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The Brackenridge River Road Cross Connection Incident: A Case Study in Regaining Community Trust

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This paper details the actions taken by the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to regain the public's trust based on SAWS handling and responsiveness to a potable water cross-connection incident.

On April 13, 2002 a cross-connection was discovered between a recycled water distribution line and a potable water distribution line, which serves approximately 205 residential and commercial customers within a small area known as the River Road Neighborhood. Actions initially taken by SAWS to locate, eliminate, and address the cross-connection were at first believed by the utility to be swift and effective. However, what followed was a realization that standard operating procedures and the utility's preparedness were inadequate. Upon becoming aware of the community's dissatisfaction and associated mistrust with SAWS' response to the incident, the utility needed to take immediate actions to involve the community in the corrective process.

This paper describes a series of actions taken by the utility needed to restore credibility and trust within the River Road area and the entire community. It quickly became apparent that the community was not satisfied with the utility's response. Several forums were set up to provide information to those affected and to the community as a whole. The forums included door-todoor visits to give affected customers personalized attention and to help alleviate their concerns. The local health department was called upon to assist in this effort and to help provide a timely response in an attempt to make door-to-door contacts with the affected customers. The health department proved to be an invaluable support resource by providing personnel assistance and additional information in addressing the community's concerns.

The entire affected community was also engaged in a series of neighborhood meetings sponsored by SAWS. The items addressed at these meetings included proposed actions, customer involvement and feedback on procedural changes to prevent and/or address potential future incidents. These meetings continued on a regular basis until each and every concern of the community was addressed.

While the initial forums were very intimidating and hostile events, showing the community's outrage, they were imperative in rebuilding the community's confidence in the utility. In addition, standard operating procedures once believed to be adequate were brought into question. Part of the process of rebuilding trust included participation of the community in the reviewing and revising of SAWS procedures, which helped the community understand the issues, and added an element of an unbiased viewpoint to these actions. This was accomplished by the creation of an ad-hoc committee comprised of citizens, including individuals from the affected community, to review procedures and provide recommendations for changes to the utility's governing board. Staff walked the committee members through each procedure and identified where the breakdowns had occurred. Committee members then provided an outside perspective, aiding in the revision of the policies and procedures.

SAWS also hired an independent, nationally recognized engineering firm with a long history of water utility operating experience to help review the incident and compare the operation of the recycle program against other programs of similar size. The firm was also charged with reviewing not only the procedures but also how the recycle program is managed and how it fits into the System's organizational structure.

The outrage of the community also required local political representatives to become involved, due to the perceived apathy of the utility. SAWS immediately began meeting with the area's state and local political representatives to include them in the process as well. These representatives were important in gauging the effectiveness of our actions by providing another source of feedback from their constituents.

SAWS has always maintained a close working relationship with the state regulatory agencies, which govern the utility. The state regulatory agency, which governs all water purveyors, realized they also had a stake in the outcome of the incident since they are responsible for oversight of all water utilities and their performance. The state agency, along with the health department, attended many of the aforementioned forums to provide support and needed expertise in dealing with all of the community's concerns.

In retrospect, a number of lessons were learned in communicating with the community and within the organization. While understanding the physical cause and remediation of a system failure is important, it is even more important to consider the impact on the customer and to provide an immediate response to their needs and concerns. Upon realizing the customer or community has been impacted by a failure, immediate and decisive actions to contact and address the concerns of the affected customers must be made.

One major lesson learned was that emergency response procedures and accessibility of local and state agencies' resources and personnel should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that needed support will be available, and that decisive and timely actions can be taken in the event of an emergency situation. The actions taken to address the concerns in the community were at times very contentious, but proved to be necessary to restore the community's confidence and trust in the System.

The actions taken and the lessons learned form this incident have been incorporated into many other programs and activities within the System, not just those which require the inclusion of the community.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-01-01

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