Public Outreach Helps Clear the Way for an Ambitious Wasterwater Recycling Initiative

A power purchase agreement lets a California agency benefit from a fuel-cell-based generation system without investing up-front capital.
Public Outreach Helps Clear the Way for an Ambitious Wasterwater Recycling Initiative
Pure Water San Diego had a presence at the annual San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering EXPO Day at Petco Park.

You could say the San Diego Public Utilities Department started in a deep hole. “Toilet to Tap” was the original negative idea the department was saddled with selling to the public for adding purified wastewater to the drinking water supply.

But a program facelift and innovative community education programs, all while dealing with severe drought, helped convince residents that wastewater reclamation can be a solution for the area’s water shortage.

In late 2014, the Public Relations Society of America San Diego/Imperial Counties Chapter presented the department with the Edward L. Bernays Silver Award of Merit for Public Affairs for its Water Purification Demonstration Project public outreach program.

Creating dialogue

The demonstration project’s goal was to confirm the feasibility of purifying recycled water to supplement drinking water supplies. The outreach program for the demonstration project included presentations, booths at community events, facility tours, informational materials, advertisements and social media.

After an outpouring of support, the San Diego City Council unanimously adopted the project’s findings in April 2013 and set forth directives for implementing the Pure Water San Diego program, which when complete will divert some 100 mgd from the Point Loma Wastewater Plant to three future water purification facilities. Those plants will treat the water with membrane filtration, reverse osmosis and UV disinfection/advanced oxidation before delivery to existing reservoirs.

“It was really a comprehensive communication plan and outreach strategy that encouraged public involvement and fostered active community dialogue,” says Alma Rife, senior public information officer. “The result was an increase in understanding and a general approval rating of water purification that went from 26 percent in 2004 to 73 percent in 2012."

The beginning

After several years of study, the council in October 2007 chose indirect potable reuse as the best way to maximize use of recycled water. The council commissioned the Water Purification Demonstration Project to determine the feasibility of turning recycled water into purified water.

For a year beginning in 2012, the Advanced Water Purification Facility reclaimed 1 million gallons of effluent daily and treated it to a level clean enough to drink. The project included extensive testing at each step of the process, along with a multipronged education program inviting people to take virtual and actual tours of the facility.

“City staff participated in a variety of community events, including community street fairs, health fairs and expos, events on college campuses, and events with a focus on the environment and science, such as the annual San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering EXPO Day at Petco Park and Earth Fair at Balboa Park,” says Rife.

“The city also reached out to the multicultural communities at events such as Linda Vista Multicultural Festival, Juneteenth Celebration, Asian Cultural Festival and Fiesta del Sol.”

The yearlong demonstration project included more than 9,000 water-quality tests that determined no contaminants were present in the purified water. The California Department of Public Health and the San Diego Water Board approved the city’s water purification concept.

According to Rife, the city received a positive response from the public at events. “Most people did not have much previous knowledge of purifying water, but once the water purification process was explained to them in detail, they are generally supportive of potable reuse,” says Rife. “The public realizes that the city needs a reliable and drought-proof local water supply.”

Youth component

Rife says the city considers educating children at least as important as informing adults. In her mind, the next generation will make decisions about future water supply solutions and needs information about the long-term benefits of water reuse.

“The city offers free tours of our North City Water Reclamation Treatment Plant to Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, elementary schools and various youth organizations,” says Rife. “Additionally, the staff participates in events at schools and with youth organizations such as the YMCA. We focus on creating content that involves lots of engagement. This includes hands-on activities, easy-to-understand visuals that are eye-catching, and asking questions to keep their attention.”

That includes answering questions that are not always positive. While people have embraced the idea of drinking recycled wastewater as they receive more information, some adults and children remain skeptical.

Rife says city employees answer the tough questions with transparency and honesty: “If one of our staff members does not know the answer to a question, they take down the person’s contact information and get back to them in a timely manner with an accurate response.”

The next step

In November 2014, backed by the findings of the outreach program, the City Council unanimously voted to advance the Pure Water San Diego program. The program has support from several environmental groups, city officials and community leaders, many of whom recently served as members of the Pure Water Working Group behind the Water Purification Demonstration Project.

The immediate goal is the construction of a full-scale purification facility that will process 15 mgd by 2023. By 2035, if all goes as planned, nearly 30 percent of San Diego’s water (83 mgd) will come from local sources or treated wastewater.

Public outreach campaigns will play a large part and include infographics and handouts on the safety of recycled water. “This is a very diverse area, and we can reach a broader multicultural audience by translating materials into additional languages,” Rife says.

“In addition, we plan to increase our audience on all social media platforms, seek more partnerships with youth-based organizations, and partner with colleges and universities to offer tours and presentations.” Youth-oriented materials will include fact sheets, presentations, activity pages and trading cards. Virtual events such as video contests and social media polls will help educate the tech-savvy crowd.

The city’s outreach program has served as a model to other agencies seeking to implement water purification. Water agencies from as far away as Japan and Australia have visited to learn more.

“We’ve come a very long way from the idea of drinking water from the toilet,” says Rife. “We’ve been proactive from the start, and it has paid off. The people here now know that recycled wastewater is a viable and needed remedy for California’s water issues.”
(For more information about San Diego’s water purification efforts and the findings of the Water Purification Demonstration Project, visit 


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