“One of the biggest hurdles for potable reuse is public acceptance,” said Water Resource Planner Micah Eggleton. “It’s the yuck factor.”
His colleague Jen Sajor added, “You can have the technology down, your sound reasons for reuse, but if the public isn’t on board, direct potable reuse projects will never get implemented. Especially if there’s major disapproval.”
Micah and Jen explored this idea as graduate students at University of California Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. They teamed up with two fellow classmates to work with project client Ventura Water during their master’s thesis project exploring how to turn consumer’s perspectives from yuck to yum.
Identifying the Sticking Points
Quickly defined, the potable reuse (PR) process pumps treated, recycled wastewater through a series of purification steps to produce high quality drinking water, which is integrated back into the drinking water system. This process costs significantly less and uses less energy than alternative processes like desalination of seawater. However, the general public is concerned about the water source and treatment process, considering it risky and a last resort.
As part of their thesis project, the four grad students stood outside grocery stores and attended meetings in different communities to survey customers about potable reuse. They noticed trends around potable reuse technology and trust in water providers, which were substantiated by literature review findings.
“One of the best convincers for people was seeing three to five vials of treated wastewater on the table. The first vial may have been slightly tinged compared to the last vial with a full treated sample that was crystal clear. That seemed convincing to people,” said Micah.
The team identified four key themes around public acceptance for potable reuse through public surveys, data analysis, and peer literature review. This included assured water quality and safety, the need for public education, addressing the emotional response to the process, and gaining public trust in entities delivering treated recycled water. As part of their thesis, the team created a succinct four-page document highlighting their findings and critical steps to increase public acceptance, which they more recently learned had become a primer for a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Local and National Regulatory Guidelines Still Necessary
The EPA included the graduate students’ four-page guide in its recently released National Water Reuse Action Plan. This plan is essentially focused on watershed management, which is especially critical for our California clients and relevant to California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. As we continue to address groundwater and general supply issues, leaning on potable reuse is going to become increasingly fundamental. Engineers and scientists have and continue to develop technologies and approaches to generate safe and reliable recycled water, but without the public support, it’s challenging to implement. The research and work Micah, Jen, and their classmates did for Ventura Water is now informing industry leaders on how to sell potable reuse as a viable option to their communities.
“At a personal level, I realize how ‘water privileged’ I am,” said Micah, but when we have international days of action like Imagine a Day Without Water, “you realize people’s fears are valid. Water’s not always safe in areas of the United States and elsewhere. Understanding these fears is key to getting people on board with potable reuse.”