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Journal of Environmental Planning and Management
ISSN: 0964-0568 (Print) 1360-0559 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjep20
Direct potable water reuse in five arid inland
communities: an analysis of factors influencing
Caroline E. Scruggs, Claudia B. Pratesi & John R. Fleck
To cite this article: Caroline E. Scruggs, Claudia B. Pratesi & John R. Fleck (2019): Direct potable
water reuse in five arid inland communities: an analysis of factors influencing public acceptance,
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2019.1671815
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2019.1671815
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Published online: 25 Oct 2019.
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Direct potable water reuse in five arid inland communities: an
analysis of factors influencing public acceptance
Caroline E. Scruggs
, Claudia B. Pratesi
and John R. Fleck
Community and Regional Planning Department, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New
Water Resources Program, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico,
Economics Department, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
(Received 18 September 2019; final version received 18 September 2019)
Direct potable reuse (DPR) can improve reliability of water supplies by generating
drinking water from wastewater, but communities have consistently opposed DPR
more than other forms of reuse. Using interview data regarding DPR projects in five
inland communities, this study fills gaps in the literature with an analysis of factors
influencing acceptance of DPR. While scholars have recommended public processes
used to implement non-potable and indirect potable reuse projects, there is little-to-no
documentation about whether and how they have been used to implement DPR
projects. Further, previous research has focused on large coastal cities. Counter to
previous recommendations, we found minimal public deliberation of reuse options and
public education/outreach occurring post-project conception. Findings suggest that
direct experience with water scarcity, community smallness, and governance strongly
influence DPR acceptance. With few DPR facilities worldwide, this new knowledge is
useful to water planners who are interested in the feasibility of DPR in inland areas.
Keywords: Recycled water; public perception; water governance; trust; public
education and outreach
1.1. Background and knowledge gaps
By 2025, the United States (US) Department of Interior predicts “hot spots”of conflict over
water in the American Southwest (United States Department of Interior 2005;seeFigure 1),
where water scarcity is projected to remain dire and climate change is expected to further
reduce supplies (Gutzler 2012). Communities in these hot spots must choose from among
their available options to create sustainable water supplies, and unexploited water sources
of adequate quality must be proactively identified before shortfall leads to crisis.
Planned potable water reuse holds promise for improving the sustainability and reli-
ability of potable water supplies by generating drinking water from wastewater. Potable
water reuse is classified as either direct or indirect. In direct potable reuse (DPR), waste-
water is highly treated, either in separate wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and
Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Biosciences, School of Medicine, University of Brasilia, Brasilia
ß2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
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Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 2019
drinking water treatment plant (WTP) systems, or in a single advanced treatment system.
Then the purified water is typically combined with native or imported waters and treated
at the WTP before entering the distribution system, where it becomes available for all
uses. (It is also possible to inject the purified water directly into the distribution system
following purification, though this approach has not yet been taken in the US.) Indirect
potable reuse (IPR) is the same as DPR, except that the purified water is directed to an
environmental buffer (e.g., a reservoir or aquifer) before eventual withdrawal and treat-
ment at the WTP (Tchobanoglous et al. 2011). Numerous communities around the world
have implemented IPR over the past several decades, but DPR is far less common, with
one installation in Windhoek, Namibia and a few in South Africa and Texas in the US
(Scruggs and Thomson 2017;USEPA2017). While DPR is relatively new to the US,
the Namibian facility has been operating since 1968, in various configurations, with no
significant adverse health effects reported (Crook 2010; van Rensburg 2016).
Despite research demonstrating that IPR and DPR can be safe (Tchobanoglous
et al. 2011), one of the most significant issues surrounding implementation is public
opposition. Because the public has rejected many reuse projects, there is a substantial
body of work on public perceptions of, and attitudes towards, water reuse, along with
recommendations for effective public education and outreach related to water reuse
Figure 1. Hot spots for potential water conflict by 2025 (US Department of Interior 2005).
Used with permission of the US Department of Interior.
2C. E. Scruggs et al.
projects. However, most of this work is based on experiences with non-potable reuse
or IPR in coastal US cities and Australia. Importantly, many candidate communities
for potable reuse in the US are inland (see Figure 1), where IPR may not be an option
due to lack of a suitable environmental buffer (Scruggs and Thomson 2017).
Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow (2003) summarized research from 1972 through 2002
demonstrating that the public has more consistently opposed using reuse water for drink-
ing than for any other potential use. In 2004, Bridgeman went so far as to conclude that
“the public is perhaps not yet ready to accept potable water reuse on a large scale, whilst
other options still exist, regardless of the feasibility of those alternatives”(154). While
there are now numerous IPR plants operating in the US, researchers have recently
reported that the public is less accepting of DPR than IPR (e.g., Tennyson, Millan, and
Metz 2015; Ormerod and Scott 2013). Importantly, it has not yet been demonstrated
whether the same public education, outreach, and engagement recommendations for IPR
projects also apply to DPR projects, or if other strategies are needed to help the public
make informed decisions about water supply options.
To date, the few DPR projects that have been planned or implemented in the US are
in the inland Southwest. It is reasonable to expect that public acceptance of DPR would
be based in part on contextual issues, such as water scarcity and perceived availability
of additional water supply options. However, there is little documentation of the context-
ual issues or public processes used in the few DPR projects that have been introduced to
US communities to help water managers understand how to approach DPR projects
while effectively communicating about public health, safety, and other matters. Is there
anything new we can learn –specific to the introduction of DPR projects –by studying
these few cases in the US? Does the fact that there are so few DPR projects in the US
(and in the world) suggest that there may be a different approach needed in comparison
to the IPR and non-potable reuse projects previously described in the literature? At the
time of this research project, in the few cases known to the authors where potential DPR
projects were introduced to communities, the projects were all accepted by the public.
1.2. Study objectives
Using existing literature on the characteristics and outcomes of strategies used to introduce
potable water reuse to the public, plus new data on DPR project introduction in five com-
munities in the inland southwestern US, this study aims to fill gaps in the literature with
an analysis of factors influencing public acceptance of DPR. While scholars have previ-
ously discussed recommendations and outcomes related to approaches for introducing
reuse projects (mostly non-potable or IPR) to the public, there is little-to-no documentation
about how these strategies have been used –or whether they were successful –in attempt-
ing to implement actual DPR projects. Further, most of this previous research was con-
ducted in large coastal US cities or Australia. With very few DPR facilities in operation
in the US, this new knowledge will be useful to water planners, city officials, and policy
actors in inland areas who are interested in the feasibility of DPR for their communities.
