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Water Works: Sue Sims on How to Make Conservation Permanent

Our ‘Water Works’ series goes behind the scenes with the leading voices in California water management. We talk to Sue Sims at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the giant supplier.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Eric Graham pauses for photos on synthetic turf he installed to save money on water bills in Irvine, Calif. Water agencies like Metropolitan in Southern California are finding creative ways to encourage conservation.Jae C. Hong, AP

When it comes to water management in California, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is a giant. The 26 public agencies belonging to the district together deliver water to 19 million people, making it the largest distributor of drinking water in the country. About half of it is imported, part from the Colorado River system and part from the State Water Project.

What does it take to run an organization that delivers 1.5 billion gallons (5.7bn liters) of water per day? And what impact has the drought had on planning?

Water Deeply recently spoke with Sue Sims, head of external affairs at the organization. Sims has a long career in water management, having served as executive officer for the California Water Commission, chief deputy director and public affairs director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Sims told Water Deeply about new ways to communicate about the drought and what the state should focus on to create a better water future.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know?

Sue Sims: People know a lot more about their water supplies than they did just a few years ago; they’re conserving more, not just because of the drought but because it’s the right thing to do. Part of our job is to help people make those savings permanent. Here at Metropolitan, with our new H2Love advertising campaign, we’re using some new ways to talk about the value of water, going beyond traditional print ads and videos.

For example, we are relying extensively on social media, including broadcasts on Facebook Live, Snapchat geofilters and augmented reality projects. We have multilingual materials to reach diverse audiences and a water lovers’ channel on Pandora [radio] to reinforce the water-saving messages with music. We’ve even explored marketing opportunities with games like Pokemon Go. We need to stay nimble and look for cost-effective and creative ways to get our message to the public, businesses and communities.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about work in the water field?

Sims: It’s remarkable that, even in the fifth year of drought, our water supplies remain so reliable. That’s due to good management and sound investments by state, regional and local water agencies as well as the public’s willingness to use less water. With climate change and economic and population growth, Californians will have to keep looking at new and better ways to develop, convey, conserve and manage their water.

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Sims: It would be easy to point to a couple of prominent public officials in the water community, but the people who really inspire me most are those who make it a habit to save water every day, and teach their children, neighbors and co-workers how we can all do our part. They aren’t doing it as a profession or because they are getting paid – they do it because they understand the true value of water in our society and in their communities. They are our water ambassadors, our water heroes.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Sims: Recognize that there is no single solution to our future water needs. We need to conserve more. We need to invest in statewide infrastructure, including Delta solutions. We need to support local projects like recycling. We need to protect watersheds and ecosystems. We need to pursue renewable energy solutions and recognize the challenge that climate change creates. In other words, we need to do it all.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Sims: A lot of the debate over water issues and new water projects has become very divisive. I’d like to see us move past some of that and look more realistically at what we need in the future to provide water for our people, farms, businesses and the environment. There’s a lot of innovation and science we can harness for water solutions that benefit us all. But we have to start by agreeing to work together to find the greatest good.

More in our Water Works Series:

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