This April, the Fort Worth Report is spotlighting individuals and institutions across Tarrant County who are working to create a more sustainable community. This is the third story in our 2023 Earth Month series. Read previous stories here.
Becky Johnson was returning to Texas Christian University’s campus after spring break in 2018 when she spotted a series of messages from her former student and friend, Stephanie Corso.
The situation was urgent, Corso told her. Famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich was criticizing the North Texas Municipal Water District for water treatment considered to be standard practice for government utilities. Could Johnson help combat the misinformation?
“I happened to be teaching my water and wastewater class that semester, and so I asked Stephanie to come to class and we stopped the lecture I was going to give,” said Johnson, a recently retired environmental science professor at TCU. “We evaluated every single statement that Erin Brockovich had made publicly, and we had the students research and dispel every single thing that she said, in class.”
Johnson, who later gave presentations across North Texas about water safety practices, sees the episode as emblematic of the role Corso has taken on as co-founder of Rogue Water, a Fort Worth-based public communications firm that creates campaigns for government agencies, nonprofits and companies in the water industry.
After working for water utilities in Bedford, Fort Worth and Mansfield, Corso spotted the need for more intentional communication between water providers and the people they serve. That communication gap has become more obvious as governments face challenges like extreme drought, chemical contamination and more frequent water main breaks, Corso said.
“It’s just becoming more and more crucial and apparent that waiting until something’s going wrong is not the time when you need to be communicating with the people that you’re serving,” Corso said. “You really need to be doing your due diligence on a daily basis to be constantly maintaining that relationship, building that trust because when something does go wrong, you’re not going to get any benefit of the doubt.”
‘Water really does touch every single person in a community’
Communication has historically been misunderstood and undervalued within the water sector, which faces systemic challenges, Corso said. Less than half of utilities nationwide have dedicated communications staff, and government agencies understandably spend their limited budgets on infrastructure investments before hiring community outreach employees, she added.
Those hurdles are part of why Corso sees Rogue Water as a leader in the grassroots movement to build up water communication across the public and private sectors. With that core mission in mind, Corso and co-founder Arianne Shipley launched Rogue Water in November 2017.
“It has been a grassroots movement, which means it’s slow and it’s hard and it takes all of us kind of pumping each other up,” Corso said. “It’s that emotional roller coaster of ‘I’m making a difference,’ to ‘Oh this totally sucks and we have no money,’ to ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Over the past five years, Rogue Water has worked with government utilities, water associations and companies in North Texas and across the country. Projects include the Water Is Awesome social media campaign conducted by the Tarrant Regional Water District and other water suppliers, as well as digital content for Mansfield-based Master Meter Inc.
“It’s about consistency, and understanding that when you’re talking about water, you’re talking about everyone,” Corso said. “Whereas any other product typically has a very specific persona or demographic that they are marketing to, water really does touch every single person in a community.”
Alongside their company, Corso and Shipley hosted the Water In Real Life podcast between 2018 and 2022, when Shipley left the business for another role. Rogue Water also birthed a nonprofit arm that hosts Catalyst, a professional development conference for water communicators now in its sixth year.
Most Catalyst conferences have been held in San Antonio, where conference co-founder Greg Wukasch serves as external affairs manager for the San Antonio Water System.
For many years, water educators and communications professionals felt isolated without any professional support outside of their region, Wukasch said. While the first Catalyst conference was mostly composed of Texas-based attendees, the most recent 2022 event attracted representatives from 19 states.
“We needed a place where we could ‘gather the misfits’ together to have these important conversations and to strengthen each other in the work that we’re doing,” Wukasch said. “It’s just continued to grow, and now Rogue Water has taken it and is expanding it across the country.”
Charting a future in Fort Worth
When Corso speaks, people listen, Wukasch said. Because she works outside of the traditional government utility structure, Corso can say what many others are feeling within the profession without fear of damaging the public image of a city or agency, he added.
Johnson agrees that Corso’s unique background has been crucial to her success in the industry. Corso earned both her master’s degree in environmental science and bachelor’s in marketing and entrepreneurial management from TCU.
“You don’t have to be a chemist to understand what she’s talking about,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to really understand all the ins and outs of where water comes from and how it’s made clean and how it gets delivered to you because she can tell that story so that anyone can understand it.”
While the industry has come a long way since Rogue Water formed, Corso sees more room for growth.
Utilities need to prioritize measuring the impact of their communications campaigns – whether through the number of toilets replaced or less grease clogging pipes – so that government leaders can fully understand the impact of a public outreach campaign, she said. The industry also needs more diversity to reflect the communities they serve, she said.
Corso is still figuring out the future of Rogue Water, where she hopes to expand her full-time staff of five. There’s also the question of whether she will continue to operate the business out of Fort Worth, where she raised her daughter and built a professional network at TCU.
Her daughter will graduate from high school next year with plans to go away for college, and Corso said it will be the first time where she makes the decision to stay or go on her own terms. She moved to Fort Worth to be close to family when she was pregnant 17 years ago.
For now, Corso is leaning toward sticking around Cowtown.
“Family is definitely a piece of it, but another thing that keeps me here is that I’m obsessed with my alma mater,” Corso said. “I still have a lot of great relationships with professors and people I collaborate with. It’s family and Frogs that keep me here.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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