2. Review of literature related to public acceptance of potable water reuse
2.1. Public attitudes toward potable water reuse
According to Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow (2003, 3), the first potable reuse projects,
such as those in Windhoek, Namibia, Water Factory 21 in California, and the Upper
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 3
Occoquan Sewerage Authority in Northern Virginia, were introduced at a time when
public involvement in decision making was not the norm: “the public trusted the
experts or governments to make the right decision and they therefore did not usually
participate in or challenge project decisions”. However, more recent potable reuse proj-
ects have been tabled or cancelled because of public opposition (Tennyson, Millan,
and Metz 2015). Today, public acceptance is crucial to the success of any water reuse
project and it is influenced by many factors, such as the perceived value of water, the
history of the water to be reused, trust in the entities promoting the reuse project, trust
in the technologies used to purify the reuse water, education on fundamental water
concepts, as well as those that apply more specifically to water reuse, the timing of
the proposed reuse project with local circumstances (e.g., drought), inclusion of water
quality monitoring in the reuse scheme, attitudes toward the environment, and the cost
of the reuse water or water reuse project (Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003;
Bridgeman 2004; Ormerod and Scott 2013).
Studies in Queensland, Australia, showed that using a “Decide, Inform, Defend”
approach to introduce potable reuse projects led to public skepticism and opposition. On the
other hand, holding community consultations in the form of “information days”led attendees
to accept a wider variety of water management options compared to those who did not attend;
in fact, for the majority of those attending the information days, DPR was the top choice
among water management options, although it was not selected for implementation by deci-
sion makers (Simpson 1999, 61-62). In other communities nearby, residents found potable
reuse to be an option worthy of further consideration following intensive focus group activ-
ities and a survey. This prompted Australian organizations to develop a Water Education
Program (Simpson 1999), as discussed later. In the US, focus group research in California
demonstrated that most participants were supportive of non-potable reuse and comfortable
with IPR. While most were initially uncomfortable with DPR, they became somewhat more
comfortable after exposure to detailed messaging: information about the treatment process,
the effluent water quality, and monitoring systems proved to increase acceptance of potable
reuse among focus group participants. Telephone surveys conducted as part of the same
research also showed that people had higher levels of comfort with IPR than DPR because of
the natural processes included in IPR (Tennyson, Millan, and Metz 2015).
Water planners cannot solely rely on drought or water shortages as a strategy to
gain public acceptance of potable reuse (Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003;
Tennyson, Millan, and Metz 2015). However, when residents are aware of such issues,
and options are effectively communicated, they may consider potable reuse as an
option if it is shown to be safe for health and the environment (Simpson 1999).
Despite well-planned and -executed public communication, education, and outreach
efforts, there will still be some members of the public who will not accept water reuse.
It is important to note that such attitudes may not be rooted in a mistrust of the science
or technologies being proposed, but rather in the policymakers or entities promoting or
overseeing the water reuse project (Bridgeman 2004; Simpson 1999). In other cases,
refusal to accept reuse may be based on concerns that the advanced purification tech-
nologies are too expensive, possibly leading to higher water bills (Po, Kaercher, and
Nancarrow 2003). Planners must thoroughly understand these attitudes to adequately
address them. A societal legitimacy framework, which provides insights into dimen-
sions of legitimacy and strategies for legitimization of potable water reuse, has been
proposed as another way to understand why potable reuse projects are accepted or
rejected by communities (Harris-Lovett et al. 2015).
4C. E. Scruggs et al.
2.2. Public trust related to potable reuse
Public trust in the individuals or entities promoting a reuse project is of critical import-
ance to public perceptions of potable water reuse (Wegner-Gwidt 1991; Po, Kaercher,
and Nancarrow 2003), and building and maintaining public trust is a long-term com-
mitment (Wegner-Gwidt 1991). Bottom-up or collaborative processes can build public
confidence and trust in controversial water reuse projects (Hartley 2006). Hartley
(2006, 125) specified a framework for “public outreach, education, participation, and
planning”to gain public support for water reuse projects. Experiences documented in
the literature reinforce the validity of this framework, both in creating “community-
based, consensus-driven solution[s]”(Ingram et al. 2006, 179) and in failure to gain
public trust (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010).
Additional studies have emphasized how issues related to trust can contribute to
the success of water reuse projects, for example through timely communication with
stakeholders, transparency in the decision-making process (Hurlimann and Dolnicar
2010), and a pre-existing trust in those selected to introduce a water reuse project
(Ormerod and Scott 2013). The messenger of reliable information about water reuse is
important: people tend to trust regulators (such as the EPA) and the medical commu-
nity, but have less trust in others such as politicians and developers (MacPherson and
Snyder 2013; Ormerod and Scott 2013). It is also essential that community members
believe they are being adequately informed about the safety of the reused water and
potential health risks to establish a strong relationship between trust and acceptance
(Ross, Fielding, and Louis 2014). In addition, Bridgeman (2004) found that the public
is “more receptive to a presentation from an authority figure representing the promoter
(i.e., the city) rather than a slick, sanitized presentation from a professional public-rela-
tions consultant”(153). Harris-Lovett et al. (2015) reinforced this idea, reporting that
when a utility’s management staff personally engages in public outreach campaigns, it
helps to build the legitimacy of a potable reuse project. In summary, public trust is
one of the most important factors to the success of a water reuse project (Khan 2013).
2.3. Recommendations for project introduction and public communication,
education, and outreach on potable reuse
Public involvement in decision making on water reuse is critical because community
members are directly affected (USEPA 2017). Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow (2003)
reinforced that “Decide Inform Defend”reuse project introduction approaches are inef-
fective and that conducting public education and outreach after a project’s conception
is inadequate. Specifically, the authors state, “The new strategy proposed for imple-
menting water reuse projects is to involve the community prior to the conception of
any reuse projects”, which is “now recognized as the most essential component for
obtaining long-term public support”(Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003, 29).
Several researchers have found that public outreach and education can have a posi-
tive effect on public acceptance of water reuse (Hartley 2006; Lohman 1987; Nellor
and Millan 2010), although the program details and community context are likely of
critical importance to success (Ching 2010). Wegner-Gwidt (1991) describes pro-active
communication programs designed to help the public to make informed decisions
about water reuse in general. Such programs include community relations, educational,
and media relations components. The author states that a “successful project”requires
dealing with “perceptions and expectations of people, community and special interest
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 5
groups, government and the media.”Further, with a properly designed “planned com-
munication program …if the public can understand what you understand they will
probably agree with what you are doing”(Wegner-Gwidt 1991, 314). Bridgeman
(2004) agreed that public outreach programs must be proactive and that they are essen-
tial to the success of any reuse project, but also added that the character and extent of
outreach programs should be project specific. For example, his research demonstrated
that planners could adopt less intensive outreach tactics in a community with an estab-
lished reuse project or one involving non-potable reuse as compared to a project pro-
posing potable reuse. Tennyson, Millan, and Metz (2015, 61) developed “coordinated,
consistent, and transparent communication plans”that can be employed at both the
state and local community levels, although they also stress the importance of tailoring
the plans to the needs and characteristics of the states or communities applying them.
