Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin: Tricia Garrison of NEW Water
Tricia Garrison is the public affairs and education manager for NEW Water, the brand of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, that serves Northeast Wisconsin and cleans 38 million gallons of water per day. Tricia has a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a M.S. in Sustainable Management, with a focus on Communicating the Value of Water, from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Garrison launched her career as a journalist, then served as a foreign correspondent and journalism instructor at universities across Central and Eastern Europe. She segued into public relations and communications for organizations including Habitat for Humanity International, the Clinton Foundation, and also served as a Hollywood film publicist. Currently, she helps tell the story of water in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the world’s largest freshwater estuary. The Wisconsin Idea Seminar was slated to visit NEW Water on the 2020 Bay Tour to experience the water resource utility first-hand. We look forward to the prospect of joining hands with Tricia and her team for the 2021 Wisconsin Idea Seminar.
We caught up with Tricia to ask a few questions about how a utility such as NEW Water is continuing to provide essential services during a time when folks need clean water more than ever.
Has NEW Water had to change daily operations in response to COVID-19? As a water resource recovery utility (a.k.a. wastewater), NEW Water operates 24-7-365, and that service has not been compromised throughout this pandemic. In response to COVID-19, our utility pretty quickly enacted an ‘Incident Command’ structure and a COVID-19 Response Team was formed representing Operations, Safety, HR, and Communications (my role). I’m honored to be a part of that team, which meets daily to identify, assess, triage, and work through issues and make recommendations to the Executive Team for implementation. Daily considerations include prioritizing the health and safety of staff, whilst balancing the environmental and financial implications of this pandemic. Our front-line team out in the plant and the interceptor system throughout all of this are the real heroes to me. The service provided by wastewater utilities, even during non-pandemic times, is often taken for granted. Now more than ever, the wastewater sector is providing an essential service that deserves a little love and recognition. Wherever you may live, in the U.S. or beyond, if you are fortunate enough to have access to water and wastewater services, please take a moment to follow your utilities on social media – or call them, or email them – and THANK THEM for the work they are doing!
Have you seen your community come together in response to COVID-19? If so, how? In our community, it’s gratifying to see so many “helpers” out there stepping up, from the volunteers sewing face masks, to people donating meals and money to help those most in need, to the children drawing chalk hearts on sidewalks and sending messages of gratitude to healthcare and other essential workers. Some of the local foundations have created special COVID-19 fundraising drives, and our NEW Water COVID-19 Response Team is organizing an employee giving campaign with the United Way. On the front lines, it’s great to see the hospitals, and emergency services working together on a coordinated response as well. At NEW Water, we’re working closely with our County’s Emergency Response team, as well as the Public Information Officer group. This coordinated effort between the many ‘essential’ organizations helps facilitate making better, and more informed decisions, in a timely fashion.
NEW Water has robust public-facing programs and initiatives. Can you talk about some initiatives that have become even more critical as we face COVID-19? One of the most challenging conundrums facing us is a “wicked” problem: People often tend to treat their toilet as a trash can. Amidst COVID-19, with toilet paper shortages happening, it has gotten worse. People are flushing facial tissues, paper towels, and wipes down the toilet – which is causing homeowner backups at a higher rate around the country. Note: nothing but the “3Ps” should be flushed! This is #1 (pee), #2 (poo), and #3 (toilet paper). Even wipes labeled ‘flushable’ do not break down, and can clog pipes. Raw sewage in your basement is never good – and it’s the last thing you need during a pandemic. Additionally, putting “unflushables” – medications, grease, wipes, paper towels, food wrappers, and worse – down the toilet – can cause harm to public health and the environment, hamper wastewater utilities’ ability to effectively clean water, and also incur costs. We’ve got ongoing public outreach campaigns on this using many channels, “tones,” and approaches to cut through the noise to try to change behavior. Our cute campaigns like “Love Your Pipes!” and “Become a #FlushFighter!” have garnered fans, accolades, and chuckles – but this time around, we mean business. We produced a pretty graphic Public Service Announcement with some fairly unpalatable images to depict what this stuff really looks like when it reaches our utility. It’s disgusting, it’s raw, and the metrics show that it has made the biggest impact of all. Our public-facing programs are temporarily on hold, including facility tours, science fairs, community events, and school talks. However, we’re sharing videos and other materials (with more currently in production!) to help keep our community partners engaged and interested in water.
Are there ways that NEW Water has been collaborating with UW System faculty or students as your community responds to COVID-19? NEW Water began collecting samples of ‘influent,’ or raw wastewater, several weeks ago when we learned that it could help advance scientific knowledge. Our utility is currently in conversations with two UW institutions to potentially partner on research.
Do you have any advice for others on keeping spirits up during times like these? On a personal level, my motto is “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Since the pandemic has us in lock-down, my daughter and I have started a tradition to light a candle each night and say one thing we’re grateful for. If anything, this pandemic has made me take pause to evaluate what really matters: Family, friends, nature, love… and the privilege to be able to lend my skills to a cause greater than me.
Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin is a profile series that showcases fresh stories, observations, and insight from our Wisconsin Idea Seminar partners who are facing, engaging, and addressing critical issues in their communities.