Bolster Support for Purified Water Recycling with Effective Outreach and Education

We know that ratepayers who understand the technology behind treating wastewater to potable standards are more likely to support incorporating potable water reuse into their water systems. However, investing limited outreach and education resources is a daunting task with limited guidance. Over the last three years, I’ve been supporting a study sponsored by the Water Research Foundation to establish tools and best practices for purified water recycling demonstration facilities and communications, and I’m excited to share some takeaways from our research.

About the study

As more communities turn to water recycling to support the sustainability of their water systems, ratepayer buy-in is critical to successful implementation. Though the technology for treating wastewater to potable standards is proven, reliable, and often cost effective, public opinion can present a challenge to more widespread implementation of potable water reuse.

We already know that most water customers and stakeholders are accepting of water reuse when they are properly informed about the safety, effectiveness, and sustainability of the technologies used. The Water Research Foundation’s Project #4979, Purified Recycled Water Demonstration Design & Communication Toolbox, aims to provide a roadmap and resources for utilities planning to implement substantial public outreach and education projects. The final suite of deliverables can be used by any water utility that wants to make the case onsite that water reuse is safe, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective.

The project research team conducted interviews with staff members of utilities with public demonstration facilities, and exhibit design professionals about the exhibit design process. We also collected photos, videos, and virtual tours of demonstration facilities and exhibits around the world, and tested the format and messaging with ratepayers in the United States and Australia.


Carrie Del Boccio Practice Leader Water Reuse

View All Posts


exhibits content-tested


in-depth interviews


ratepayers surveyed

Key takeaways

Know your audience

Of all the major considerations involved in planning educational projects and particularly demonstration facilities, the most important are also the most pragmatic. Successful water reuse education projects lead with an understanding of the utility’s audience. Determine who you want to reach with your messaging and information — are they adult ratepayers or school-age children? Where should you locate your educational resources — is it at a treatment plant, is it a mobile operation, is it virtual? How will your audience access it, and why?

Answering these questions before setting out to design an educational program/facility enables a utility to measure progress and success against pragmatic goals. For example, a treatment plant located outside of a community and off the beaten path might not be the best place for a demonstration facility. A lengthy and detailed virtual tour is probably not the best fit for local fourth graders. A mobile learning vehicle or trailer may not be practical in areas where parking is limited.

Check your biases

One of the most important things to know about your target audience is they are not you. Once an educational project is underway, aligning your messaging with your audience is often easier said than done. As water professionals this is an area where our knowledge can work against us. Time and again in the process of designing displays, utilities spend a lot of time determining what to communicate and don’t invest enough in determining how to communicate.

The following responses were gathered from during exhibit testing and reflect display designs that missed the mark. In each case, respondents encountered language and/or designs that failed to meet an appropriate standard of communication with the public.

“[S]eems very complex and was hard to read or understand completely.”

“Too much for this old girl to absorb. I would never consume this water.”

“This information is not something that the average person would know. It is specific details that only a worker at the wastewater plant or an engineer would be aware of.”

Message testing is a surefire way to optimize language and display design to ensure people outside of a water utility can effectively engage with the information presented. Even if they don’t have a role that places them at a treatment facility every day, members of your organization, such as those in an administrative position, will still have more knowledge and familiarity with these facilities than the average person. Taking educational content to real community members who are encountering it for the first time for message testing provides the most valuable feedback.

Spend it well

When it comes to creating effective and meaningful public outreach programs, spending well is more important than spending big. Successful educational projects come in all shapes, sizes, and formats, from massive, facility-based demonstration facilities with all the bells and whistles to portable exhibits compact enough to pack up into a cargo trailer and move on to the next venue.

Large in scale and impact, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California’s Albert Robles Center for Water Recycling and Environmental Learning (ARC), a 24,150-square-foot, two-story administration and learning center located on a 5.2-acre advanced water treatment facility campus. The ARC’s learning center features static, interactive, and video exhibits designed to engage and educate school-age children. Local fourth graders visit as part of their science curriculum to learn about the water cycle, basin management, and water treatment in a local context.

Meanwhile, the Soquel Creek Water District has found success on a smaller scale. The district’s Water Education Trailer is a mobile demonstration unit that hits the road to education the public on the recycled water treatment process. While it can’t fit a whole fourth grade class inside, the ability to bring this educational resource to schools and community events offers flexibility that a brick-and-mortar facility can’t match. The trailer opens up to hands-on exhibits, such as an unrolled reverse osmosis filter and a cross section of a microfiltration tube, and a video explains local groundwater basement management projects.

Both districts have created wonderful tools for educating their local communities – just at different ends of the spectrum of options for how to budget and spend.

The final research study report will be published by the Water Research Foundation in first half of 2023. You can get an early preview of the tools contained in the report at a free webcast Thursday, November 10 or watch the recording at a later date.

Scroll back to top of the page