Wegner-Gwidt (1991) emphasized that water reuse projects are only successful
when citizens are genuinely included in the decision-making process. First steps
include understanding public opinion of the water utility or other organization(s) pro-
moting the reuse project, and then gaining support of “opinion leaders, media contacts,
and third-party experts”who can help with information dissemination (Wegner-Gwidt
1991, 314). Bridgeman (2004) found that early public outreach helped to build trust in
the community and aided in disseminating project information prior to messaging from
potential opposition. According to Wegner-Gwidt (1991), dissemination should start at
the highest levels in the community and move outward to groups such as service clubs.
By approaching key stakeholders first, they can be called upon later to provide valu-
able endorsements of water reuse (Bridgeman 2004). Forming a Citizens Advisory
Committee for the project is beneficial, perhaps most importantly because the commit-
tee will provide critical project input and demonstrate that public input is being used
to help formulate the project (Wegner-Gwidt 1991).
Wegner-Gwidt (1991) recommended that the water utility train teachers, participate
in public educational events, and develop ongoing programs in schools, which will
serve to educate students and their families and develop a citizenry that is both know-
ledgeable about water and capable of making thoughtful and informed decisions. For
educating the general public, small group meetings, workshops, open houses, and tours
are more effective than mass communications through large community Q&A sessions.
Community education on water ideally starts with the water cycle and covers other
basic facts and concepts before tackling water reuse –and in educating about water
reuse, the focus should be on promoting the benefits rather than attempting to defend
against all possible criticisms (Wegner-Gwidt 1991; Bridgeman 2004). The Water
Education Program in Australia aims to educate residents about the water cycle, waste-
water, and the technologies and monitoring that can be used to reliably make water
reusable, with the goal of providing “people with knowledge and understanding so that
they have an informed opinion”(Simpson 1999, 63). Carefully-planned and compre-
hensive water education programs require an early recognition of the need for water
reuse. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for water reuse is sometimes only real-
ized at a point when immediate action is needed, leaving inadequate time to establish
large and comprehensive education and outreach programs (Bridgeman 2004).
Stenekes et al. (2006) took issue with Wegner-Gwidt’s(1991) suggestion that
“…if the public can understand what you understand they will probably agree with
what you are doing,”and argued that lack of public acceptance of potable reuse has
been too often explained as the public’s lack of understanding about the health risks
6C. E. Scruggs et al.
and treatment technologies associated with reuse. Consequently, this common explan-
ation has led to the assumption that acceptance of reuse can be gained simply through
better public education about risk and technology demonstrations. In fact, the authors’
research showed that “values rather than facts tended to underpin participant risk
frames”(121). The authors emphasized that while enhancing public knowledge and
understanding is important, so are “contextual circumstances and fundamentally diver-
gent problem frames among stakeholders”, and that “a two-way dialogue about deeply
held values early in planning processes”is of critical importance (Stenekes et al. 2006,
120). In short, insufficient public dialogue and input into potential reuse projects may
be the reason for their failure, rather than a simple lack of education and information.
The media is another important influence on how people think about water reuse,
and the social constructivist theory posits that the media itself constructs norms. In
other words, “media has the power to create knowledge and shape social norms for
water reuse”(Ching 2010, 113), and agenda setting by the news media instructs the
public what to think about (Wolfe, Jones, and Baumgartner 2013). Likewise, the
agenda-setting hypothesis states that the extent of media attention given to particular
issues determines the degree of public concern for those issues (Behr and Iyengar
1985; Saroka 2002). Journalistic norms may also drive reporting of extreme stories
(Boykoff and Boykoff 2007), and the “toilet to tap”framing creates the basis for a
more extreme story than does one related to advanced technology used to purify water
for drinking. Therefore, researchers have emphasized that it is important for propo-
nents of water reuse projects to establish a good relationship with the media prior to
initiating public involvement and education programs (Wegner-Gwidt 1991). This
might mean seeking out reporters who cover issues such as water reuse, pitching sto-
ries with public interest potential, and educating the reporter about the material
involved. In addition to shifting social norms about the acceptability of water reuse
(Ching, 2010), a well-educated media can help to educate the population about water
reuse and raise awareness about proposed projects and the organizations supporting
them. Social media can be another way for utilities to connect directly with stakehold-
ers about water reuse. However, this form of communication is only effective if the
utility commits to using social media throughout the lifetime of the project and dedi-
cates the resources necessary to maintain its social media presence (USEPA 2017).
2.4. Issues of governance surrounding potable water reuse
It is crucial to recognize where the locus of policymaking is when thinking about the
role and influence of communication and public understanding in the implementation
of DPR projects. The question of who the policy actors are who are responsible for
formulating and executing a DPR policy can be complicated.
While on its face the
answer to this question is often obvious –a City Council or a water agency board of
directors –the locus of policy action is often more diffuse and complex. Key policy
actors can also include agency staff (in situations where the governing bodies routinely
defer to staff technical recommendations) as well as non-governmental organizations
whose unofficial role in the policy process through informal governance networks
affords them the role of de facto policymakers (Cairney 2016).
Stenekes et al. (2006) and van Rensburg (2016) discuss some of the difficulties
and inefficiencies that exist because water institutions are not cohesive or integrated,
creating obstacles for sustainable water planning. Stenekes et al. (2006) explained that
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 7
while elected local governments have traditionally made water decisions in Australia,
newer governance structures have resulted in water decisions being made at a distance
from representative government. Development of water-related institutions that allow
for genuine community participation and incorporate local knowledge and values may
improve negotiation, dialog, and decision making on water projects. Such community
involvement adds “procedural justice and legitimacy”to the decision-making process
(Stenekes et al. 2006, 124).
The literature suggests a complex relationship between the severity of the problem
(long-term water scarcity and more immediate short-term drought) and the structure of
governance. Unsurprisingly, water agencies have been found to be more likely to
implement sustainable water policies under drought conditions (Mullin and Rubado
2017). While general-purpose governments (cities or counties for which water service
is but one duty) have been shown to be more able to implement sustainable water poli-
cies than special districts (agencies created with the sole duty of water service), under
crisis the performance difference between the two types of governance structures
shrinks significantly (Mullin 2008).
