Raise your hand if you’ve ever physically witnessed the eyes of someone glaze over as you’re talking about work? We see you out there with your hands up. Have you ever wondered why that happened? Was it because you were being too technical or complicated? Water utility personnel operate in a highly specialized field. What comes second nature to you may as well be Latin to outsiders? What you assume everyone knows is often the information people most need to hear but aren’t hearing in a way they understand.
For this reason, more than ever, water utilities should be partnering with local school districts to tackle the lead issue. Lead sampling, testing, and remediation are complicated; however utility staff have dealt with lead for decades. According to the 2018 Government Accountability Office Report on Lead Testing of School Drinking Water, school districts reported a need for more explicit guidance on determining a lead action level and on developing lead testing and remediation programs. School leadership and maintenance personnel need utility subject matter experts in their corner as they address lead concerns.
Here are five things you know that you may assume others know that could be game changers for your local school’s lead program.
When you hear the year 1986 or earlier, you may groan because you know this means there is a higher probability that lead is present. However for other people in the room that may simply mean the A-Team was still on TV, Reagan was president or it’s the year they were born. Lead is top of mind for you in ways that it isn’t for others. You also have a better understanding of the rules. Most school officials aren’t thinking about the difference between milligrams and micrograms per liter and even fewer understand what the 90th percentile means. Sharing your skill set gives schools a leading edge.
Start talking lead-line mediation to non-water folks and they may wonder when lawyers got into the plumbing business. Water utility personnel have experience with mediation activities such as corrosion control and line flushing. This knowledge can be passed on to maintenance personnel at schools to address problem areas in their facilities. Utility staff can conduct training or serve in advisory roles for maintenance staff unfamiliar with handling the presence of lead in fixtures and plumbing.
Water utilities conduct water quality samples all day every single day. Testing procedures, sampling plans, quality control measures, and mediation plans are second nature to them. These activities do not fall within the wheelhouse of the local school district. Testing and other related activities create another opportunity for water utilities to serve as advisors or trainers for school staff. Utilities also have access to labs and/or experience with lab services. They can help schools determine the best course of action.
If there’s one thing regulators make utility staff experts in, it’s reporting. From daily reports to monthly reports to annual reports, water utilities know a thing or two about generating reports related to sample testing. Reporting is vital to transparency and water utilities can work with school staff to make sense of the data. Water staff also have experience working with regulatory entities like the EPA and can help schools navigate through resources and requirements.
Water utility staff are familiar with addressing questions about lead. They can work with school staff in their outreach efforts to help develop FAQ pages, defining technical or scientific jargon, or even by lending their GIS skills to produce maps for websites or meetings.
The lead issue is going to require all hands on deck. With their extensive experience in handling lead sampling and testing, water utilities serve as a vital partner for school districts combatting this issue. There is no reason why they should be expected to do this on their own. In cities like Chicago, Portland, and Cincinnati, water utilities have taken on a variety of collaborative roles to help schools in their communities achieve and maintain safe, lead-free drinking water. Don’t be afraid to reach for help. Ultimately, when it comes to public health, we’re all on the same team.