Purifying Water: Responding to Public Opposition to the Implementation of Direct Potable Reuse in California
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Purifying Water: Responding to Public Opposition to the Implementation of Direct Potable Reuse in California


Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) is a method of recycling wastewater to create a potable water source.  DPR is a particularly useful technology in arid, drought-prone regions, including California, because it is a self-sustaining water source.  Despite being safe, efficient, and useful, potable reuse methods, including DPR, have faced intense public opposition.  Such opposition has stopped several projects in California.

In January 2018, California State Assembly Bill 574 (AB 574) took effect.  AB 574 requires California’s State Water Resources Control Board to adopt regulations for DPR by 2023, so long as the regulations are found to adequately protect public health.  Once adopted, California would become the first state to have uniform regulations for DPR.  But while uniform regulations will be an important step toward the realization of DPR technology, California’s success in implementing DPR will ultimately depend on public acceptance of DPR as a legitimate source of water.

This Comment seeks to provide California’s state and local governments with strategies to garner public support for DPR projects.  First, this Comment provides a framework for gaining public acceptance of DPR.  Second, this Comment explains why California is well-suited to the adoption of DPR technology, and describes California’s history with potable reuse.  Third, this Comment illustrates the main obstacle to DPR—public opposition—through a series of case studies.  Fourth and finally, this Comment applies the framework for gaining public acceptance to the case studies to illustrate a holistic approach to legitimizing DPR. “When was sewage ever classified as being pure?” asked the Revolting Grandmas, a San Diego grassroots group.[1]

The Grandmas were revolting against recycling wastewater for potable use, also known as ‘potable reuse.’ They feared waterborne illness, distrusted the purification technology, and were simply disgusted by the idea of drinking water that once went down someone’s toilet.[2] And they were not alone in their concerns.  Public opposition to recycled wastewater has stopped several potable reuse projects in California.

Public concerns about recycled wastewater derive, in part, from an ancient human fear of waterborne disease that has complicated mankind’s relationship with water: “[t]here is no life without water.  Indeed, we use its presence as an indicator for the possibility of life beyond the earth.  But drinking water can kill, and always has.”[3]

[1].        See Cal. Dep’t of Water Res., Water Recycling 2030: Recommendations of California’s Recycled Water Task Force app. at G-52 (2003), https://water.ca.gov/LegacyFiles/pubs/use/water_recycling_2030/recycled_water_tf_report_2003.pdf [https://perma.cc/9MQ2-Y54H].

[2].        Seeid. app. at G-58.

[3].        James Salzman, Drinking Water: A History 21 (2012).

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