For potable water reuse to be implemented, longstanding institutional structures
must be modified to accept new ways of thinking about potable water supplies
(Stenekes et al. 2006). Ching (2010) hypothesized that, “informal water institutions
will change rapidly when there is a sense of crisis, resulting in rapid learning and/or
when there is a strong water leader with a persuasive message.”The author suggested
that norms, partially shaped by the media, form around reuse policies, but can be dis-
rupted resulting in the public overcoming its aversion to drinking purified wastewater.
It has also been suggested that reuse of wastewater must, of necessity, reinforce the
role of large-scale, centralized water management infrastructure and the governance
structures that go with it (Meehan, Ormerod, and Moore 2013), whether via water
departments within general-purpose municipal government agencies, or through special
district agencies that deal solely with water and wastewater management.
2.5. Lessons learned from two well-documented potable reuse case studies
The experiences of two cities –San Diego, California and Toowoomba, Australia –
that attempted to implement IPR have been well-documented in the literature. We
briefly discuss some of the details here for a case-specific look at factors impacting
public acceptance. At the time this paper was written, no such analyses were available
for DPR experiences, likely because so few DPR facilities have been proposed.
2.5.1. San Diego
San Diego has long struggled with water scarcity and multi-year drought. The city
began importing water from the Colorado River in 1947, and by 1990 up to 90% of its
water supply was imported (Hartley 2006). In response to two periods of drought, San
Diego introduced potable water reuse as an alternative supply option in the mid-1990s
and again over a decade later (Trussell et al. 2002; USEPA, ReNEWIt, and The
Johnson Foundation at Wingspread 2018), as discussed below.
A legal settlement required the city to build water reclamation capacity (National
Research Council 2012), but the city could not use much of the reclaimed water for
several reasons: it was cost-prohibitive to distribute the reclaimed water to an extended
8C. E. Scruggs et al.
network of users, the water was too saline for some applications, and irrigators did not
want the water in the winter. This lack of ability to put the reclaimed water to use led
to an informal study, which suggested that IPR could be a cost-effective alternative for
reusing the water. In 1993, the San Diego Water Authority led a more formal effort to
determine the feasibility of IPR, which included discussions with the California
Department of Health Services to understand any health impacts of IPR and public
outreach to understand public support for the project. This scheme for augmenting the
potable water supply was known as San Diego’s Water Repurification Project
(Trussell et al. 2002).
The San Diego Water Authority assembled a panel of experts on drinking water
and public health who reviewed and approved the proposed project. The Water
Authority also assembled a citizen panel which reviewed the proposed project and rec-
ommended that additional studies related to project advancement proceed. The
California Department of Health Services approved the project in concept following
piloting of the treatment system that confirmed virus removal. The City Water Utilities
Department became the project lead and began moving forward with preliminary pro-
ject design in 1996. Up to this point, in addition to the citizen panel, the project had
support from numerous entities, from local health, environmental, and business groups
to the Region 9 EPA (Trussell et al. 2002).
Several issues occurred throughout the project progression that eroded public support
for the project. First, shortly after the project was introduced, California experienced
record rainfall, reducing the perceived urgency for an IPR project. Second, project con-
trol was shifted from the city’s Water Utilities Department to the Metropolitan
Wastewater Department. While the latter department was thought to be better able to
fund and construct the project, the transfer of control led the public to perceive the pro-
ject as more of a scheme for wastewater disposal than a strategy for ensuring water sup-
ply reliability. Third, within the same timeframe that the IPR project was being
developed, a major agriculture-to-municipal water transfer was being negotiated, which
would provide for approximately half of San Diego County’s water needs (Trussell
et al. 2002; USEPA, ReNEWIt, and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread 2018).
While the Water Repurification Project retained its support from many political and
community leaders, the project became a key issue during the 1998 campaign season.
City council and state assembly candidates in particular criticized the project and incited
fears about “drinking sewage”through direct mail campaigns and adverts in San
Diego’s major daily newspaper, which opposed water reuse and supported the water
transfer alternative. The candidates also accused the city of environmental injustice,
incorrectly stating that the project targeted the city’s African American community
(Trussell et al. 2002). The media and a few other vocal opponents waged a successful
campaign against the Water Repurification Project by describing the project as “toilet to
tap”, a term developed during opposition to a previous California reuse project, and
introducing uncertainty about the safety of the IPR water. Also, the National Research
Council had just released a report that was largely supportive of IPR, but called it “an
option of last resort”, a phrase that was highlighted by project opponents. Additional
technical and advisory boards and a grand jury reviewed the project and came to differ-
ent conclusions about its acceptability. In 1999, the San Diego City Council voted to
halt the project (Trussell et al. 2002). After years of significant investment, the Water
Repurification Project was abandoned due to public pressure, which stemmed from local
authorities’failure to gain community trust (Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003),
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 9
inadequate information sharing, and failure to address public concerns, such as safety
and environmental racism (Hartley 2006), among other factors (Trussell et al. 2002).
In 2004, seeing the need to further diversify the City’s water supply portfolio, the
San Diego City Council called for an evaluation of all options to increase production
and utilization of the City’s reclaimed water resources. This action initiated the City of
San Diego Water Reuse Study of 2006, which provided a comprehensive analysis of
all potential reuse alternatives, including options for IPR through reservoir augmenta-
tion (Asano et al. 2007; National Research Council 2012). The study discussed the
advantages and disadvantages of the various options, but did not recommend a specific
project. It also focused on health and safety considerations for the various water reuse
options (Asano et al. 2007).
The City contracted the National Water Research Institute to create an Independent
Advisory Panel, which provided substantial input and technical oversight for the study.
The public was also engaged in learning about the various water reuse options and in
helping to determine how to move forward with water resources planning. A variety of
public meetings, expert speakers, and “communication opportunities”were used to
facilitate “dialog and information sharing with city residents and the study team”
(Asano et al. 2007, 1334). Workshops that brought together numerous stakeholders –
with participants selected by the mayor’s office, city council, and other groups from
around the city –were deemed as especially important to the effective public dialog
on issues surrounding water reuse (Asano et al. 2007). The City of San Diego’s web-
site (as of June 18, 2019) states that this broad-based citizen stakeholder group, called
the American Assembly, played an “essential role”in determining how to proceed
with water resources planning.
According to the City of San Diego’s website (as of June 18, 2019), the Water
Reuse Study American Assembly group “identified Reservoir Augmentation at the
City’s San Vicente Reservoir as their preferred strategy,”and, in 2007, the City
Council voted to proceed with this alternative and evaluate its feasibility for full-scale
implementation. Full-scale feasibility was to be evaluated using a Demonstration
Project, which was funded through a temporary water rate increase from 2009-2010
(City of San Diego 2013). Around this time, the City of San Diego’s website (as of
June 18, 2019) describes how 23 diverse local organizations joined to form the Water
Reliability Coalition in support of the Demonstration Project. The broad-based coali-
tion was said to be, “instrumental in maintaining momentum for the Demonstration
Project by attending and providing testimony at City Council and other civic meet-
ings,”and in providing an “independent voice about water purification and the need
for a sustainable water supply for San Diego.”
