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Water Bottle Fill Stations as Public Outreach Lessons From Eastern Municipal Water District

Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) provides water, wastewater, and recycled water services to more than 816,000 people in Riverside County, California. EMWD is the sixth-largest retail water agency in the state of California. More than a decade of California water industry survey data suggest a strong correlation between the value that customers place on water with their acceptance of water infrastructure project expenses, rate increases, and other management decisions. Customer approval is extremely important in EMWD’s service area, where demographics are diverse and people tend to be more cost-sensitive than the statewide average.

With an eye toward boosting customer approval, EMWD developed the Tap Into campaign to support its goals of engaging in educational community outreach and fostering intergovernmental partnerships. One of the major successes of the Tap Into campaign has been the water bottle fill station program, which was developed as a way to engage with customers in highly visible public spaces throughout the EMWD service area. The program is aimed at promoting EMWD’s tap water messaging in an innovative yet cost-effective manner that also encourages people to try EMWD’s high-quality tap water—free of charge.

During the first phase of the program, water bottle filling stations were installed in each of EMWD’s five geographic board divisions. They were a big hit: Users reported a 95 percent satisfaction rate. EMWD then began looking for an innovative way to target K-12 and college audiences in its service area and educate them on the quality, reliability, and value of EMWD’s tap water. For the second phase of the water bottle fill station program, EMWD identified 123 grade schools and colleges in its service area as potential candidates for water bottle fill stations. Surveys found that at a large majority of the schools in the EMWD service area, traditional drinking fountains were being underused. EMWD saw in-school water bottle fill stations as the perfect opportunity to promote the Tap Into message while increasing the consumption of potable water.

EMWD set a goal to install 19 water bottle filling stations in area schools annually. Qualifications for installation were quickly developed: A school wishing to install a water bottle fill station had to be in the EMWD service network, and it had to identify a high-traffic area for the station, mark it with a cobranded sign provided by EMWD, and maintain the unit and signage for at least 5 years. All stations must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with California Division of the State Architect requirements. Messaging was crafted to convey the quality, reliability, and value of tap water.

In 2017, EMWD exceeded its annual goal: 33 fill stations were installed in area schools, 14 more than the minimum number it wanted to install. All of the installations were successful, and total program expenses came in significantly under budget. Usage counters on the filling stations indicated that the average station gave out the equivalent of 6,000–12,000 16-ounce bottles of water per year—increasing tap water consumption and reducing plastic bottle waste. Providing exposure to more than 800 students and teachers per school day, the program has already exceeded EMWD’s expectations.

EMWD’s filling station program was so successful that it has been recognized with the Public Relations Society of America’s most prestigious award, the Polaris Award. Meanwhile, the program has continued to grow: EMWD has approved 35 additional water bottle filling station installations in area schools; applications for 40 more are pending. The initiative is spreading across the state, too: Water agencies are replicating EMWD’s program in local schools throughout California

For more about EMWD’s filling station service, visit www.emwd.org/services/drinking-water-service/ water-bottle-filling-stations