Each year, 50,000 water utilities across the United States provide customers with a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), reporting on drinking water quality, regulated contaminants such as lead or arsenic found in the water, and any water violations. But many CCRs are out of touch with what consumers need to understand their water and whether it is safe to drink.
The news today shows that the United States is experiencing a crisis of trust in government and science
. Utilities live at the intersection of government and science and have a meaningful opportunity to establish trust and build consumer confidence in water quality through CCRs, which are their only mandated non-crisis communication to customers. Building trust is even more important as utilities grapple with national attention on issues of water quality, aging infrastructure, and climate resilience.
Fortunately, through better communication about water quality, utilities can build trust with consumers, gain consumers’ support for investments in their water infrastructure, and then ideally provide better water. But three major problems currently prevent better communication:
- The current language of the CCR, although well-intended, is too advanced for the average customer who likely reads at a seventh-to-eighth grade level. From their technical terms and abbreviations to lengthy sentences and complex sentence structures, these reports are inaccessible to most readers. Even a sample CCR from the EPA website is around an 11th-grade reading level. Also, CCRs are rarely available in a language other than English.
- The presentation of the data, while likely appealing to scientists and policy experts, is intimidating to the regular non-scientist consumer. Because of its dense information presented in tables and numbers without context, we’re certain that most people would look at the “Is there a violation column?” and move on.
- Finally, the CCR is designed as a print brochure. The layout intends to fit everything in a small space, a page or two at most, but makes the report cluttered and hard to digest. Print may have been the best option in the late ’90s when the reports first became a requirement, but today most people are consuming digital information on mobile devices.
As a result, CCRs don’t build customer confidence, but leaders and organizations in the water sector are reimagining the CCR to build trust in their water.
To inspire water systems to redesign their CCRs, the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) launched the Water Data Prize competition in 2019. More than 30 organizations and individuals in the water sector have submitted entries.
An esteemed panel of judges representing various voices in the water sector, including federal and state agencies, water utilities, trade associations, community organizations, and academic experts score the entries. Submissions have overwhelmingly showed that the answer to a better CCR isn’t more data, it’s more context and better design.
As Katie Henderson of the US Water Alliance, who served as a judge, noted: “The simplicity yet creativity employed in these reimaginings of the CCR prove that it really is a priceless opportunity to empower customers, giving them the data and information to guide decisions that impact their health. As EPA develops regulations to increase the ‘readability, clarity, and understandability’ and ‘accuracy’ of CCRs, they would do well to look at the work of the Water Data Prize winners.”
Setting a New Standard
Raftelis, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based consultancy, received first place in the Water Data Prize. Key strategies the team employed included:
- Using photography: Raftelis used images with people to help draw customers in—ensuring that the people represent the diversity of the community. Utilities often share infrastructure pictures over people, which can convey the investments they’ve made, but there’s no emotion in them. Water quality is personal, it’s about people’s health.
- Keeping language simple: Even common words like “source water” or “flushing” can be barriers to people who aren’t in the world of water. Raftelis edited the CCR to use active voice, short sentences, and simple words that most readers will understand, guided by the Flesch-Kincaid editing feature in Word that tracks reading level and the CDC’s Clear Communication Index Tool to make sure that each page had a clear point, a call to action, and communicated the meaning behind the numbers.
- Embracing a clean design: Another major feature of Raftelis’ entry was the intentional use of white space. White space is important when information is technical. It makes the content seem less intimidating and easier to read.
- Putting the customer into the CCR: Water quality is a shared responsibility, and customers need to understand that it’s not just on the utility to make sure water is safe to drink. Once water enters the house, there are steps a resident can take. Raftelis included tips for customers, such as how to check the plumbing for lead and legionnaires, what to do when on vacation, and how to handle outside connections to help them understand their role in improving water quality.
- Making CCRs a minimal burden for a utility to produce: While meeting the needs of customers is crucial, any redesigned CCR must also meet the needs of the utilities. Larger utilities may have the time and resources on hand to create a website, but smaller utilities with tighter budgets need a low-cost way of communicating with their customers. As a simple solution for more resource-constrained utilities, Raftelis proposed a cleanly designed PowerPoint slide deck, posted as a PDF to a website so viewers can download and flip through and print if they want.
We believe CCRs can live up to their name—that they can build confidence. EPIC is committed to working with water utilities, regulators, and policymakers to help reimagine the 21st-century CCR and set a new, more consumer-friendly standard for all.
Joya is a senior fellow at the US Water Alliance and a senior advisor to the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
Sam is the director of strategic communication services at Raftelis and has been providing communications counsel to utilities and the public sector for more than 25 years.