This time around, when the San Diego Public Utilities Department reintroduced the
IPR project, it was called Pure Water San Diego, and the department made public out-
reach and engagement a priority (USEPA, ReNEWIt, and The Johnson Foundation at
Wingspread 2018). Part of its successful public education program involved tours and
events at the Demonstration Project (USEPA, ReNEWIt, and The Johnson Foundation
at Wingspread 2018), which opened in 2011 as the “Advanced Water Purification
Facility”(City of San Diego 2013) and produced 3.7 million liters per day (1 million
gallons per day) (USEPA 2017). More than 20,000 members of the public toured the
facility, and public acceptance of potable water reuse increased from 26% in 2004 to
73% in 2012 (Atkinson 2014). The City of San Diego’s website (as of June 18, 2019)
describes numerous additional ways that the City built on the outreach and education
10 C. E. Scruggs et al.
activities established during the Water Reuse Study; for example, they created web
videos showing conservation commitments from local leaders, hosted poster and film
contests to engage young audiences, and worked with media outlets to ensure dissem-
ination of accurate information. In short, San Diego’s second contemplation of a pot-
able reuse project demonstrated a commitment “to a robust public outreach and
education effort before delving too deeply into planning”, which was likely critical to
the project’s success and the reason it had broad public support (USEPA, ReNEWIt,
and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread 2018, 11). The City of San Diego’s web-
site (as of June 18, 2019) notes that the first phase of the new IPR facility is expected
to be online in 2023.
The governance structure may have been another important factor in decisions about
whether to pursue potable reuse. The greater San Diego metropolitan area is served by a
wholesale water agency, the SDCWA, which delivers supplies of imported water to the
region’s 24 local water retailers, primarily municipalities. The largest of those local
retailers is the City of San Diego. San Diego water management represents an example of
“polycentric governance”, with overlapping areas of responsibility for water (Ostrom,
Tiebout, and Warren 1961).
During debates over the first iteration of San Diego’s water reuse proposal, the
decision makers were the elected officials of the San Diego City Council. While the
SDCWA also was involved (Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003), the arena of action
was the directly elected City Council members of the municipal government.
Technical evidence is only one of several, sometimes competing and conflicting, sour-
ces of information that may influence decision makers (Cairney 2016). In the case of
directly elected officials with jurisdiction over the San Diego water agency, political
pressure by project opponents was sufficient to overcome the arguments of technical
experts in influencing the Council members’decision. Direct voter influence on the
water management process of this sort has been shown to make sustainable water man-
agement decision-making more difficult (Kwon and Bailey 2019).
Around the same time potable reuse was reintroduced years later, three entities came
together to form a broader governance entity. The SDCWA, the city of San Diego, and
San Diego County formed the Regional Water Management Group (RWMG). Such
regional institutions do not replace existing institutions, “but rather become a forum for
deliberation and planning”at a broader scale and level than is possible by the individual
member institutions (Hughes and Pincetl 2014, 20). According to the City of San Diego
Public Utility Department’s website, RWMG funded, guided, and managed the develop-
ment of the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) Program. The IRWM Plan
and grant applications were formally approved and adopted by the governing bodies of
these three agencies. Thus, San Diego’s IPR project was moving forward along with
development of regional water governance. However, as discussed above, perhaps the
most important difference in San Diego’s two attempts to introduce IPR was that stake-
holders (the American Assembly group and the Water Reuse Coalition) were more
actively involved in the decision-making process the second time around.
2.5.2. Toowoomba, Australia
Toowoomba is a community of approximately 115,000 people located 161 kilometers
inland from Brisbane, Australia. Due to persistent drought, the city implemented low-level
water restrictions in 2002. Within four years, restrictions were increased to the highest
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 11
level. By that point, the population was well-aware of the city’s water scarcity problems
At a Ladies Club gathering in May 2005, the mayor of Toowoomba announced,
“You are all going to drink from the sewer”and discussed a water reuse plan that had
developed over the previous six months. This was the first time residents had heard
about a plan for potable water reuse in their community (Fishman 2011). This incident
occurred a month before the City Council unanimously supported securing federal
funding for the project (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010).
On July 1, 2005, the City Council announced the Water Futures Initiative as a forum
for discussing solutions to the city’s water scarcity problems; the initiative was described
as more of a bureaucratic formality than a meaningful attempt at public outreach
(Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010). On July 21, 2005, Citizens Against Drinking Sewage
(CADS) was formed, and a month later, CADS held its first public meeting, which drew
over 500 citizens and provided a forum for discussing possible dangers of water reuse.
CADS took out full-page newspaper advertisements telling readers, “You deserve fresh
water,”and calling project supporters “sewer sippers”. Instead of showing clear drinking
water from the WTP, the local media displayed images of large brown pools from the
WWTP (Morgan and Grant-Smith 2015). By February 2006, CADS had obtained
10,000 signatures on a petition against IPR (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010).
The public was aware of water scarcity, but it was not aware that the local govern-
ment was planning an IPR project until CADS brought it to their attention. When the pub-
lic heard about the project from CADS instead of local government officials, it felt that
the project could not be trusted (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010). The local government
lacked transparency while developing the project, and all attempts to appease and educate
the community came after concerned local citizens distributed information against IPR.
Because of the swell in public opposition, the federal government announced plans
for a referendum on IPR. Only then did the City Council initiate a 10-week public
information campaign –eight months after CADS began educating the public. The ref-
erendum was held in July 2006; 62% of the public opposed the project (Hurlimann
and Dolnicar 2010).
Toowoomba’s governance structure permitted direct involvement by project oppo-
nents. In Toowoomba, the City Council was initially responsible for the project, mean-
ing that the policy actors were directly accountable to voters (Hurlimann and Dolnicar
2010; Fishman 2011). The local governing body was unmoved by project opposition.
However, the need for federal funding created an added layer of governance, providing
a second arena of action for project opponents. The federal government agreed to pay
for the project only if it was endorsed by the people of Toowoomba in a referendum
(Stenekes et al. 2006). The multiple layers of governance provided multiple opportuni-
ties for opponents to stop the project.
3. Key factors of importance for contextual analysis of DPR projects
While much research has been conducted on public education and factors influencing
public acceptance of potable reuse, Stenekes et al. (2006) called for additional studies
that incorporate a more context-based analysis of the issues, including the institutional
frameworks involved in water infrastructure planning –especially in actual cases
where reuse was being considered, rather than hypothetical scenarios. The authors
12 C. E. Scruggs et al.
stated that much of the existing research on public acceptance of reuse does not con-
sider the complexity involved in actual planning and management processes.
