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Opinion: California Water Agencies are Feeling the Pandemic’s Financial Pinch. But the Water Will Keep Flowing

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, it’s more important than ever that all Californians have reliable access to clean, safe water. At the most basic level, our health depends on it: water is essential for the handwashing and cleaning that helps eliminate the virus. Water also is indispensable for our food supply, jobs and economy.

The Water Authority's Water News Network won a Bronze Bernays Award from the Public Relations Society of America San Diego/Imperial Chapter.

Water Agency Outreach Efforts Honored

The San Diego County Water Authority and three of its member agencies were recognized Dec. 17 by the Public Relations Society of America San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter for outstanding work in public outreach and education efforts.

The 2020 PRSA Bernays Awards were presented for communication on a variety of platforms, all designed to inform stakeholders and ratepayers about initiatives ensuring a safe and reliable water supply. Awards were presented virtually via live Twitter feed.

The Silver Bernays Award of Merit went to the Water Authority for "Engaging Hispanics on Water Quality Issues." Photo: PRSA SD/IC

The Silver Bernays Award of Merit for “Engaging Hispanics on Water Quality Issues.” Photo: PRSA SD/IC

The Water Authority received the Silver Bernays Award of Merit for Multicultural Public Relations for “Engaging Hispanics on Water Quality Issues,” and a Bronze Award of Merit in the Research/Evaluation category for “Researching Themes for Hispanic Outreach for Water Quality.” The agency’s Water News Network received a Bronze Award of Merit in the Websites category.

Earlier this year, the Water News Network was named “Best Website” among California public agencies in the California Association of Public Information Officials EPIC Awards competition. The website was also awarded first place as “Best Public Service or Consumer Advocacy Website” in the 2020 San Diego Press Club Journalism Awards.

“During the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more important than ever for the Water Authority to intensify its efforts to communicate with our audiences and assure them that the virus was not transmitted through the public water system and the essential work to provide a safe, reliable water supply continued without interruption,” said Denise Vedder, director of the Water Authority’s Public Affairs Department.  “In partnership with our member agencies, the Water News Network and our Hispanic outreach initiative played a key role in achieving this goal, and it is rewarding to be recognized by PRSA San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter for those results.”

Water agency outreach wins recognition

Padre Dam Municipal Water District and the cities of San Diego and Oceanside also received awards for outreach and education programs.

City of Oceanside employees Carlos Raymundo (closest) and Shawn Alonzo view the award-winning Pure Water Oceanside wall art project. Photo: City of Oceanside

Oceanside employees Carlos Raymundo (front right) and Shawn Alonzo view the Pure Water Oceanside wall art project. Photo: City of Oceanside

The City of Oceanside and NV5 Inc. recognized in three categories for Pure Water Oceanside:

Silver Award of Excellence, Campaigns: Events and Observances – Less Than Seven Days – “Pure Water Oceanside is on the Map!”

Bronze Award of Merit, Creative Tactics – “Wall Art Tells Story of Water’s Past, Present, & Future”

Bronze Award of Merit, Video – “Pure Water Oceanside Video”

“The City of Oceanside is proud to put Pure Water Oceanside on the map,” said Cari Dale, water utilities director, City of Oceanside. “Once complete, Pure Water Oceanside will provide more than 30% of Oceanside’s water supply. Our staff and consultants are dedicated to providing Oceanside with innovative solutions to water reliability and continued water reuse education.”

The City of San Diego, along with Katz & Associates, received a Silver Bernays Award of Merit in Campaigns, Events, and Observances – Less Than Seven Days for its “2020 Pure Water San Diego Virtual Contractor Expo.”

City of San Diego Director of Public Utilities Shauna Lorance welcomes viewers to the new virtual tour. Photo: City of San Diego water agency outreach

City of San Diego Director of Public Utilities Shauna Lorance welcomes viewers to the new virtual tour. Photo: City of San Diego

“Outreach remains a key element of our Pure Water program,” said Shauna Lorance, director of public utilities for the City of San Diego. “When the pandemic made in-person engagement impossible, our community outreach and project management teams rose to the challenge and implemented a successful 2020 Pure Water Virtual Contractor Expo. Providing the personal outreach to potential contractors allows the contractors to develop the best bids possible and helps ensure a successful Pure Water project.”

