Does Public Outreach Help Or Hinder Acceptance Of Recycled Wastewater As A Drinking Water Source?

When California’s AB2022 went into effect earlier this year, allowing the bottling of advanced purified reused water for educational purposes, Orange County Water District (OCWD) and Orange County Sanitation District began the #GetOverIt! campaign to continue to push for consumer acceptance of recycled water systems.

A number of major players in the water industry have supported the campaign, most notably WEF President Rick Warner taking a swig during the opening ceremony of this year’s WEFTEC.  But as the water industry embraces recycled wastewater, how are we doing at getting local communities past the “yuck” factor?

For those in the know, water reuse is a compelling solution to water scarcity issues, whether replenishing overdrawn aquifers, watering golf courses, or providing a sustainable source for drinking water. However, the challenge of getting the average household consumer to embrace a seemingly controversial subject can end up causing confusion when explaining such water re-use options to the general public.

Fountain Valley, CA’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) came online ten years ago and there has been no local opposition to the water it produces. OCWD President Denis Bilodeau credits years of outreach to government officials, health professionals and local communities to educate them that the water is reliable, safe and of high-quality.

So is rolling out facility tours concluding with taste tests a way of acceptance of our general public, or do these types of endorsements adversely affect the well-intended message, oftentimes endorsed by celebrities, such as Bill Gates, Jimmy Fallon, or Matt Damon?

In terms of enlightening and educating the public in alternative and social ways, one great example of such is the brewing company, AZ Pure.

AZ Pure Water Brew’s retrofitted shipping container and treatment system parked at Flagstaff’s Rio de Flag Wastewater Treatment Plant.
photo by Taylor Mahoney

Well thought out planning by state and local officials created an initiative to educate the public on the potential for using wastewater as a drinking water source 20+ years in advance of the actual need.  In 2016-2017 they chose to bring the information to the people, in conjunction with a friendly competition, via their water brew challenge.  Multiple brewers from across the state participated in a yearlong campaign, crafting their beers from recycled wastewater that was purified inside of AZ Pure Waters’ mobile advanced purification truck. The mobile unit was actually a treatment plant which contained all the advanced technology required to create potable water from effluent from a wastewater reclamation facility.  This truck traveled over 2,800 miles across Arizona, treated more than 80,000 gallons of recycled wastewater, all the while educating thousands of people at local events on how the multi-barrier purification process works, over some cold beers, brewed with the recycled treated water.  “The goal was to help people understand and trust the technology used to create purified recycled water as a possible renewable source for future drinking water,” said Jeff Prevatt, research and innovation leader for the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department.  “Looking back at the past year, I think we’ve done that.”

Other companies that have a preventative attitude towards water re-use, and getting the jump on consumer buy-in are Seismic Brewing & Barrel Brothers Brewing who teamed up with Cambrian Innovation, a wastewater treatment services company, based in Boston, MA.
The two brewers conducted side-by-side taste tests using beers made with tap water and recycled water from the breweries.  “Many people could not tell any difference between the two beers, “ stated Patrick Delves, Seismic’s Director of Sustainability and Logistics, “this point perfectly illustrates why we decided to do this collaboration brew; we are trying to show folks that recycled water is not only clean and safe to drink, but delicious as well.”

It would be unfair to assume that the general public has little concern as to where their tap water comes from.  Current news and exposure to just how dangerously close to losing such a vital resource can no longer be ignored.  Enlightening our communities of what our industry is capable of in fun and interesting ways, will prove to help and not hinder.