As EWEB moves ahead to develop a secondary water supply for Eugene and surrounding communities—most likely a new water treatment plant on the Willamette River—it faces several significant communications challenges. Customers, already under financial pressure, will confront the prospect of paying full price for system improvements. The folks who will be footing the bill must understand the need and project benefits, and be ready to endorse the plan.
Customers’ expectations for high quality drinking water have also grown. Although many customers in western Oregon can’t identify where their drinking water comes from, most still say they don’t want to drink Willamette River water. 100 years of “polluted Willamette” headlines have etched a public perception of the river as a potential threat to public health—even though in other parts of the U.S. and world, the upper Willamette would be considered near pristine.
Great engineering and a solid financial plan will not be enough to secure project success. EWEB retained Barney & Worth to develop a robust and multi-faceted communications plan to guide the decision process around selecting a second source of drinking water for Eugene. Tasks included public opinion research (stakeholder interviews, telephone survey and focus groups) and developing themes and messaging, that compliments a comprehensive communications plan.
Recently, EWEB conducted public opinion research to see if they had “moved the needle” of public opinion. The results show EWEB’s efforts have worked. A 2015 telephone poll and two focus groups indicate the sustained messaging and outreach is influencing customers’ understanding and support for investments in water reliability:
- Customers show a significant 30% increase since 2012 in awareness of water supply risks related single supply source.
- Over half of the customers surveyed think developing additional sources is very important, a 21% increase since 2012 when only one-third of customers rated this issue as very important.
- Two-thirds of customers surveyed support the rate increases necessary to develop an additional water source, a 17% increase compared to 2012 when fewer than half of customers expressed a tolerance for rate increases for this purpose.