Based on the literature reviewed above and Stenekes et al.’s(2006) recommendations
for future research on actual cases of potable reuse implementation, we believe that the
following are important to an analysis of issues influencing public acceptance of potable
water reuse: (1) existing community conditions related to water scarcity, feasible water
supply options, and public perceptions of scarcity; (2) the mode of project introduction
and characteristics of DPR education and outreach programs; (3) public trust in agencies,
organizations, or public officials introducing and/or promoting the DPR project; (4) the
kind of media attention given to the project; and (5) the system of governance defining
the policy actors responsible for formulating and executing the DPR project and the scale
of the water service being provided, which is closely related to the capacity of the govern-
ance institutions (i.e., the resources they have to carry out the complex reuse task).
In this paper, we look at these issues in the context of five inland US communities
where the public accepted DPR. No previous water reuse studies have focused on pub-
lic acceptance of DPR specifically, and few have considered the inland context. Our
analysis of primary data on factors influencing DPR acceptance by communities of
varying size in the inland US is unique in the literature to date.
4.1. Selection of communities for collection of primary data
At the time of this research project, DPR had been accepted by the public in five US
communities located in the inland southwest: Cloudcroft in New Mexico, and
Brownwood, Big Spring, Wichita Falls, and El Paso in Texas. To the authors’know-
ledge at that time, these were the only communities in which DPR had been proposed
to the public, aside from what was mentioned in the above literature review. We were
unaware of instances where DPR had been proposed but not accepted by the public.
Through interviews, we documented information pertaining to the key factors of
importance for contextual analysis of DPR projects.
We conducted interviews with city officials and water managers where the public had
accepted DPR in the US. Some interviews were conducted after DPR implementation
had already occurred, while others happened following public acceptance, but before
implementation. Interviews were semi-structured to accommodate discussion of other
issues of importance to the interviewees.
Eight professionals from the five communities were interviewed. The interviewees
had titles such as Lead Water Operator, Director of Public Works, General Manager,
and Utilities Operations Manager. Interviewees were selected based on their involvement
in DPR through the public entities or organizations for which they worked; knowledge
of their involvement was gained from reading, watching, or listening to interviews they
had done previously with various news outlets (e.g., television, radio, newspapers, and
trade magazines). Potential interviewees were contacted by email or phone with a
request to participate; they were also provided with the list of proposed interview ques-
tions. All potential interviewees who were contacted agreed to participate. The technique
of snowball sampling was used in an attempt to learn about additional potential
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 13
interviewees, but often there were only one or two people who were knowledgeable
enough to answer our interview questions, especially in the case of the smaller
Each interview was conducted by phone and lasted 45 to 60 minutes. Interviews
were transcribed immediately following each phone call. Seven interviews were con-
ducted in July and August of 2015, and the last interview was conducted in May of
Details regarding interviewees’titles, interview dates, and the interview ques-
tions are shown in the online Supplemental Materials. All interviews and related
research were conducted in compliance with the University of New Mexico’s
Institutional Review Board (IRB).
4.3. Review of other publicly-available documentation
Publicly-available materials from the five communities were analyzed for additional
information about the DPR-related public engagement, education, and outreach proc-
esses that were used. Examples of such materials included trade magazines, newspa-
pers, public meeting minutes, city and water authority websites, and YouTube videos.
5. Results: New data on DPR introduction in five inland communities in the US
5.1. Cloudcroft, New Mexico
5.1.1. Water scarcity conditions and public perceptions of scarcity
Cloudcroft is located in the mountains of southern New Mexico, with about 800 full-
time residents. The population often more than doubles on weekends due to tourism,
which is the village’s primary industry (Tchobanoglous et al. 2011; Livingston
Associates 2009). Its water agency is capable of serving some 3,000 people (USEPA
2019), making it the smallest project studied. Cloudcroft’s water sources include spring
and well water; however, drought conditions have reduced the supply to below demand
and exploration for additional groundwater found no new supplies. Even with conser-
vation, the village has had to truck in water to meet demands (Tchobanoglous et al.
2011; Livingston Associates 2009).
According to University of New Mexico Professor Bruce Thomson who has worked
with the Village (personal communication, August 12, 2015), water scarcity combined
with hauling in supplemental water made Cloudcroft’s need for alternative water sources
more pressing. In 2006, Cloudcroft decided to implement DPR. The solution envisioned
by Village leadership was the PURe Water Project, a facility to treat wastewater to bet-
ter-than-drinking-water quality utilizing a multi-barrier treatment approach. Purified
water would be blended with native sources prior to distribution (Tchobanoglous
et al. 2011).
5.1.2. DPR project introduction and characteristics of education and
According to the New Mexico Environmental Department’s website (as of July 10,
2016), since community awareness of water scarcity was already high, there were no
formal education and outreach campaigns. Instead, the Village Administration held three
public meetings where water supply options were discussed. Few had concerns about the
proposed DPR water quality (Tchobanoglous et al. 2011; Livingston Associates 2009).
14 C. E. Scruggs et al.
The most significant concerns were the cost and the possibility of a rate increase. For
very small communities, such as Cloudcroft, the cost of operating a DPR system can be
prohibitive (Scruggs and Thomson 2017). However, according to Professor Thomson
(personal communication, August 12, 2015), the Village acquired several state and fed-
eral grants to build the DPR facility, and without considering future operating and main-
tenance expenses, the community moved quickly to implement DPR at no initial cost to
residents. Construction of the DPR facilities began in 2009.
Faulty construction resulted in a schedule delay so significant that treatment tech-
nologies had changed by the time construction re-started, requiring process configur-
ation retrofits and new equipment; eventually, the first system was abandoned. Despite
the setbacks, the Village still plans to implement the PURe Water Project, although
officials are not certain about the schedule for project completion.
5.1.3. Public trust in the entities and individuals introducing and/or promoting the
City officials engaged the public in the decision-making process regarding new sources
of potable water. According to Cloudcroft’s Lead Water Operator, because Village
leaders were transparent and made the search for, and deliberation of, water supply
options a public conversation, lack of trust among the public regarding local officials
did not seem to be an issue. Consequently, public acceptance was easily gained and
the community was enthusiastic about the project.
