Study: Water quality reports not so easy to read

Researchers from Virginia Tech have called for more readability in drinking water quality reports. Area reports from 2014 seem to fit in with the results of their studies.

Andrea Dietrich, professor of civil and environmental engineering at VT, and lead study author Katherine Phetxumphou were part of a team that published its findings in the Journal of Water and Health. Another co-author, Siddhartha Roy, worked as communications director on the FlintWaterInfo team.

In one study, the researchers used Flesch-Kincaid Readability tests to gauge a national sample of 30 consumer confidence reports. These reports came from areas with different populations and in different regions.

As the team points out in its article, the National Institutes of Health recommends health material to be written at a seventh- to eighth-grade reading level. Their conclusion, however, shows that is not the case with most water reports.

Phetxumphou said in an interview that the readability tests are readily available and underused – in one article, the study used functions in Microsoft Word 2013.

“One of the things we’ve proposed … is to provide workshops to help train people on what to think about when they write these water quality reports,” Dietrich added. “There are tools out there and like so much of life, until someone introduces you to that tool, you don’t know it’s there and you don’t use it.”

Reading ease found in the national study ranged from 26.3 to 43.8. To provide context, the article states that the reading ease of the “Harvard Law Review” is in the low 30s.

The text in annual reports from large water providers and towns in the Northern Shenandoah Valley – not including tables and lists of definitions – seem to be at comparable reading levels to the article’s findings.

Any water provider that has more than 15 service connections or serves more than 25 people must produce a report.

New Market’s 2014 report registers a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 14.5 and reading ease of 30.5 through Microsoft Word. Edinburg’s report ranked similarly, with a grade level of 14 and reading ease of 30.2.

Reports from Strasburg, Woodstock and Mount Jackson use the same layout. Chris Ritenour, superintendent of water treatment for Strasburg, said this is to unify reports and reduce confusion.

Front Royal’s 2014 report had a reading ease of 34.9 with a grade level of 13.2. Unlike the reports from Shenandoah towns, it established water safety in the first paragraph.

The Frederick County Sanitation Authority’s 2014 report had a bit more visual presence with a colored report. Still, the text bore a grade level of 14.7 and reading ease of 25.5.

All of those reports had a reading ease level that placed them in the VT study’s “Difficult” or “Very Difficult” range.

As Phetxumphou and Dietrich pointed out, the EPA does require certain phrases and language in the reports. Jim Moore, engineering field director at the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water in Lexington, said that text isn’t very readable.

“There’s a lot of mandatory language that the EPA requires and it cannot be changed,” he said. “It has to be in the CCR verbatim.”

Beyond the scores themselves, Phetxumphou said visual aides like graphs and pictures in reports draw the reader’s eye. Even formatting text in bold can emphasize key ideas and phrases.

“From the national sample, we did see there were some that did a very good job with that and there were others that weren’t as good,” she said.

Reports from the valley had a table of testing results and list of definitions separated from the main text. All reports stated in a “Violation Information” section or similar section that there were no violations during the year.

Area reports also listed contact information for further questions. Phetxumphou said that the researchers encourage two-way conversations between water providers and customers.

This article has a Flesch-Kincaid Readability score of 47.4 and is at about an 11th grade reading level.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com