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Looking forward into the Climate & Water Future – An interview with Laurna Kaatz

LaurnaKaatz WEBWe’re fortunate that the research shows customers trust their utilities, so it’s important to find the right ways in which to talk to them about climate change.

Who is the best person or organization to communicate how climate change is affecting local water security? University scientists? Federal officials? Conservationists?

A recent report on national polling data from the Water Research Foundation gives a fascinating answer – water utilities! And here’s why: People believe them when they talk about climate change and water security. They’re on the front lines, because, especially in the West, climate change is all about water Utilities know it’s a lot cheaper to take action now rather than later, and their rate payers trust them to spend money wisely.
At Carpe Diem West we recently took an initial dive into these findings with Laurna Kaatz, the climate lead for Denver Water – a utility already acting on the report’s findings.


Why is it important for utilities to address the climate issues now as they reach out to their rate payers and different constituencies?

For Denver Water, we really want our customers to know that we are actively engaged and reviewing scenarios on this topic. This is not about scare tactics, but rather reasonable and forwarding-looking approaches to address a future changing climate. We are active and we are engaged, and we are a leader on climate adaptation. Being able to get that type of message out takes a lot of background and it takes a lot of time. It’s not just something that you throw up on a billboard and say, “Yeah, we’re prepared for climate change, check; move on.” It’s going to take a proactive and strategic approach and a lot of dialogue with our customers to really develop the type of understanding of what does climate change even mean; what are the changes we’ll see; and why does it matter if your utility is on top of it.

Were Denver Water communications plans developed internally or with a consultant?

Most of it was done internally, though we did work with a consultant on a message mapping tool. A lot of this work can be done internally. I’ve found the message mapping tool to be really easy to use. It just helps you systematically think through how to talk about this issue. [Message mapping tool is available in the WRF report, linked above]

Are billing statements are a good communications vehicle for this kind of messaging?

Denver Water has focused on the message that climate change is an issue we’re addressing in our long-term planning and something that we’re thinking about as a future challenge. We weave it into all of our communication materials, including bill inserts and mailers. In this day and age, it’s important to include information that’s important to your customers in every type of communications channel – from bill inserts to social media messages and everything in between. People get their information from a variety of channels and we need to make sure we are using all options available to us.

Are you thinking about what audiences you want to prioritize reaching with these messages, and what methods you’re going to use to reach them?

Our priority first and foremost is to work on bringing climate adaptation to the decision-making process within our organization and get people on board with it here. The term for this is “mainstreaming.” It’s important to do this at all levels of the organization — from our board and executive team to all of our managers, all the way to every employee. Everyone in the organization needs to have an understanding of what it is we’re talking about and why we’re talking about it.

We’re still working through our external communications plan. We’re looking at who we’re going to focus on, who we’re going to partner with, what businesses we should work with, and how we will communicate it. There are a lot of options to consider, from messaging on our website to ads to videos to e-newsletters and more.

Our first priority is to work on our internal efforts, and then we’ll take the step of communicating climate change to our customers.

As you do the internal work to get everyone on the same page, mainstreaming, what does that look like?
We’re going to be talking to a lot of people! We are talking about focusing first on the areas within the organization that are most impacted by the natural system, like Operations & Maintenance and Engineering. We then would work through the other areas of the organization because climate change impacts everything – from financial decisions to planning and much more.

Is regional mainstreaming practical? Might that be an effective approach for the smaller utilities, or does the mainstreaming need to be totally internal?

Because mainstreaming means bringing climate adaptation to the decision-making process, becoming an informed regional community could be a form of mainstreaming as well.

One example of regional mainstreaming is the Joint Front Range Climate Change Vulnerability Study that Denver Water led a few years ago. This was a regional collaboration, which allowed us to develop the tools we needed to analyze climate change. This was helpful because in the West, we don’t have all these tools already developed for our region. This project also allowed utilities that couldn’t talk about climate change or move forward with climate adaptation planning or any analysis on their own to work under the umbrella of a regional collaboration. They were able to participate, provide resources to staff and financial resources, and stay in-the-know about what’s going on with climate information.

That study was completed a few years ago, but we still meet on a quarterly basis to talk about all the issues related to climate change that the different organizations are dealing with.

I think there are a lot of opportunities and good examples out there of mainstreaming. The Water Utility Climate Alliance is a national example of mainstreaming this conversation across utilities in the United States.

Digging into the data a little bit, we now know what incredibly powerful messengers utilities are. How do we leverage that? Who else is important to bring along? What do the choir’s expected messengers look like?

I’m not a communications expert, but from my thinking, we have a very good opportunity to talk about this issue both internally and externally.

In Colorado, we have a truly unique situation where we have one of the highest densities of climate scientists in the world, so there are a lot of really good resources here. We also have some really good folks to work with on the communication side. A big part of what we’ve already been talking about is drought — how to be prepared for that and what our customers need to do. In that sense, we have a lot of themes lined up that I think are going to be really helpful in bringing in climate change messaging. We’re fortunate that the research shows customers trust their utilities, so it’s important to find the right ways in which to talk to them about climate change.

Laurna Kaatz is the climate scientist and adaptation coordinator for the Planning Division at Denver Water, where she coordinates climate investigations and implements the findings into Denver Water’s planning process.

11/6/14

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