Breaking down barriers, building trust

Some of our Latino customers wanted to see for themselves that our water is safe to drink. So we showed them.

By Steve Snyder

“Why should I trust you?”

It was an honest question at the beginning of an uncertain journey.

The question came from a Denver Water customer about to take a tour of our distribution system. But this wasn’t the kind of tour we typically give, where we showcase the size and complexity of our system to people who already know about — and usually trust — Denver’s water.

Community members from Westwood Unidos explore at the base of Strontia Springs dam,

Community members from Westwood Unidos explore at the base of Strontia Springs Dam.

She was with a group from Westwood Unidos, an organization that supports resident-led projects to improve community health in southwest Denver. Westwood Unidos has joined forces with the Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation to encourage residents to drink more water and fewer sugary beverages.

But when it comes to tap water, that’s easier said than done in some communities. Culture can often be the barrier, contributing to an inherent distrust that the public water supply is safe to drink. Nearly all of the people on the tour still have close generational ties to Mexico, a country with a long history of water supply and water quality problems.

“People we work with don’t trust the public water supply,” said Rachel Cleaves, a community coordinator with Westwood Unidos. “They’ve been told not to drink tap water since they were kids. That means that they boil water to use in their homes, and they are spending money unnecessarily on bottled water to drink.”

“They think tap water will make them sick,” Cleaves added. “That’s understandable because in many countries it is unsafe to drink the water.”

While catchy conservation campaigns and mainstream education efforts can reach many in our service area, getting the word out to diverse audiences about water quality requires additional steps.

“Not only are there language barriers, but there are significant cultural differences as well,” said Katie Knoll, Denver Water’s manager of stakeholder relations, and one of the people who organized the tour. “When we reached out to Westwood Unidos, they told us the people in the neighborhood needed to see where their water came from and the other measures we take to make our water safe to drink.”

And see it they did. Denver Water took a group of 30 people to Strontia Springs Reservoir, where Denver Water’s source water is stored after it runs off the mountains. The next stop was the Marston Treatment Plant, so the group could get a first-hand look at how Denver Water treats the water supply before distributing it to customers.

The Westwood Unidos tour group gets an up-close look at their water supply in Strontia Springs Reservoir.

The Westwood Unidos tour group gets an up-close look at the water supply in Strontia Springs Reservoir.

At the end of the day, members of the group said they felt more informed and very grateful for the experience.

“I’m drinking tap water as soon as I get home,” one resident said confidently. “I can’t wait to tell all my friends and family.”

This tour was the first of several planned outreach efforts with culturally diverse groups in our service area.

“It’s up to us to win the trust of our customers by answering their questions and showing them how their water system works,” Knoll said.

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