AWWA Connections: Swamp water and science boost utility’s community engagement by Matthew Junker, Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County

Swamp water and science boost utility’s community engagement

A bucket of swamp water and a classroom science demonstration are helping a Pennsylvania water system engage its community in the importance of safe drinking water.Matt Junker

Matthew Junker (pictured right) of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County (MAWC) periodically visits local schools to talk about water science and safe water delivery.

“I decant some muddy water, usually from a nearby swamp, into a clear bucket,” he said. “After explaining that drinking this water would likely make us sick because of bacteria, parasites or viruses, I add a packet of water treatment chemicals formulated jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Procter & Gamble to reduce waterborne disease.”

Junker tells students that the treatment process they just witnessed is basically what happens at many surface water filtration plants. Then he explains that “because our customers need water every day, we can’t stop treating and delivering it when the water turbidity is high.”

His presentation continues with a history lesson about advancements in water treatment. “I present a graphic from the CDC that illustrates the drop in waterborne disease in the United States, then correlate it with the adoption of chlorine as a disinfectant after its first use in the country in 1908,” he said.

Throughout his demonstration, Junker said, he emphasizes that “the safe and clean water we take for granted today wasn’t always available and still isn’t in many places around the world.”

Matt in classroomA key objective of Junker’s outreach effort is to gain community support for water initiatives by educating young consumers. (Pictured at left during school presentation)

“When it comes to projects to replace old infrastructure, meet new regulations, or upgrade our systems,” he said, much of the funding will likely come from “customers opening their wallets a little wider…and these young people are our future customers.”

Another objective is to attract future leaders to the water sector by mentioning the American Water Works Association’s Water Equation campaign.

“I talk to older students about the fact that there aren’t enough young water treatment plant operators in the pipeline to replace those who are eligible for retirement,” he said.

Junker said his community outreach approach “can be a powerful tool to adjust customer appreciation for water and wastewater services.”

“The point of outreach is to affect the present and win in the future,” he said. “Engaging young people will go a long way toward achieving these goals as they are our future customers and, potentially, future water professionals.”