Public Discourse on Water Reuse in Pembroke Pines, Florida
A new water reuse facility has been proposed for Pembroke Pines, Florida. The city of 150,000 people plans to inject 7 MGD of wastewater into the Biscayne Aquifer, rather than piping it to an ocean outfall. The effluent would receive primary, secondary, and reverse osmosis membrane treatment prior to injection. Restoring flows into the Biscayne Aquifer, which is shared by several cities, is required by the regional water management authority.
Although this project is still in the study phase, patterns of communication surrounding the disgust response and concerns over trace organic chemicals are already emerging. A local newspaper began its review article of the project with this sentence: “The water in Pembroke Pines toilet bowls may soon show up in the drinking glasses of South Floridians from Miami to Boca Raton” (Barkhurst, 2011). The article quotes an environmental activist: “You can’t remove all pharmaceuticals from the water. It can’t be done. You are putting drugs into our drinking water—Tylenol, birth control medication, antipsychotics.’’ The article later quotes a water agency official who comments positively on available water treatment technologies.
This is a common pattern in public communication over proposed water reuse facilities. The debate has been framed as disgusting water source that threatens public health vs. scientific demonstrations of water need and safety. The debate also is framed as the public (in opposition) vs. the water agency (in support), which departs from the ideal of water agencies playing the role of neutral implementer of the public’s wishes. Instead, the public would be best served by informed public discourse on a wide range of topics pertaining to water reuse, including relative risks compared to other water supply alternatives and sources already used widely today (see Chapter 7).
Nemeroff and Rozin, 1994). Although technology is available to treat such water to meet or exceed drinking water standards (see Chapter 4), members of the public may remain skeptical of such claims (Haddad et al., 2010). The history of water matters to many people more than the type and concentrations of impurities remaining in the water. This can result in a public preference for lower quality water emerging from a “natural” aquifer or river over higher quality water emerging directly from an advanced wastewater reclamation facility.
The research field of judgment, risk perception, and decision making is well established (Kahneman et al., 1982; Slovic, 1987, 1993; Slovic et al., 2002, 2004). Surveys and experiments have shown that people often connect perceived benefits of an activity with their evaluation of its risk: the more they think they will benefit, the lower they consider its risk. This approach is different from a scientific evaluation of risk, which would not consider the benefits in any quantitative risk assessment. Thus, there is a predisposition among those who dislike water reuse to believe it puts them at risk.
Willingness to use reclaimed water is, in part, a function of the intended use, with willingness higher for uses that minimize human contact, including irrigation, car washing, and other cleaning (Bruvold, 1988; Hills et al., 2002; Dolnicar and Schäfer, 2009; Hurlimann and Dolcinar, 2010). In a nationwide survey of attitudes toward potable reuse, Haddad et al. (2010) reported that 38 percent said they would be willing to drink “certified safe recycled water,” 49 percent were uncertain, and 13 percent said they would refuse to drink the water. This result, especially the small but not insignificant number of individuals who initially say they would refuse such water, is consistent with the reported experience of water agencies that have proposed water reuse projects. The survey showed few demographic or geographic differences in attitudes toward potable reuse. However, studies outside the United States have found weak but significant demographic differences in water-related risk perception (Po et al., 2003; Hurlimann, 2008; Doria, 2010). Hurlimann (2008), for example, found that males, people older than age 50, and people with college degrees were more willing to use reclaimed water for personal uses (including showering, clothes washing, drinking).
A general criticism of this line of research is that it does not analyze actual behavior and use of reclaimed water but instead focuses on the stated intentions of respondents. Saying one is willing to reuse water in the hypothetical is not the same as actually doing so, according to Mankad and Tapsuwan (2011), who call for more research on communities already using decentralized water reuse systems (e.g., residence-scale reuse).
Part of the challenge of public acceptance of water reuse hinges on perception of the origins of the water and whether it can be considered “natural” (see also discussion of environmental buffers in Chapter 2). Survey results showed that individuals’ trust in the water as a supply for drinking improved if the reclaimed water is