The Padre Dam Municipal Water District won a Bronze Award of Excellence for its 2019 Annual Report.

The cover of the award-winning Padre Dam Municipal Water District 2019 annual report. Photo: Padre Dam MWD

The award-winning Padre Dam Municipal Water District 2019 annual report. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

“Padre Dam is proud of our communications team for the great thought, creativity, and appreciation of the District’s work that is put into projects like the annual report,” said Melissa McChesney, communications manager for the Padre Dam Municipal Water District. “They do all of this in order to share with our customers the important work and services we provide to our community.”

The SCOOP SD program and Tracks PR received a Silver Bernays Award of Excellence in Campaigns: Events and Observances – Less than Seven Days, Business, and a Bronze Bernays Awards of Merit in Creative Tactics, both for Sweet Relief for Small Biz During COVID.

Teresa Chase helps load up donations from Olivenhain Municipal Water District employees. They are playing Santa Claus to a family of seven, a local senior, and a veteran in its annual adopt-a-family effort, and filled a truck bed with donations for the San Diego Humane Society. Photo: Olivenhain Municipal Water District

Water Utility Workers Embrace Holiday Giving

The San Diego region’s water and wastewater agencies have a long tradition of supporting holiday charitable giving to a wide array of nonprofit services. The tradition continues in 2020 with no slowdown despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Toys bring joy to kids in need

Helix Water District employees, board members and customers donated virtually and in person to Helix's Toys for Tots toy drive, which will provide holiday gifts to less fortunate children throughout East County. Photo: Helix Water District Holiday giving

Helix Water District employees, board members and customers donated virtually and in person to the agency’s Toys for Tots drive, which will provide holiday gifts to less fortunate children throughout East San Diego County. Photo: Helix Water District

For more than 15 years, Sweetwater Authority employees have been active participants in the Salvation Army Angel Tree program, providing toys to children in its service area. Every year, employees take a tag that contains information about the recipient (age, gender, toy request). The employee shops for the item and brings them back unwrapped to the office. The Salvation Army pickups and delivers the donated toys.

With many employees working from home this year due to the pandemic, several made arrangements to have their gifts shipped directly to the office, or stopped by to drop off a gift.

“Every year, I enjoy seeing the collection of toys selected by our employees for the children of South Bay. I am always so proud of the generosity and kindness of our team – It is one of the joys of the holiday season,” said Tish Berge, Sweetwater Authority general manager.

Helix Water District staff is donating to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program, and encouraged its customers to participate. Each holiday season, the U.S. Marine Corps partners with local nonprofits and businesses to collect toys for distribution to children. Helix employees at all four of the district’s facilities collected new and unwrapped toys. “If there was ever a time to help families in need, this is it,” said Helix spokesperson Vince Dambrose.

San Diego County Water Authority employees enthusiastically support Toys for Tots through its Employee Association. President Angela Tomayko, administrative assistant to the Colorado River Program and MWD Program, said employees will donate $500 toward the purchase of toys for the program.

San Diego Food Bank virtual drives provide assistance 

The Water Authority and numerous member water agencies continue to support the San Diego Food Bank during the holiday season. Photo: San Diego Food Bank holiday giving

The San Diego County Water Authority and numerous member water agencies continue to support the San Diego Food Bank during the holiday season. Photo: San Diego Food Bank

Early in the pandemic, the San Diego County Water Authority and its member agencies launched a virtual food drive in partnership with the San Diego Food Bank to provide assistance to those affected by the pandemic.

The Otay Water District was an original partner in the virtual food drive and has continued its commitment along with its nearly 226,000 customers, employees, and any supporter able to donate. As a result of its holiday season efforts, the Otay Water District raised $5,400 in food and monetary donations for the Food Bank.

