Gaining Public Support for Inflow and Infiltration Work

Minnesota regional sanitary district provides actionable information to customers

Gaining Public Support for Inflow and Infiltration Work

Photo courtesy of Western Lake Superior Sanitary District

Achieving public engagement in any project can be daunting, but in the case of inflow and infiltration, the best way is simply making sure customers understand the issue at hand.

“People want to do what they can do to help,” says Karen Anderson, director of community relations for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.

WLSSD encompasses 17 communities in a 530-square-mile region around Duluth, Minnesota. Like many, they experienced severe I&I issues through the 1990s and 2000s, kicking off a series of Environmental Protection Agency lawsuits, penalties, and new permit requirements. Those problems culminated in a consent decree, signed in 2009 and completed in 2015.

“Along with the requirements of our consent decree, we were required to pass an I&I ordinance, which puts responsibilities on each of those 17 communities,” Anderson says. “They may not have chronic overflows, but they have to start eliminating that I&I from the system.”

Each community in WLSSD creates and submits its own annual plan for I&I mitigation efforts and community outreach. WLSSD provides resources and materials for education, as well.

Speaking to the masses

In the water and wastewater industries, there can be a lot of trade-specific language. Anderson encourages utilities to keep that in mind when crafting outreach messages.

“In this industry, we don’t use a whole lot of plain language, and we just have to remember we’re working with people who don’t know what a foundation drain is,” Anderson says. “We had to try to think about the words that people don’t know.

“I remember being in college here in town, hearing about I&I, and thinking, ‘I wonder what that means?’” she says. “I lived here and I&I was a big deal, but I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.”

As important as the quality of the content is the quantity. Consistent and ongoing outreach is important to keep the public’s attention and increase awareness. When WLSSD was sued by the EPA, their efforts were handicapped by a lack of awareness — even among community leaders of their member cities and townships.

A popular mayor in Duluth, who eventually helped the district push their I&I ordinance, was completely unaware of the problems they were having, despite being on City Council prior to his election for mayor.

Getting that mayor on board was a huge steppingstone for WLSSD.

“We were very fortunate that the mayor of our largest customer community was making it a priority, and talking about it himself, too,” Anderson says. “That’s how we ended up with success; he had a lot of support.

“The message that the city of Duluth used is that we have a responsibility here, to the lake,” she says. “We talk about clean water being important to our quality of life, recreation, health and commerce. We each have a responsibility to do these things to preserve that.”

It takes a village

Another important facet of WLSSD’s outreach strategy is encouraging individuals to contribute to the cure. I&I and other city or regional issues can seem abstract to the average citizen — too big for them to do anything about. There are, however, steps private homeowners can take, but utilities need to be there to help.

“You need to have public support, and you need to give them that compelling reason as to why it’s important to do these things,” Anderson says. “But additionally, people want to do what they can do, and really that’s where a lot of contribution comes from. People think that sewers are the public responsibility, and they don’t think about each one’s contribution. Part of that is telling people what they can do.”

In addition to showing the public what I&I is, WLSSD also distributes materials showing the effects of roof drains and foundation drains on I&I. When homeowners make the connection between something they’ve seen in their house, but didn’t really understand, and a citywide issue, they are much more likely to do something about it.

WLSSD had a robust education campaign on the public side called “Money Down the Drain,” where officials talked not only about the cost of having to treat clearwater, but also showing the impact of just one roof in a typical rainfall and what that would contribute.

“We’ve tried to teach people what their individual contribution is, because the problem seems really big, and a sewer system seems to be a government’s responsibility,” Anderson says. “People need to understand that we have a separated sewer system — clearwater belongs in the storm sewer, not in the sanitary sewer, and you can help, you have a contribution.”

Show them why it matters

In the end, customers need motivation to put effort into a program like this — they need to know what they are working for and the consequences of failure. The last element of any public education is giving people hope that there will be a positive effect if they participate.

“Part of the imagery that we’ve used is really showing the results of clean water. Showing people using clean water in all aspects of their lives,” Anderson says. “Reminding people how important clean water is to their everyday activities and those things that are important to them — that they can contribute to making sure we continue to have clean water.”


Check back with I&I magazine for more on mitigation efforts by the communities of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.


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