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This is part six of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
In our previous article, we shared that one-fifth of Evanston residents surveyed last year through the We are Water Evanston community research project did not trust Evanston’s tap water. One likely reason is lack of awareness of the city’s water treatment services and tap water quality.
Though Evanston offers a variety of information sources about water, from text alerts to the city website, residents interviewed by We Are Water identified issues with current sources of water news, such as difficulty locating news or overly complex information. Nearly all residents said they want access to more information and/or easily digestible information – a crucial need to address, as access to information helps shape local trust in the tap water.
For instance, several interviewees shared that they highly trust the local tap water because they receive water quality information. One resident told us, “They do the annual Water Quality Report. … I don’t study it in any great detail. I’m no expert on any of that. But it certainly seems like the information the city communicates gives me every confidence that we’ve got good water.”
Common sources for water information among residents
Interviews with Evanstonians revealed that common sources of water information include the city website and text alerts, newsletters and emails, local news outlets and inside sources, such as friends and family members.
On the city website, interviewees reported finding a wide range of information, from beach closures to drinking water quality. Newsletters and emails, often sent from the city of Evanston or a local news outlet, were also identified by interviewees as a source of water news. One resident said the emails provide a wide scope of information. “Email is great, and when I get emails from the city, I read them. It’s not just water issues, but just issues in Evanston as a whole,” the resident said.
Some interviewees said they receive information directly from local news outlets, such as Evanston Roundtable or The Daily Northwestern. One resident said that “Evanston’s the kind of place where if something was going wrong with the water, someone would start screaming and yelling, and there’d be articles in [local news] and all of that.”
Residents reported receiving information about tours of the water treatment plant or beach closures through inside sources, such as word of mouth from family and friends.
Challenges with info sources
Though many interviewees could recall access to at least one source of water news, they also shared several challenges with us that made this information less accessible to them.
On the city website, for instance, interviewees said information about Evanston’s water can be difficult to find. “It’s buried there, you really have to look,” a civic leader said. Information about water quality is not accessible from the front page; viewers must search “water quality” on the city website, actively seeking the information.
Even if residents are able to locate information on the city website, it is not always easy to understand. For instance, the city’s annual water quality reports are too lengthy, according to civic leader Rebeca Mendoza, a former District 65 school board member.
“Residents won’t read the whole thing. They need something like one page,” Mendoza said. “We like good visualizations, and it’s easier to read and understand, because they’re not going to spend 45 minutes reading a report of like 40 pages.” Though the 2020 version of the report was available in Spanish, previous editions were only available in English, presenting another barrier for non-English-speaking residents.
A few interviewees criticized local journalism content, suggesting that news about Evanston’s water issues often goes unreported due to a lack of media coverage centered on Evanston.
One resident also shared their concern that local news outlets and local politicians are not publishing news on water quality issues quickly enough. “You’re notified when the newspapers report it, and maybe your alderman or your mayor will report it. It’s not until that time that you find out that something’s going on with the water,” the resident said.
A few interviewees were simply unsure of where to find any information about water issues in Evanston. “I don’t know where to look for the information. I am not informed, and I have not tried to be either,” one resident said.
How to improve awareness of water-related news
Because many residents were unable to easily find relevant information on the city website, a more streamlined and accessible website would increase overall access to water information. For example, residents should be able to easily locate simple information on tap water quality, the city’s service lines map, and get up-to-date information on beach closures.
Further, we suggest expanding the current text alert system into an opt-out system, where all residents are automatically registered and can then choose to stop receiving texts about certain topics. One youth resident stressed that “text alerts would probably be the most effective way [to receive information] for everyone.”
In order to expand information access for Spanish-speaking residents, civic leader Mendoza advocated for not just making information available in Spanish, but also distributing information that does not shame Latinx populations for bottled water usage.
Bottled water usage is more prevalent among Latinx communities, and in order to build trust and usage in tap water, it is important to deliver the information in a way that does not attack, shame or blame the community. “You have to have cultural competency. I think that’s something that’s undervalued in our workspaces, especially like public service spaces where, you know, they haven’t heard from this population,” Mendoza said.
Some residents suggested creating new sources of information, such as virtual tours of city public services like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s tours. For instance, one civic leader wanted to create a virtual tour of the city’s award winning water treatment plant to help increase trust in the local tap water. The city used to offer in-person tours, but these have been paused during the pandemic; a virtual tour would vastly increase access to residents.
Another civic leader said that a virtual tour of the Fifth Ward water pumping station, which caused public controversy in 2018 due to a lack of citizen notification and involvement regarding the decision to construct the station, could be worthwhile. “We had some missteps in citizen engagement or notification. We as a city could have done better notifying people what that was. But you know, now that it’s done, maybe that’s worth another kind of virtual tour,” the civic leader said.
One youth resident suggested a community campaign or movement as a way to draw attention to water issues in Evanston. A civic leader we spoke to also wanted to see Evanston’s water “branded.” Through a targeted community campaign that seeks to raise awareness about the quality of Evanston’s tap water, led by environmental organizations such as Citizens’ Greener Evanston, residents may become more trusting of their tap water.
It is also important for community members to receive information about Evanston’s water quality from close friends and family, so we suggest having discussions with your family and friends in order to build trust and understanding of Evanston’s water treatment services and water quality.
The We are Water Evanston community research project has revealed the importance of not just understanding people’s perceptions and behavior when it comes to local water issues, but also the importance of addressing residents’ information needs. More accessible, easy to understand and timely information can play an important role in increasing local trust in our tap water and help create a more informed community.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the sixth of an eight-part series where we share key findings and action items related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).