Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Ensuring Water Safety in the Inland Empire By Roxanne Rountree and Kevin Pearson

A coalition of six Riverside County, California, water agencies have come together to promote their role as essential service providers during the ongoing public health crisis caused by COVID‑19. Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District (EVMWD), Jurupa Community Services District ( JCSD), Rancho California Water District (RCWD), Riverside Public Utilities (RPU), and Western Municipal Water District (WMWD) have partnered on a campaign to reassure customers that their tap water is both safe and reliable. 

The campaign was launched in late April amid ongoing state and county restrictions that were put in place to protect public health. This partnered effort—which includes both water and wastewater messaging—is helping to emphasize the safety and reliability of drinking water supplies and point out how customers can play a part in protecting their sewer systems during these unprecedented times. “We want to reassure our customers that protecting public health is at the forefront of our mission every day,” EMWD General Manager Paul Jones said. “We are proud to continue providing the same levels of essential water and wastewater services that our customers have counted on for generations.” 

The regional campaign will feature 11 billboards placed throughout Riverside County and will also involve a strong social media push using the handle hashtag #KeepItFlowingIE, with IE being a reference to the Inland Empire moniker for the region in which the six agencies lie. Many of the partnering agencies have teamed up on previous campaigns, including ones relating to water quality, the value of tap water, and promoting healthy sewers, or on outreach efforts related to critical legislative or infrastructure efforts. “Our agencies have worked and will continue to work closely together to educate our customers,” said WMWD General Manager Craig Miller. “Our voice becomes stronger when we work collectively to educate all who live and work within our communities.” 

When fears relating to COVID‑19 first spread among the public in early March, stores quickly sold out of bottled water and toilet paper. News accounts showed long lines for those items, empty shelves, and limits on how many units of each could be purchased. In fact, there was no need to stock up on bottled water. “Our water supplies are plentiful, reliable, and safe and do not require standing in line at big box stores,” said RCWD General Manager Jeff Armstrong. “We are here and available day and night for a fraction of the cost of bottled water.” The World Health Organization has found no link between COVID‑19 and water supplies. All public water agencies in the United States are required to use treatment processes that remove viruses

Inland Empire landscape in Mount Jurupa, California.

and pathogens from raw water supplies. The six agencies collectively perform more than 80,000 water quality tests each year and continually reinvest within their respective systems to keep the taps flowing and minimize service interruptions. 

As regional sewer providers, many of the agencies have a vested stake not just in what comes out of the tap, but what goes down the drain. “As people rushed to buy toilet paper, and stores were often sold out, some customers may have been forced to use wipes,” EVMWD General Manager Greg Thomas said. “Placing those wipes into the sewer system may result in costly damages. So-called flushable wipes should only be disposed of in a waste bin.” 

All of the agencies have worked to educate customers on not flushing wipes, even those labeled as flushable. Wipes have different fiber makeups than toilet paper and will not break down when submerged in water. Many brands of wipes remain completely intact for years when in water. As a result, they may clog sewer lines and treatment plants, resulting in costly backups into customer homes. That’s why the regional outreach campaign billboards and social media ads also focus on the importance of only flushing the “Three P’s—Pee, Poop and (Toilet) Paper.” By limiting what goes down the drain, customers are actively doing their part to keep the wastewater system flowing. 

In response to stay-at-home orders, all six agencies have empowered their employees to work remotely if possible. Essential and operational staff who must report to work daily have strictly adhered to public health recommendations, including wearing face coverings. Many of the agencies quickly expanded remote working options to meet the needs of office personnel who were in many cases working from home for the first time in their careers. “The ability of our employees to work safely while still meeting customer needs was paramount,” RPU General Manager Todd Corbin said. “We have worked to provide the necessary personal protective equipment for our field staff and provided office staff with the resources to work remotely. The result has been maintaining the same level of service that our rate payers have always expected from us.” 

As the campaign runs through the summer, the agencies will work to quickly adapt messaging to the changing landscape associated with COVID‑19 and its far-reaching effects. Ultimately, the goal of every agency remains the same—to provide a superior level of service, reliability and safety while continuing to protect public health and deliver services 24/7. In the words of JCSD General Manager Chris Berch, “This campaign will help us reinforce to our customers that they can rely on us day in and day out so they may focus on all the other things that matter in their lives right now.” 

Roxanne Rountree is the senior public affairs program manager at Eastern Municipal Water District. Kevin Pearson is a public affairs officer at EMWD. For more information about EMWD, visit emwd.org.