“Because of the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis, demands for food and aid have skyrocketed across the county,” said Tenille Otero, Otay communications officer. “People are without jobs, without paychecks, and without money to feed and support their households. Through the food bank effort, the District, its employees, and customers can assist those affected by the pandemic.”

Helix Water District also partnered directly with the San Diego Food Bank early in the pandemic, raising more than $6,000 for the program. Both the food drive, and its Toys for Tots effort are run as part of the “Helix Helps” program created in 2017. Helix employees, families and friends volunteer their time to support the communities the district serves.

City of Escondido employees participate in the annual “PJ Angels” program. New pajamas are collected for multiple local agencies serving children in crisis. photo; city of Escondido Holiday giving

City of Escondido employees participate in the annual “PJ Angels” program. New pajamas are collected for multiple local agencies serving children in crisis. Photo: City of Escondido

City of Escondido employees including the water and wastewater divisions put together “Souper Sacks,” bags of non-perishable food and fun surprises distributed through the city’s senior program at the Park Avenue Community Center. Last year, 341 Souper Sacks were donated.

In addition, employees participate in the annual “PJ Angels” program. New pajamas are collected for multiple local agencies serving children in crisis. Children receive a new set of pajamas to bring them comfort during their most challenging moments.

In previous years, items were delivered to the nonprofits with an escort by the Escondido Fire Department. “This year, distribution will be lower key, but participation in both of these longstanding programs has not waivered,” said Teresa Collins, Escondido communications manager.

Supporting clean water worldwide

Baskets of Wonderful Pistachios benefit the Water for People program year after year. Photo: Water for People

Baskets of Wonderful Pistachios benefit the Water for People program year after year. Photo: Water for People

For 15 years, Olivenhain Municipal Water District employees have enthusiastically supported fundraising for the nonprofit Water for People. It works with communities across the globe to install safe water and sanitation systems, educating local people on good health practices and saving thousands of lives. Olivenhain employees have volunteered abroad helping set up water and sewer systems with the full support of the agency.

During the holiday season, the San Diego chapter holds a competition to sell the most gift baskets donated by Wonderful Pistachios. Employees help assemble the baskets for sale. Olivenhain hoped for a “three-peat” win but settled for a close second place, selling 179 baskets.

Water Authority employees also purchased baskets. Employee Association President Angela Tomayko noted, “they sold out quickly!”

Olivenhain employees are playing Santa Claus to a family of seven, a local senior, and a veteran in its annual adopt-a-family effort, and filled a truck bed with donations for the San Diego Humane Society. Employees also participate with paycheck deductions through the United Way.

“We like to cast a wide net to make the season brighter for as many as we can – seniors, children, vets, and even four-legged friends,” said Teresa Chase, administrative analyst.

“I enjoy shopping for the families and I like collecting for animals, too,” said district accountant Lisa Maxwell, who has worked at Olivenhain Municipal Water District for 23 years. “It’s just something that brings joy. We could use it, this year especially.”

Water Authority employees embrace philanthropy year-round

This year, the Water Authority established a new employee-driven Charitable Giving Committee to support nonprofits year-round. Chair John Kross, Engineering Department right of way manager, and committee member Liz Mendelson-Goossens, principal water resources specialist, MWD Program, said the committee has established new guidelines and surveyed employees to select recipients, the San Diego Food Bank, San Diego Humane Society, and Rady Children’s Hospital.

Without the ability to hold face-to-face events, the committee launches its first virtual fundraiser with a holiday theme. Through the end of the year, employees can compete in a holiday attire contest, donating to enter a photo in one of three categories: Ugliest, Most Creative, and Best Homemade. Fellow employees will vote on the winners.

Lake Jennings Trout Season Opening A Success

Lake Jennings, the Helix Water District reservoir in Lakeside, is one of San Diego County’s hot spots for trout fishing, ranked second in the county by SDFish.com. The 2020 fall trout fishing season got underway on November 20, with enthusiastic anglers enjoying safe outdoor recreation with pandemic precautions in place.

