Thursday, April 24, 2008

UtilitySpeak in USA TODAY

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Tomato Conservation

MEDIA ALERT: Whenever you speak with a water utility spokesperson, remember that the utility is a water-selling enterprise with an objective to make money. Although the water utility provides a wonderful service it is not a service organization.
Reporters and citizens who do not understand the hidden purpose of the water utility are certain to fall for UtilitySpeak. Like every other business you should always expect a utility to spin everything it says in a self-serving way.

USA TODAY explains that water utilities are raising their prices, but it does not fully explain why. It's not because customers are conserving too much of the resource. That’s UtilitySpeak. What the water utility won’t call attention to is that during a drought it cannot get enough product to sell.

For example, during a drought the utility cannot deliver all the lawn water its customers want. The utility must place restrictions or bans on lawn watering to safeguard enough of the resource for sanitation and commerce. But restricting water use is not customer conservation! That’s UtilitySpeak. You cannot fault customers for conserving “too much” when the resource is not even “in stock.”
If a farmer has no tomatoes to sell, how can he blame his customer for not buying his tomatoes? Yet according to this USA TODAY reporter that’s exactly what the utilities are fabricating. That’s UtilitySpeak. The farmer has to raise the price of his tomatoes when he harvests his next crop to make up for his losses when he had no tomatoes to sell. We understand that. And that’s what the utilities are doing.
Imagine this cardboard sign on the back of the farmer’s pickup truck:
because you did not buy enough tomatoes from me last month,
I have raised my price to make up for lost sales.”

Will the farmer spin this as too much “tomato conservation" by his customers? No, because people understand tomatoes and they don't understand water. So a naive reporter falls for UtilitySpeak from the water utility and he writes a story that customers are "conserving too much"---so rates must increase. Nonsense.
Did this reporter ever think to ask the utility how many water-intensive industries closed shop during this long drought? Nope---apparently not. When a big water customer like a mill or a factory shuts down, a water utility suffers an enormous loss of income. The City of Burlington lost one-third of it’s water & sewer revenue last year when a big plant closed. This is not "too much conservation" by citizens.
Chinese Manufacturing is Raising Your Water Bill
That's right. Whenever a water-intensive industry closes its doors and relocates to Asia, the utility must make up for lost revenue by increasing your rates. Of course the utility could always elect to downsize---the way a private-sector company downsizes---when it loses business. Can you ever imagine a municipal water utility---a monopoly---downsizing?

I am very suspicious of the USA TODAY story because I understand UtilitySpeak. Reporter Larry Copeland, pay attention:
A "water spokesperson" is actually a marketing representative.
A "Water Director" is really a CEO of a water manufacturing business and a chief engineer who designs and builds things for a living.
A "Water Conservation Coordinator" may be well-intentioned but he/she is employed by a water-selling enterprise.
I was the WC Manager inside Greensboro’s water utility for 5 years and I could never speak freely about reducing water use. My ideas and suggestions always fell on deaf ears. I was about as popular as a National Anti-Smoking Educator working for a cigarette manufacturer.
As Greensboro's Water Conservation Manager I was about as popular as a National Anti-smoking Educator working for a cigarette manufacturer.

And that’s why this wonderful resource called water is abused and wasted—because it is sold for a profit. A water utility will latch onto all the resource it can—and then sell all that it can. And when a water-selling utility is in charge of water conservation, the fox is guarding the hen house.
USA TODAY story continues...

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg utilities department, facing a $20 million
shortfall because of conservation, (UtilitySpeak)
will drop the increase to 14% in July and might drop it further as water usage
rises. "It's tough for the average customer to understand," (UtilitySpeak) says Maeneen Klein, Water Conservation
Manager for the utility. "Do what ask you to do, and it's going to cause your
bill to go up." (UtilitySpeak)

It's unlikely that the price increases will hamper water conservation, says
Sally Bethea, executive director of the environmental group Upper Chattahoochee
Riverkeeper. "Water conservation efforts actually keep rates from going higher
than they would if a utility has to resort to other sources, like buying from
another utility or building reservoirs like the Randleman
," she says. Right on Sally! Sally Bethea is not employed by a water-selling utility
so she is able to speak the truth about water conservation

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