Member Spotlight Sept. 2020: Switch to Virtual Could Become Part of Long-Term Reality

  • by Katherine Causland
  • Sep 18, 2020
  • Newsletters

Dublin San Ramon Services District Wastewater Treatment Plant Operations Supervisor Levi Fuller leads a presentation during a virtual Citizens Water Academy during the summer.

Like many ACWA member agencies, Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) encourages customers to save water through smarter gardening and landscaping. 

Its RightScapeNow program invited people to attend weekday evening events in person. Then COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown forced a conversion to virtual online events. IRWD event organizers kept the same evening time slot, with turnout as well as could be expected. Then they experimented by switching to noon on a weekday.

Registrations spiked. More than 200 people signed up, a record.

“We had people doing something during the week that they wouldn’t or couldn’t do previously, before the shutdown,” said IRWD Public Affairs Director Beth Beeman. 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California entered the pandemic shutdown with an already robust presence in virtual education.

For all its challenges, migrating tours, workshops, board meetings, classroom education and other events is revealing a few advantages for water agencies. Going virtual has, in some cases, boosted engagement because people can login from home without committing to extra time spent traveling to a specific location. As a result, new and expanded use of virtual technology may be here to stay after the COVID-19 shutdown finally ends, at least in part.

“It may be that we have an opportunity to change how we’ve been doing things,” Beeman said. “It’s really been an eye-opener for us. Maybe when we go back, there are some things that won’t go away.”

Some agencies are looking at a hybrid approach after the shutdown ends, keeping some elements of virtual outreach in place even after in-person engagement returns to pre-pandemic conditions. 

The Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) took its Citizens Water Academy from in-person to virtual this summer after committing significant resources into the effort. Bus tours had to go, and detailed PowerPoint presentations wouldn’t be able to hold people’s attention when viewed on a screen instead of in person. Therefore, DSRSD staff condensed three-hour monthly sessions over as many months into four weekly 90-minute sessions within a single month, resulting in a faster-paced program with more graphics and video treatments.

Attendance remained roughly the same, but overall preparation time doubled, especially with rehearsals.

“It did work, but it took a lot of work to get it to work,” said DSRSD Community Affairs Supervisor Sue Stephenson.

When the shutdown ends, DSRD is considering a mix between virtual and in-person academies, bringing back the bus tours but keeping virtual presentations as part of the experience, Stephenson said. 

School outreach, where water districts already relied on online resources, could also emerge from the pandemic with a heavier reliance on virtual technology. 

Water districts are also developing online resources for distance learning. In the case of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a robust package of online learning materials was already in place. Educators can visit MWD’s site and choose from a wide variety of field trips, programs and activities categorized by grade. 

Security safeguards are essential. Teachers host online lessons and events, and adults must be present for any interactive video elements, said MWD Education Unit Manager Adrian Hightower. Virtual education materials must also strike a balance between education itself, and entertainment to maintain engagement – or “edutainment.” Despite the high quality, there are limitations. Impressions made by in-person student field trips provide an example.

“That’s something you can’t replace virtually, but we’re doing our best,” Hightower said. 

Even with MWD’s depth of virtual experience, the transition will leave behind permanent and beneficial changes to its educational program internally.

“What was new was the scale in which we were doing it,” Hightower said. “Where as before we had a few staff specializing in it, now everybody specializes in it.”

No one can say when the pandemic will finally become history, or exactly what the future will look like going forward. But after plunging into a new reality last March, many water agencies will probably find the sudden investment into virtual outreach pays at least a few returns worth keeping in place.

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