5.1.4. Media outreach and coverage
There appears to have been no local media coverage of Cloudcroft’s PURe
5.1.5. Cloudcroft governance
Cloudcroft’s decision was entirely in the hands of local government. But the funding,
another potentially controversial feature of reuse projects, came from outside the local
community, creating a bifurcated decision process. The Village is governed by dir-
ectly-elected Village Councilors and a mayor, and the Water and Wastewater
Department is a division of its municipal government, according to the New Mexico
Municipal League’s website (as of July 10, 2016). Thus, the primary policymakers
with jurisdiction over the decision about whether to proceed with the project were dir-
ectly accountable to voters. Importantly, however, funding for the project came from
state and federal governments creating a separate layer of governance and removing
responsibility for that part of the project –and a potential source of opposition –from
local taxpayers or utility ratepayers.
5.2. Brownwood, Texas
5.2.1. Water scarcity conditions and public perceptions of scarcity
Brownwood is in western Texas. Its water utility serves a population of 19,000
(USEPA 2019), making it a very small water service provider. According to the
Brownwood Public Works Director, the area began experiencing drought in 2007. By
2011 severe water rationing and mandatory conservation were enforced, making the
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 15
public acutely aware of water scarcity. Due to the severity of the drought and lack of
other water supply options, the city began considering water reuse. In 2012,
Brownwood became the first city in Texas to obtain approval for DPR from the Texas
Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The final step needed to start con-
struction of a DPR facility was City Council approval of a $12 million bond sale.
However, the City Council never voted to approve the sale of bonds because it began
to rain. The Brownwood Public Works Director cited the “Hydro-Illogical Cycle”
(Figure 2) in describing the fate of the DPR project in his community:
The city is in the ‘apathy’phase of the ‘Hydro-Illogical Cycle’because we are getting
rain. It started to rain, and for the first time since 2007 water has gone over the
spillway. However, we should not wait until we reach the ‘panic’phase of the cycle to
act; there must be a plan beforehand. We need to recycle. If we recycle water, we have
more water in the lake for wildlife, recreation, and to bank for the future.
The Public Works Director explained that the groundwork for DPR has been laid
in case the city experiences severe drought again. With public acceptance, a facility
design, approval from TCEQ, and a funding mechanism already in place, the facility
could be fully operational within 16 months.
5.2.2. DPR project introduction and characteristics of education and outreach programs
Brownwood’s proposed DPR project was presented to the Rotary Club, the Lions
Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the City Council. The Public Works Director
believed that it was best to present the project to community leaders and let them
spread the word. He said that gaining public acceptance of DPR was not an issue and
credited the city’s well-established education and outreach program on water: for two
decades, the WWTP has offered tours to residents of Brownwood and neighboring cit-
ies. Brownwood’s fourth grade curriculum includes learning about urban water reuse
and a tour of the city’s WWTP. Also, the local chamber of commerce has a
long-standing program called Leadership Brownwood, a 12-week program that helps
Figure 2. The Hydro-Illogical cycle (2016), by courtesy of the National Drought
16 C. E. Scruggs et al.
young professionals gain knowledge of the community and visit facilities, such as the
WWTP. In addition, community service organizations such as the Rotary Club, the
Kiwanis, and the Lions Club can request periodic updates from the water authority to
educate club members about water reuse and related topics.
The Public Works Director believed that almost everyone in the community had
been to the WWTP. He had no recollection of any DPR opposition and said the city
received letters of support for DPR from industry, businesses, and the local university.
5.2.3. Public trust in the entities and individuals introducing and/or promoting the
The Public Works Director believed public trust was high since the city quickly gained
public acceptance of DPR. Further, he explained, “Because city officials are very
open, the public does not feel like there is information asymmetry and believes that
city officials have their best interests at heart.”
5.2.4. Media outreach and coverage
City officials reached out to the local media before introducing the DPR project to the
public. They explained the water purification process and the need to incorporate DPR
into the city’s water portfolio, and requested the media’s help in educating the public.
The Public Works Director found the media to be very supportive. He was a frequent
guest on the local talk radio show to discuss DPR and how it could make the city’s
water supply more resilient.
5.2.5. Brownwood governance
In Brownwood, the entire decision-making process –both about reuse and the funding
for reuse –lay at the local level. Brownwood’s Water and Wastewater Department is
governed by the City of Brownwood and is under the Department of Public Works,
which reports through a city manager to elected City Councilors and a mayor. The city
manager-council form of government has been shown to be generally more effective
in developing sustainable municipal water policies (Kwon and Bailey 2019). Decisions
about reuse are made by policymakers who are directly accountable to the voters of
Brownwood, but filtered through an unelected city manager. Importantly, funding deci-
sions were also in the hands of the City Council through a proposed bond issue that
would have been repaid by users of the water system.
5.3. Big Spring, Texas
5.3.1. Water scarcity conditions and public perceptions of scarcity
The Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD) serves the cities of Odessa,
Big Spring, and Snyder, which collectively provide water service to approximately
135,000 people (TCEQ 2019), making it a mid-sized service provider. According to
CRMWD’s Operations Manager, the decision to implement DPR was unique in that
the region was not in a drought when staff began looking for alternative water sources
to increase supply reliability. However, it was clear that the area could not continue to
grow without a more diverse water portfolio.
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 17
CRMWD’s General Manager explained that IPR was not feasible because the dis-
trict did not have room for a new reservoir and a suitable aquifer was not available.
Since area groundwater is brackish, the possibility of desalinating brackish water
emerged as one of the two primary options for consideration, along with DPR. Results
of a 2003 feasibility study found DPR to be less expensive.
In 2008, a detailed design of the DPR facility was completed. In 2009, CRMWD pur-
chased property for the new facility, began pilot testing, and started the permitting process.
In 2013, the CRMWD began operating the US’s first DPR plant, which could treat up to
7.5 million liters per day of wastewater effluent to drinking water standards. The
CRMWD website (as of November 14, 2015) explains that while some Texas cities bene-
fited from rains in 2015 that filled their reservoirs, the reservoirs near Big Spring remained
at a fraction of their capacity, and the new DPR plant provided needed supply reliability.
5.3.2. DPR project introduction and characteristics of education and
In 2005, the CRMWD General Manager and the Water District Engineer presented the
DPR concept and an explanation of the purification process in public town-hall style
meetings in the cities served by CRMWD. Public meetings continued through 2007,
and the public was encouraged to call CRMWD to ask questions or to request add-
itional presentations to clubs and associations. According to the CRMWD
Initial public approval was easy. Getting permission from the Texas government to
move ahead was the hard part. The idea was well received by the public, and in a
meeting presented in Midland, a man joked that the idea was great because he would
get to drink his beer twice.
He also noted that gaining community support for DPR was not as difficult as some
might expect, despite the “yuck factor”often associated with potable water reuse. He
attributed public support to West Texans’deep appreciation for water, the outreach and
education programs, and media assistance, explaining, “Although there were concerns,
most people were okay with it once we provided them with information.”
