toolkit for Virginia water systems to help them build awareness across the state of the value and safety of their tap water. This toolkit is comprehensive and applicable to water systems nationwide. It recognizes that the CCR alone cannot carry the weight of all water communications. Rather, it must be a year-round pursuit.  

Changes Coming to the CCR 

In March 2023, EPA proposed new rules for the CCR, introducing seven specific new CCR requirements: 

  • Improve the readability, clarity, and understandability of water quality reports 
  • Enhance risk communication 
  • Encourage modern electronic delivery options 
  • Clarify information regarding lead levels and efforts to reduce lead in drinking water 
  • Provide translation for customers with limited English proficiency 
  • Require reports to be issued twice a year for systems serving 10,000 or more people 
  • Require states to submit further compliance monitoring data to EPA 

In May 2024, EPA issued its final rule, which take effect in 2027. The changes included in the final rule are: 

  • A summary at the beginning of the report noting any violations or exceedances. 
  • Flexibility in how a system shares its water quality data. So, the tables are no longer required, though the content in each table continues to be required. This means the way Raftelis designed the contaminant info in its winning data prize submission is now acceptable by EPA. 
  • It’s okay to say the water is safe if it meets all EPA standards. EPA has decided not to include its proposed provision to “prohibit false and misleading statements.” This was the provision that suggested systems should not use the word “safe” to describe their water. 

Here are all the changes that made it into the final rule.   

While this year’s CCR is on its way to customers, reach out to our team to learn how we can help with next year’s CCR. We can provide: 

  • Consultation on the best way to design your CCR  
  • Strategic communication around water quality 
  • Water quality messaging and assurance that your CCR is accessible and understandable by all audiences 
  • Guidance on the most cost-effective methods for developing and distributing your CCR 
  • Review of your CCR to ensure it meets EPA’s requirements 

  Contact Sam Villegas (svillegas@raftelis.com) to set up a consultation.  

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