Employing Public Engagement for the Successful Water Reuse Project

Water reuse projects have garnered concern and even opposition from community members and the public. While based on legitimate concerns, public aversion to recycled water is often fueled by a lack of knowledge resulting in an inflated perception of risk. However, active public outreach and participation can effectively shift public opinion. The EPA’s recently released 2012 Guidelines for Water Reuse dedicates an entire chapter to the issue of public outreach. The report (specifically Chapter 8) draws conclusions and recommendations from recent studies on public perception of recycled water and steps towards effective engagement. This post summarizes some of those key findings.

The last decade has seen an increase in public dialogue and increased knowledge about water reuse. A corresponding shift in public opinion was shown in a study conducted by San Diego County Water Authority. Conducted in 2004 and 2011, the study found people who “strongly oppose” recycled water dropped from 45% to 11% while those who “strongly favor” it increased from 12% to 34%.

Public engagement should be framed as a collaborative problem-solving effort that focuses on the benefits of a water reuse program. When the public understands the problem at hand (e.g. water scarcity and drought) and the benefits of implementing recycled water, they can better perceive an improvement in the state of affairs. Public participation should begin with an understanding of why recycled water is needed, the available options for reuse, and the potential concerns.

When presenting information on water reuse, a balance between technical detail and easily understood information is important. This creates validity while effectively relaying information. In the same way, the terminology used to present reuse projects can greatly impact the public’s reception. Some of the terms used in the industry are often not well understood or well received by the general public. The EPA Guidelines show that terms such as “Water that is purer than drinking water” or “Very pure water” were reassuring to over 60% of respondents while less than 20% found “NEWater,” “Recycled water,” and “Reclaimed water” reassuring. Based on their findings, the EPA offers recommendations for public outreach terminology and methods. These include:

  • Emphasis on the purity of recycled water
  • Focus on future uses rather than the source by avoiding the prefix “re”
  • Offer analogies and water reuse in the context of the water cycle
  • Make understanding accessible and avoid technical terms

Public involvement generally begins with direct stakeholder engagement, particularly those who will be most impacted. This can involve activities such as surveys, community events, public meetings, presentations, and workshops. While direct contact and activity is important with key stakeholders, media outreach can play a significant role in shaping the general public perception and increase the flow of information and dialogue among constituencies.

Several water agencies serve as prime examples of successful public engagement and implementation of recycled water projects. Orange County Water District (OCWD) was particularly successful in engaging the public through its diversity of outreach for its Groundwater Replenishment System. OCWD also overcame reuse misconception to garner public support for an indirect potable reuse project. Read more about their success here. San Diego County Water Authority facilitates successful public communication by conducting surveys to measure knowledge and opinions of water issues and then sharing the results with the public.

For more details and advice on successful public engagement, check out Chapter 8 of the EPA’s 2012 Guidelines for Water Reuse.