To minimize negative response to the inevitable disruption of installing new sewer lines, Lake Havasu City is restoring all driveways and yards to their original condition. Photo: AMEC

Convincing residents to go into debt to replace a perfectly good septic system was a challenge that both Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City approached aggressively.

“The job is only partly engineering; it's also public relations,” says Bullhead City public works director Pawan Agrawal. “Once you leave a person's property, they don't remember the technical side of things; they just have an overall impression of whether you were nice. You have to ask about their kids and their dogs and show that you care for their lives.

“Sure, you have to do your job, but that's not what they'll remember you for,” he says. “Bad engineering is bad public relations, but good engineering is not necessarily good public relations.”

Both Arizona cities have friendly and informative Web sites for their sewer-installation projects, both conduct public meetings, and both regularly publish updates in the newspaper. Both have at least one employee dedicated to outreach during each construction phase, and both carefully monitor and respond to complaints.

Lake Havasu City's greatest challenge has been getting signed easement agreements from property owners to go onsite to disconnect the septic tank and connect the home to the new sewers. The city has many “snowbirds,” retirees who live there only in the winter and can be difficult to contact.

The city's engineering firm, AMEC, starts with a mailing that tells owners when construction will begin in their neighborhood. The mailing includes a refrigerator magnet with AMEC's phone number and Internet address so property owners can get more information and ask questions. Next, the firm mails the easement agreement, which must be signed and notarized.

As construction approaches, AMEC mails three increasingly urgent reminders. Property owners who fail to comply will have their water turned off until they connect to the new sewer system at their own cost (up to $10,000).

“After they've done that, they still have to pay the $2000 treatment capacity fee,” says AMEC vice president Phil Turner. “That usually convinces them.”