Regulators and authorities often encourage the public to help stop water polluters. Community hotlines provide a means for concerned citizens and agencies to contact the appropriate authority when they see people creating water quality problems. A hotline can be a toll-free telephone number or an electronic form linked directly to a utility or government agency, such as the water quality control board. A typical call might report a leaking automobile, concrete wash-out dumped on the street, paint in a creek, or organic debris (including pet waste) in a drainage system or waterway.
Generally, an investigation team promptly responds to a hotline call and, in most cases, visits the problem site. If a responsible party can be identified, the team informs the party of the problem, offers alternatives for future disposal, and instructs the party to resolve the problem. If the issue is not resolved by the responsible party (or if the party cannot be identified), the proper authority takes action to remediate the situation and prevent future violations.
Determine if a hotline is necessary. A municipality must first determine whether they need a hotline and, if so, whether the hotline is needed immediately or in the near future. A city can identify their need for a hotline by addressing the following questions:
- Does the city receive frequent phone calls for information about waterbodies and stream pollution?
- Are there frequent complaints?
- Are there any anticipated construction or other projects in the city?
- Are there any new ordinances or regulations?
- Does the city currently use a "hit or miss approach," in which whoever picks up the phone deals with the situation?
Choose the type of hotline to use. If municipalities determine that they need a hotline, they should choose between a telephone or an e-mail hotline. A city might decide to do both, at least for a short period of time.
Determine costs. Hotline costs can be minimized by staying a step ahead of questions and by developing a close relationship with city staff to anticipate information needs. Cost estimates can be obtained by comparing the costs of training city staff to the costs of hiring a professional hotline service. A cost comparison should also be made between a person and an e-mail presence for the hotline. Municipalities can obtain specific information about establishing and running a hotline by interviewing contractors who specialize in hotline operation.
Decide which agency will be responsible for the hotline. To establish a stormwater pollution hotline, a party or agency responsible for maintaining the hotline and responding to incoming complaints must first be identified. The responsible party could be a division of local government, a water quality board, a public utility, or an environmental agency. If the city chooses to use its own staff, it should keep in mind that the staff will require training. The city could also contract with a professional hotline provider. Once the party has agreed to maintain the hotline, it will need to establish a telephone number (preferably toll-free and to be used solely to report pollution complaints) and/or Internet site to receive notification.
Publicize the hotline. All distributed materials should include pollution hotline numbers and information. Typically, hotlines are advertised on public education materials concerned with water quality, such as flyers, door hangers, and brochures. The hotline could also be publicized on "permanent" materials such as bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets, where the number can be retained and easily located.
Seattle, Washington, Hotline. The city of Seattle, Washington, provides an on-line "Surface Water Quality Complaint Form" to allow concerned citizens to file e-mail reports of pollutant discharges to the city's creeks, lakes, and storm system. The form includes spaces for information about the person making the complaint and the alleged violation. If worried about privacy, a reporter can submit the complaint by telephone. It is the policy of the city of Seattle to keep the identification of callers confidential, pursuant to the provisions of the Washington Public Information Act.
Seattle Public Utilities surface water quality field investigators respond to water quality-related complaints within the city's limits. When the team responds to a complaint, they make every attempt to determine the responsible party and inform them of the environmental impact of their actions. The responsible party is required to stop the action that is polluting the surface water. Staff members provide information on cleanup, alternative disposal options, erosion control, and other best management practices (BMPs) (City of Seattle, 1999).
Charlotte, North Carolina, Hotline. Over the past 6 years, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina's, local stormwater hotline has received 20,000 phone calls concerning water quantity and quality problems. The hotline not only helps the city respond to flooding, spills, and dumping incidents, but also provides a rough indicator of the success of public education efforts. Hotline activity increases significantly after educational materials are mailed. Callers can also receive free educational materials through the hotline number. The city also advertises for the county's water quality hotline (Lehner, 1999).
A stormwater hotline is effective when its number is easily remembered (i.e., has a catchy name) or is easily accessible. Most important, however, is the responsiveness of the hotline. If a citizen reports an illegal dumping but no action is taken by the appropriate authority, that citizen could lose faith in the hotline and might not call back with future information.
A hotline can serve as a link between the citizens and the municipality's government. It can be an avenue for citizens to feel more involved in their community. It also can be a great way to catch illegal polluters or to stop accidental spills that might otherwise go unnoticed.
There are several limitations to community hotlines. The first is the community's ability to pay for it. The second is the ability of the community to keep the hotline staffed. Finally, the hotline must be advertised in order for the effort to be successful.
Lehner, P.H., G.P. Aponte Clarke, D.M. Cameron, and A.G. Frank. 1999. Stormwater Strategies: Community Responses to Runoff Pollution. Natural Resource Defense Council, New York, NY.
Seattle Public Utilities. 1999. Surface Water Quality: Community Involvement. [http://seattle.gov/html/citizen/sewer.htm ]. Accessed November 17, 2005.