“It’s one of those family activities people can do right now,” said Kira Haley, Helix Water District recreation manager.

A happy Lake Jennings angler shows off his rainbow trout prize during the fall season opening weekend. Photo: Lake Jennings trout season

Lake Jennings Trout Season Opening A Success

Lake Jennings, the Helix Water District reservoir in Lakeside, is one of San Diego County’s hot spots for trout fishing, ranked second in the county by SDFish.com. The 2020 fall trout fishing season got underway on November 20, with enthusiastic anglers enjoying safe outdoor recreation with pandemic precautions in place.

“It’s one of those family activities people can do right now,” said Kira Haley, Helix Water District recreation manager. “Kids need to get outside and spend time in the fresh air. It was a big weekend; it was really fun.”

Through the opening weekend, Lake Jennings issued 931 permits, including 161 for children, an increase of 10% over 2019.

Showing off a string of rainbow trout along with the beautiful Lake Jennings scenery. Photo: Lake Jennings trout season

Showing off a string of rainbow trout along with the beautiful Lake Jennings scenery. Photo: Lake Jennings

Haley said due to safety measures, the lake staff worked hard to keep lines to a minimum.

“We are only allowing one family into the bait and tackle shop at a time,” said Haley. “One of the first things we did was get a portable register. It allows us to go up and down the line of people selling permits to those who don’t need to come into the store itself.”

Trout arrived last week from Thatcher, Idaho. The 2,500 pounds of fish travel 913 miles in an oxygenated truck to stock the lake.

“The lake is so clear you can see the fish,” she said. “A lot of our fishermen are sight fishing. They can follow a school around the lake and cast before they get there. It becomes more of an exercise activity too.”

Fishing and social distancing go together

Catfish were also biting. This impressive 38-pound catfish was safely released back into the lake. Photo: Lake Jennings

Catfish were also biting. This impressive 38-pound catfish was safely released back into the lake. Photo: Lake Jennings

Fishing is a natural social distancing activity.

“We have five miles of shoreline there’s plenty of space to spread out,” said Haley. “When you’re working with hooks and big fishing poles, you want to stay away from other people.”

Haley praised visitors for their compliance with all safety precautions, which have been in place since July.

“People are being respectful,” she said. “They’re wearing their masks, which makes us so happy. This is allowing us to stay in business and stay in compliance.”

She said all boats, lifejackets and seat cushions are disinfected after every use. Haley said only EPA approved disinfectants are used around the lake.

The lake’s 97 campground spaces are currently booked three weeks in advance for weekend dates.

Nothing tastes quite as good as freshly caught fish prepared on the grill at Lake Jennings. Photo: Lake Jennings

Nothing tastes quite as good as freshly caught fish prepared on the grill at Lake Jennings. Photo: Lake Jennings

The lake remains open for activities, including nature walks and birding from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Night fishing ended November 20 due to California’s 10 p.m. curfew order.  Haley said night fishing might return on a limited basis until 9 p.m. on future weekends. Check the lake’s website for the latest information.

Lake Jennings is more than just a great fishing spot. The lake is also where the Helix Water District stores imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California and local water from Lake Cuyamaca and El Capitan Reservoir to provide safe, reliable water to East County residents.

Padre Dam Named Utility of the Future Today

Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s leadership in the development of water reuse as well as its strong workplace culture received national recognition with a 2020 Utility of the Future Today award. The award honors substantial excellence in the operation of water sector services.

“We are honored to be recognized as a groundbreaking agency in the area of water reuse,” said Allen Carlisle, Padre Dam general manager and CEO. “This distinction highlights our ongoing commitment to innovative improvements in service of our customers.”

Here’s What the Water Sector Wants from Congress and President-Elect Biden

In a letter to President-elect Joe Biden last week, the American Water Works Association urged the incoming administration to prioritize COVID-19 relief for water utilities and investment for the overall water infrastructure sector.

