Lessons you don’t learn in the classroom

by Tess Haegele

October 4, 2015

As Texas is seeing increased consequences from the drought, and we are looking to meet a shortfall of 2.7 trillion gallons of water by 2060 [1], it’s a great time to evaluate what is happening with Texas water policy. I recently had the opportunity to look at water policy from the field rather than the classroom at a West Travis County Public Utility Agency (WTCPUA) meeting. I learned a few things that you often don’t discuss in the classroom but that influence the effectiveness of policy implementation. My two key findings are that policy should be tailored on a case by case basis, and effective communication is key.

To touch upon the first point, my observation was based on a good portion of the meeting spent debating what level of customer service the utility should provide in helping customers detect water leaks. Considering the average household loses 10,000 gallons of water a year to leaks, detection is important not only for the conservation of water, but also to save customers money [2]. Often times policy makers get caught up in what they know and forget how much the customers actually know. This can lead to expectations that are more than can be asked and customer dissatisfaction. Through speaking with a local resident, I learned that in rural areas (much more so than urban areas) the utility can have a profound impact on the community, especially when it comes to growth and sprawl. There is a balance to be struck between what the developers want and what the public wants. Together these observations show that it is important for policy to be satisfactory for all involved and appropriate for a given populace.

Developing policy fit for its population is important but only half the battle of effective implementation. An excellent example of the PUAs communication issues was discussed during the meeting. A board member involved with his community’s home owners association was unaware of a change in days they could water, well after the change was made. This information was printed on the water bill, as mail outs would be too expensive, but this meant customers wouldn’t hear until the following billing cycle at the earliest. This ineffective communication is not a onetime issue. The local resident I spoke with mentioned that the PUA has a terrible track record with selling their ideas to the public. This issue leads me to conclude that the utility must consider how to effectively communicate and sell their decisions, and how to allocate funds to ensure this. The flip side, customer communication with the utility, is equally important. I believe if communication from both sides was better, the functionality of the utility would improve.

I encourage all students to take an opportunity to see how it works in the real world. There are valuable lessons to be learned that we can take with us to the workforce. I encourage utilities to take a step back and see if there are ways to more effectively implement policy. We can’t control the climate, but we can improve the policy governing what scare water resources we have. 

Sources: 

[1] 2012 State Water Plan. Texas Water Development Board, n.d. 

[2] "Fix A Leak Week." Water Sense. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1 Oct. 2015. Web.