Over the Hill

What’s a ‘wastewater user’ anyway?

I wish officials wouldn’t say “wastewater.” I prefer the word “sewage.” When we hear or read “sewage” we can visualize it, we can smell it. But the word “wastewater” doesn’t instantly sink in, we have to translate it.

And what’s more, the word wastewater gets used in confusing ways. Consider what happened this past Tuesday night at the City Council meeting in my hometown, Paso Robles. One item was listed on the agenda as “Wastewater User Rates Protest Hearing.”

What or who is a “wastewater user?” How do you use wastewater? It sounds nasty and unsanitary. Of course, we know the city officials didn’t mean anything that silly. It’s probably just another case of insider terminology spilling over into communications with the public. But we shouldn’t have to decode it.

I assume officials want to be understood. If so, they should use common, everyday words. Instead of “wastewater user,” they could say “sewer user.” Instead of “rates,” they could say “charges.”

Of course, the term “Wastewater User Rates” adds only a dribble to the gulf of misunderstanding between governments and citizens. I doubt the term kept anyone from submitting a written protest Tuesday, although only 20 people did so. Almost 5,000 protests were needed to block the increase.

The council voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the new sewer-charge ordinance. The final vote will be Dec. 6. The ordinance would raise our sewer charges in five steps over five years. Mine will probably go from the current $25.86 per month to $39 per month in 2016.

I didn’t protest. I’m convinced the old sewage treatment plant needs $50 million worth of reconstruction and new construction. State water authorities are now fining the plant $9,000 per month for polluting the Salinas River.

Being called a “wastewater user” wasn’t enough to make me protest the increase. But I wish I could protest somewhere against the word “wastewater.” I believe it’s so wishy-washy that it weakens our language.

I have known a few sewer or wastewater workers. They were all conscientious and hardworking. And I think I understand why the sewage treatment industry wants to change its name to wastewater treatment. They are probably seeking what we all want: dignity and respect.

Dignity and respect — those are the same things many news reporters are seeking when they call themselves journalists. Come to think of it, news reporting has a lot in common with sewer work, as in the Penn State scandal.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.