The letter, authored by association president Melissa Elliott, cites AWWA research that revenue shortfalls at U.S. drinking water utilities may reduce economic activity by $32.7 billion and cost 75,000 to 90,000 private-sector jobs. Drinking water utilities are expected to see revenues from customer payments drop by nearly $14 billion, according to AWWA estimates. This is the result of the elimination of water shutoffs for non-payment, increased late payments due to high unemployment, reductions in non-residential water demands, and the addition of fewer new customers due to economic stagnation.

The Padre Dam Municipal Water District has been name a 2020 "Utility of the Future Today" for its water reuse initiatives and its workforce development efforts. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Padre Dam Named Utility of the Future Today

Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s leadership in the development of water reuse as well as its strong workplace culture received national recognition with a 2020 Utility of the Future Today award. The award honors substantial excellence in the operation of water sector services.

“We are honored to be recognized as a groundbreaking agency in the area of water reuse,” said Allen Carlisle, Padre Dam general manager and CEO. “This distinction highlights our ongoing commitment to innovative improvements in service of our customers.”

The Utility of the Future Today program celebrates the achievements of water utilities transforming from the traditional wastewater treatment system to a resource recovery center and leader in the overall sustainability and resilience of the communities they serve. It was launched in 2016 by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Water Environment Federation, the Water Research Foundation, and the WateReuse Association, with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Water reuse efforts recognized

Padre Dam Municipal Water District has been recycling water since 1958. The District’s Ray Stoyer Water Recycling Facility produces around two million gallons per day of recycled water.

Padre Dam is now working on a regional water and wastewater solution in a collaborative partnership between Padre Dam and the County of San Diego, City of El Cajon, and Helix Water District to expand on the history of water reuse through the East County Advanced Water Purification Project.

The project will create a new local, sustainable, and drought-proof drinking water supply using state-of-the-art technology to purify recycled water and diversify East San Diego County’s water supply, while reducing the region’s dependence on imported water. This new water supply will provide approximately 30% of East County’s water demand, and nearly eliminates the discharge of East County’s treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

Padre Dam is currently the Program Administrator for the regional East County Advanced Water Purification Program.

Workplace culture fosters collaboration

Utility worker Sarah Hargis and her workgroup in the Padre Dam wastewater division are essential workers who ensure the wastewater collection system is functioning correctly. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Utility worker Sarah Hargis and her workgroup in the Padre Dam wastewater division are essential workers who ensure the wastewater collection system is functioning correctly. Photo: Padre Dam Municipal Water District

Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s strong organizational culture of collaboration, learning, service, and transparency also received recognition. The award cited Padre Dam as an agency that encourages the ongoing learning process and the improvement of its workforce in the planning and decision process. This culture empowers every employee to think creatively, cultivating an organizational culture of innovation.

Padre Dam has enjoyed a successful and progressive workforce partnership with management, labor, and its Board of Directors for decades. Over the last several years, the District invested in the reinvention of its internal workforce development program to meet the changing needs of its modern workforce.

Now called the “Pipeline,” the program embraces a philosophy enabling broad-based participation in the organization’s decision-making processes.

“The Pipeline relies on the primary principle that we can better serve our customers by conducting activities in a collaborative and transparent manner,” said Carlisle. “Long before our employees became essential workers providing vital services during the pandemic, Padre Dam recognized their tremendous value to our organization. This award is for each and every one of our employees who have performed in an exemplary way when they were needed most.”

Water Utility Hero of the Week, Matthew Carriveau, Otay Water District

This feature highlights water utility employees in the San Diego region working during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure a safe, reliable and plentiful water supply. The water industry is among the sectors that are classified as essential. Matthew Carriveau, Otay Water District Customer Pump Mechanic I, is the Water Utility Hero of the Week.

Veterans Day Salute to San Diego Water Industry Vets

Many of the San Diego region’s 4,500 water and wastewater workers are military veterans. The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies are recognizing those veteran water industry professionals this week in honor of Veterans Day.

One of those water industry employees with a military background is Sam Pacheco, a field service representative with the Helix Water District. Pacheco served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring at the rank of Gunnery Sergeant.