Lessons Learned on Public Communication and Involvement in Redwood City, California
Redwood City, located in the San Francisco Bay area, has 75,000 residents. By 2000, the city was exceeding its assured supply of 11 MGD (41,000 m3/d) from the Hetch Hetchy regional system, with demand projected to increase. After a study of supply alternatives, the city in 2003 settled on water conservation and water reclamation and reuse (supplying 1.8 MGD [6,800 m3/d]). In an otherwise politically active community only two individuals attended a mandatory public meeting on environmental impacts held in 2002. These two individuals then formed the Safewater Coalition, which objected to use of reclaimed water for landscape irrigation in residential areas and in schoolyards, playgrounds, and parks. The Safewater Coalition focused public attention on the project, effectively using the Internet and local media. The Redwood City Recycled Water Task Force was then formed, with equal balance of membership in favor and opposed to the project, and tasked to find 1.8 MGD in water reuse and/or additional water conservation. After 5 months of deliberation, the Task Force recommended and the City Council approved a plan that addressed some of the Safewater Coalition’s concerns. The Task Force plan would rely on 1.6 MGD water reuse and an additional 0.2 MGD in water conservation, including artificial turf on the playing fields.
Lessons from Redwood City focus more on tactics of public communications than on fundamental changes to project review and approval. The Redwood City experience highlights the importance of public acceptance of a project in addition to completion and certification of formal environmental impact reviews. In the case of Redwood City, which echoed the experience of Los Angeles and San Diego in the 1980s, opposition to a proposed reuse project did not emerge until very late in the formal review process. Additionally, the project exemplifies the capacity of a very small group of people (as few as one in the case of Redwood City) to impact a project’s progress and the power of the Internet as an organizing tool and source of information (and sometimes misinformation) on a proposed project. A public vote against a proposed water reuse facility in Toowoomba, Australia, also appears to have hinged on the actions of one citizen who adamantly opposed the project (van Vuuren, 2009). Water agency personnel were not, at first, prepared to respond with trusted sources of information for the community to address the Coalition’s claims. The Redwood City case also highlights the importance of extensive ongoing public communication on water issues in urban areas. Water is no longer a behind-the-scenes question of infrastructure development, implementation, and financing. It is now an issue of immediate and active public concern.
Today, the Redwood City Recycled Water Project is considered to be successful and is supported by the community. In late 2002, it was perceived to be held up by a small, determined group. It represents the transition of water agencies into the current era of savvy communication between water agencies, the public, and political leaders.
SOURCES: Ingram et al. (2006); M. Milan, Data Instincts, personal communication, 2009.
and other improvements in public communication with achievement of other goals (e.g., maintaining or increasing public trust in the water supply, public support for investments in water infrastructure).
There are many reasons why a major infrastructure project gets delayed or canceled. Public perception that water produced from a water reclamation facility is objectionable could be one, but public perception may not be determinative. Rather, a richer understanding of the social, technical, procedural, and policy-related aspects of a particular proposal may be the more reliable determinant of whether a project proceeds (Russell and Lux, 2009). Marks and Zadoroznyj (2005) identify institutional and knowledge factors, including the extent of social capital (e.g., homeowners associations), accountability of water managers for promised water quality, public awareness of environmental problems and the benefits of water reuse, and public trust in reclaimed water and water managers as crucial to the success of water reuse projects. Similarly, Stenekes et al. (2006), also writing in the Australian context, propose that a more productive public engagement is needed, including a better public understanding of the cost of water, greater participation of the public in water planning, and institutional reforms that would clear the way for water agencies to pursue more sustainable water technologies and strategies. Public perception and agency–public communications matter but should be understood in a larger economic, procedural, and governance context.
Water rights laws, which vary by state, affect the ability of water authorities to reuse wastewater. States are continuing to refine the relationship between wastewater reuse and the interests of downstream entities. Regardless of how rights are defined or assigned,