Public Preferences and Acceptability

The public is a major stakeholder in any water management decision, and community members often play an important role in making decisions about water reuse projects. As with any water project, the success or failure of a proposed reuse project can ride on public perceptions of how the project relates to public health, public finance, taste and aesthetics, land use, environmental protection, and economic growth.

Humans have a natural revulsion to water that is perceived to be contaminated, and sometimes that feeling can translate into opposition to reusing treated wastewater, even when reclaimed water is shown to be of high quality. In some cases, people may even prefer lower-quality water from a source perceived as “natural” over higher-quality water coming from an advanced wastewater treatment facility. Reclaimed water’s history as wastewater causes a psychological barrier for many people that can be hard to overcome.

Green Cay Wetlands in Palm Beach County, Florida, provide additional nutrient removal for several million gallons of highly treated wastewater per day. The water then recharges groundwater supplies. Environmental buffers, such as this one, have been important for gaining public support in past potable reuse projects.

However, when communities are actively engaged in discussions about water reuse, the technologies and science behind it, and the overall context of water management, both the public and water managers are better equipped to engage in meaningful dialogue.

In Redwood City, California, for example, a proposed water reclamation project was temporarily stalled by opposition from a small citizens’ group in 2002. In response, a task force was established that brought the two sides together to discuss the project, review reliable sources of information, and weigh alternative options. A modified reuse project was eventually approved that was widely supported by the community. As the Redwood City experience demonstrates, frequent and open communication among water managers, citizens, and governments can be critical for communities to address the concerns of the public and make informed decisions about water reuse.