Facing New Realities with Grace: Toxic Algae Lessons from Salem, OR – An Interview with Lacey Goeres-Priest
We quickly found out that attempting to communicate in traditional ways, like press releases and website, was not enough. People don’t communicate that way anymore. It’s all about email and Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms.
Harmful algal blooms in Detroit Lake, a reservoir on the Santiam River that provides Salem with drinking water, created cyanobacteria toxins that could not be filtered or boiled away, and were a threat to vulnerable people in the city.
Dubbed “toxic algae events,” these blooms are becoming more and more frequent across the country, though they have happened in the Midwest for years, largely driven by warming weather and agricultural pollution. Rising temperatures linked to climate disruption are driving the expansion of these events beyond the Midwest, including in watersheds with less intensive agricultural activity, such as the Santiam.
In her chat with us, Lacey shared some useful insights about the challenges of communicating with her customers in this fast-paced, urgent, and constantly-evolving crisis, as well as some lessons for others who may be looking ahead to such challenges, whether related to toxic algae or other water quality threats.
As Lacey notes, the lessons around partnership and communication are themes that Carpe Diem West network members are focused on year-round, and sharing these stories is an effective way for us to share these learnings network-wide.
In a time of novel crises and challenges, let’s Carpe that Diem!
You described last summer’s events as more of a communications challenge than a technical water treatment one. Why, and can you tell us more?
Typically when we deal with water quality or production events, we are dealing with something that we have been forecasting out. Like if we’re in drought or production at the treatment plant will be impacted, we have time to prepare for outreach. And thankfully we’ve never had to go into all-city boil water advisory.
So for the City of Salem it was an eye-opening experience in terms of the urgent timeliness of getting the health advisory information out to everyone, and in a way that inclusive to everyone in our community.
Plus, the material was difficult to communicate. We knew cyanobacteria was present, and we were monitoring not for regulatory purposes, but to give a heads up to our treatment plant to change operations. There weren’t state regulations driving what to do and when, and we were coordinating with state health agencies as well as trying to follow EPA guidelines.
We had the technical information we needed to be able to treat the water, and we were changing what we were doing at treatment plant, and had staff dedicated to that, but the public information was very challenging.
Trying to wrap our heads around how to communicate that to our public was so difficult because we hadn’t experienced it before, the Oregon Health Authority hadn’t either, and we didn’t have materials in English, much less in the other languages we needed. So we were unprepared for the volume and types of questions and concerns we got from our customers, and that was really frustrating.
This was especially so because of the nature of this crisis. When you have a boil water order, there are mechanisms that we have on-hand to help customers understand what’s needed. But a “do not drink” for vulnerable populations, which is what cyanobacteria triggers, makes it an individual choice for many customers.
So their questions ranged from “can I eat the tomato in my garden that’s been recently watered?” to Salem Hospital calling and asking, “Can we do surgery? Can our patients be on bedding that has been washed with Salem water?” Our correctional facilities also have vulnerable populations, and were calling asking how we would get water to them.
How did you shift gears when you realized how challenging this was?
Well we quickly found out that attempting to communicate in traditional ways, like press releases and website, was not enough. People don’t communicate that way anymore. It’s all about email and Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms. So the social media conversation was crazy and the amount of information, right and wrong, was really alarming. We weren’t set up to deal with that.
But we didn’t have huge communications base that was ready to tackle that side of it, so we had to build one. Eventually we did put together a joint information center comprised of people from all city, and that helped a lot.
We brought on people for translation to get information in Spanish right away, because a large number of our community members are Hispanic. We brought in our IT department because heavy traffic was crashing our website.
It was a huge learning to realize we had to bring all these resources together. And once they came together the communications piece became more fluid.
That was good because after we withdrew the advisory, we had to issue it again because after two days of clear data, the cyanotoxins popped up again in our sampling, and we had to reissue the advisory. That created a huge communications challenge, including customers asking whether we knew what we were doing. We ended up keeping the advisory in effect even when we got good data again, while we were introducing another treatment barrier, because we didn’t want to confuse people further. That created a hardship for the food processors in our area because they had made product during this time with technically safe water, what could they do with that product?
Looking back over all the communications and technical challenges, what lessons are you gleaning, and what lessons can you share?
All utilities have some level of emergency response plan, so my first piece of advice is to really get to know it. It was drafted for a reason. Keep it current so when you pull it off the shelf, make sure the information is still valid.
Also, know who your critical customers are – like hospitals, dialysis centers – and how to reach them after hours. We issued our advisory at 4 or 5pm so people were off work, and we needed to know the critical person after hours who can make decisions and coordinates. Nothing ever happens at noon during the week.
Related to this is knowing your partners and contacts at the other agencies, the county or primacy agencies, the school districts and universities. We learned how important it is to have an established relationship, and keep it current, so you know who is the responsible party at these institutions and agencies.
Finally one of my biggest learnings: we needed more connectedness between our Public Information Officers and our technical staff. In a communications crisis, the PIO’s need to understand the basics of how the systems work, and the supervisors like myself need to be able to speak about these things clearly. That will allow you to partner better so when their phone is ringing off the hook they can answer at least some technical questions before they need to refer to other staff.
You mentioned the challenge of providing timely information for diverse and immigrant communities in Salem. How did you meet that challenge?
We did a great job in our Spanish-language materials and on our website, as well as providing ASL interpretation at our press conferences. So I am proud of that. But we are looking to improve upon our relationships with community leaders and institutions like churches or community centers, where people really go for information. That’s where the trust is, not necessarily with us as a government agency, so we want to find ways to deliver information through trusted channels.
Lacey Goeres-Priest is the Water Quality Supervisor for the City of Salem. She oversees drinking water regulatory programs including watershed monitoring and cross connection programs and operations of the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery well system. She has a Masters Degree in Environmental Science and Engineering from the Oregon Graduate Institute and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from the University of Montana-Missoula.
Photo Credit: Bradley W. Parks/OPB