​Changing Minds: How the Industry Is Gaining Public Trust in Water Reuse

See how water treatment professionals are fighting 'toilet-to-tap' branding and making progress in public acceptance of direct potable reuse

​Changing Minds: How the Industry Is Gaining Public Trust in Water Reuse

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Getting ratepayers on board with water reuse may seem daunting, but those who have been keeping a finger on the pulse of public perception say the times they are a-changin’.

“The psychological opposition to water reclamation is in decline,” says Brent Haddad, professor of environmental studies at University of California-Santa Cruz, who has studied the psychology of ‘the ick factor.’ “It had a strong influence on people for many years, and slowed or stopped a number of promising water reclamation projects. The public communication about reclaimed water has changed, and people are less inclined to care.”

While things are getting better in a broad scope, that doesn’t necessarily help the individual municipality trying to start a new water recycling program.

“There has been an evolution in public acceptance, and we’ve come a long way. But issues are local, and issues are regional,” says Zachary Dorsey, communications director for the WateReuse Association. “Fortunately, there are things you can do to promote acceptance among your populace.”

Take, for example, the rapidly expanding Pure Brew Challenge project, which began in Oregon with Clean Water Reuse, a nonprofit organization devoted to the idea of water reclamation.

“We’re a water resources management utility — and we’re intentional about saying that, not saying we’re a wastewater utility,” says Ely O’Connor, senior public affairs specialist with Clean Water Services’ education and outreach. “That’s the first step in outreach, right there. It used to be Unified Sewerage Agency. We want to be intentional about promoting final products and outcomes, not what we get coming in. Because that’s not really descriptive of what we do, it’s just what we start with.”

Pure Brew Challenge has expanded all over the country, and even abroad. People seem to embrace the idea of reclaimed water when it’s not obvious that’s what they’re drinking.

“People, strangely, are more likely to drink beer, or lemonade, or root beer, or vodka made with recycled water — something that has been through an additional process,” O’Connor says. “The Pure Water Brew Challenge is special in that we have created batches of water way cleaner than your drinking water. To demonstrate the fact that no matter where water comes from, we can get it to a level that is beyond safe for drinking. The beer has just been a vehicle for that.”

Not only does the event promote water reuse, it also provides a resource to the homebrewing community — and their broad public reach — that they can’t get anywhere else.

“They love it, they’re very excited to participate, because unlike the water that they get from their tap, which has certain minerals, and already has a palette, this water is a blank canvas. It has nothing in it that’s detectable,” O’Connor says. “To them it’s a challenge to make beer that highlights the water, and that’s what we ask of them when they participate.”

Rebranding recycled water

The idea that has taken a foothold with industry movers and shaker is One Water, which promotes the message that what we’re doing with water reclamation is no different than the natural processes that have been purifying water for millennia — it’s just a lot faster.

“We ask people to rethink the water cycle. We all learned the water cycle in school, and to rethink it with human intervention: Humans take water from the environment, and they put water back,” Dorsey says. “There’s the same amount of water on the planet as there’s ever been. We’re using technology to speed up what happens in nature already. The water we use today is the same water the dinosaurs used. Those drops have been in many forms and had many uses throughout time.”

Another vehicle to demonstrate both the technology behind water purification and the benefits of reuse is Clean Water Services’ “Pure-Water Wagon.” It’s a portable water treatment station that they take around to trade shows and community events. O’Connor says letting people see the process with their own eyes, rather than taking someone’s word for it, is half the battle.

A lot of what gets lost in translation is the fact that this is not a new idea, nor is it new technology.

“There’s a high level of confidence that we’re good on the engineering and science. If you give people a basic understanding of water treatment and the water cycle, they ultimately come to a place of acceptance,” Dorsey says. “People don’t necessarily want to become experts, but they want to know there’s science and a regulatory platform behind this. It’s getting people to trust that the technology and the expertise is available to clean water to any level.”

The problem a lot of municipalities encounter is not an individual’s ability to get over the idea of recycling wastewater, but that often a small contingent of local opposition stalls progress.

“I was studying challenges faced in water policy, integrating new technologies, and I kept hearing about their frustrations with the public when water reuse would come up,” Haddad says. “They felt that they had excellent proposals for water reclamation and reuse, and it was often that a small minority of the public would be staunchly opposed, and in the minds of water managers, the opposition just didn’t seem rational.”

What his research found is that the psychological factors didn’t really have anything to do with mistrust of the process itself. A subconscious distaste for the source of the influent tends to overpower the average person’s ability to rationally assess the validity and benefits of water reuse technology.

“It’s elected officials — the moms, the dads. It’s the public health officials and regulators, even the medical professionals that need information to understand and inform good decisions,” Dorsey says. “When you go into a new community, people are concerned about water reclamation if they’ve never done it before. Luckily, at this point, there is a wealth of history, knowledge, best practices and information.”

Best practices for outreach

There are two keys to overcoming this hurdle, and if handled correctly, you can turn a municipality’s kryptonite into its secret weapon.

“Many of our members have found that inviting those people into the tent, being transparent and honest with your stakeholders, is hugely important. Engaging with the public from the beginning has been one of the most important factors for success. Getting your biggest detractors, allowing them to be heard by you, and also imparting information to them — when they become supporters, they are your biggest and most convincing supporters.”

For those treatment plant operators and managers out there currently facing down public opposition to a water reclamation project, try reaching out to those who can change the tide of irrational public opposition. Trade groups, other operators and municipal leaders who have already found success in this arena may have valuable insight.

“There is a network of utilities and water professionals with a lot of experience behind them, so we recommend peer-to-peer networking,” Dorsey says. “Talk to people who’ve done similar projects. There’s lots of information out there.”

Many industry voices also recommend working with medical and public health professionals, who already have the trust of the public.

“Even more than engineers and scientists, people often really trust medical and public health professionals, and our organization has been trying to engage with that community, to make sure they have the information they need,” Dorsey says. “Utilities are all about public safety, so then it becomes: We’re all on the same side, let’s figure this out together.”

At the end of the day, the proof is in the purification.

“The key thing is that it’s possible, and the agencies that have built water reclamation and reuse plants have a stellar safety record. To me, that’s a sacred trust with the public,” Haddad says. “That really has to remain a record that the industry can be proud of, and then the public will come around.”


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