5.3.3. Public trust in the entities and individuals introducing and/or promoting the
The CRMWD District Manager did not perceive problems related to public trust in the
officials and agencies involved in project planning or implementation because of the
open public processes. He believed the public felt that it was given all the information
it needed to form an educated opinion of the project and officials were transparent
throughout the process.
5.3.4. Media outreach and coverage
There are three media markets in the area around Big Spring—television, newspaper,
and radio—and CRMWD contacted all of them about the DPR project. According to
the CRMWD General Manager, the media was accustomed to writing about water
18 C. E. Scruggs et al.
reuse and it was helpful in reporting the news fairly and accurately. A reporter from
the local newspaper, The Big Spring Herald, estimated the number of articles written
on the project since the early 2000s to be “in the hundreds.”Since Big Spring was the
first DPR facility in the nation to serve customers, it also made national headlines.
The General Manager felt that the national media treated the event differently: “Unlike
the local media, the national media created the news instead of reporting it, and gave
it a negative spin”.
5.3.5. Big Spring governance
The governance for Big Spring’s DPR decision was through a special district one step
removed from direct voter involvement. CRMWD is a wholesale raw water provider,
providing water to over 135,000 people in the district and several additional small
communities in the region. CRMWD’s customers send the water to their own treat-
ment plants before making it available to ratepayers. CRMWD staff, under policies set
out by a Board of Directors, make all decisions related to water supply sources and
treatment prior to distribution to customers, subject to approval by the TCEQ, per the
CRMWD website (as of September 12, 2016). The members of the CRMWD Board of
Directors are appointed by the City Councils of the cities served by the CRMWD. As
the policymakers responsible for the potable reuse decision, the CRMWD’s members
are thus one step removed from influence by voter sentiment. Given that the Water
District acted in the absence of explicit drought conditions, Big Spring is an unusual
case that runs counter to findings that suggest special districts are less likely to under-
take major sustainability initiatives in the absence of a crisis (Mullin 2008).
5.4. Wichita Falls, Texas
5.4.1. Water scarcity conditions and public perceptions of scarcity
Wichita Falls is in north central Texas, with a water agency serving approximately
150,000 people (TCEQ 2019), making it a mid-sized service provider. In 2012, city
reservoirs were at less than 20% capacity, and groundwater was not available as a
backup supply. The region had a brackish lake, and the city previously installed an
advanced water treatment system to treat the lake water for potable use. In anticipation
of a water scarcity crisis, city officials looked to Big Spring’s example and determined
that DPR was a viable means of meeting potable water demands. The local population
was well aware of water scarcity.
Since an advanced water treatment system for the lake water already existed, the city
did not need to build a new facility for DPR, allowing for quick implementation. A 13-mile
above-ground pipeline was built to connect effluent from the WWTP to the advanced treat-
ment system at a cost of $13 million. The pipeline was completed in December 2013, and
the TCEQ approved a permit for treating WWTP effluent in June 2014. It took 27 months
–from the first meeting between the city and water officials of Wichita Falls and the
TCEQ –to obtain the required permit for DPR. The system came online in July 2014, pro-
viding 18.9 million liters of potable water per day (1/3 of the city’s daily demand).
Once the drought was over, the city reconfigured the system to operate as IPR,
delivering treated wastewater to Lake Arrowhead instead, as noted in a Wateronline
article dated December 26, 2016. Prior to the water scarcity crisis, the city had been
planning to implement IPR, so the reconfiguration was consistent with the city’s long-
range water supply plan.
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 19
5.4.2. DPR project introduction and characteristics of education and outreach programs
City officials in Wichita Falls made public communication and outreach a priority.
Early in the drought, before presenting DPR to the public, city and water officials
engaged the city’s doctors, university professors, and the media to ask for their sup-
port. The City of Wichita Falls’s website (as of November 21, 2015) explained how
water and wastewater treatment plant staff first presented the public with the DPR pro-
posal in February 2013, as drought prompted them to limit lawn watering. Soon after,
city officials held an emergency press conference at Lake Arrowhead using the lake at
40% capacity as the backdrop, visually highlighting the problem of water scarcity. The
mayor opened by talking about water conservation efforts and the importance of con-
servation during the drought. He was followed by the City Manager who introduced
the water reuse project that city officials planned to implement. The Public Works
Director and the Assistant Director of Health spoke about the necessity of DPR in
Wichita Falls and how public safety would be ensured.
The Public Works Director used the media, town halls, meetings with local organi-
zations, and YouTube videos (which were also broadcast on the local news) to further
educate the public about water conservation and the DPR project. Some videos fea-
tured utility representatives, doctors, and experts from local universities who talked
about the treatment process and the safety of potable water reuse. The city considered
these videos to be a success. The water utility also set up a hotline to handle commu-
nity members’questions and concerns about DPR, though few people called.
When asked about the effect of the outreach and education campaign on public
acceptance, Wichita Falls’s Public Works Director explained,
Technology is easy. The hard part is public acceptance. You must put a name and face
on the project, and people should know what the money is going for. [In Wichita Falls],
people knew what the money was going for, and the public believed in the project.
The Utilities Operations Manager, added, “There was some initial skepticism, but
in very little time there was 100% acceptance”.
5.4.3. Public trust in the entities and individuals introducing and/or promoting the
The Utilities Operations Manager believed the public felt that city officials were acting
in their best interest. When asked why he thought the Wichita Falls community
accepted DPR, he said,
It is very easy to distrust public officials and we knew that from the start. We were very
transparent and hid nothing from the public. We talked to the public about the treatment, the
levels of treatment, the steps we took with the state. We brought in medical and university
professors and asked for the public’s approval. We pulled back the curtains. We wanted them
to get the information from us and not to get some sort of wrong information off the internet.
5.4.4. Media outreach and coverage
The media was contacted very early in the process, and media outreach was integral to
the public education and outreach campaign described above. The Wichita Falls Public
Works Director stated, “[We told the media] ‘This is the news we need you to get out
20 C. E. Scruggs et al.
there.’The media was awesome. There was some sort of news—either newspaper or
TV—on the subject daily.”
A few times the entire six o’clock news was dedicated to the drought and DPR.
The city’s mayor perceived a lack of public concern about DPR and attributed it to the
success of the media outreach efforts.
5.4.5. Wichita Falls governance
Wichita Falls water service is provided by the Department of Public Works of the City
of Wichita Falls. Public Works reports through a city manager to an elected City
Council and mayor. The policymakers are thus directly accountable to voters, filtered
through the actions of a professional manager, a governance structure that has been
found to be more conducive to sustainable water management policies than via directly
elected mayor and city council or a special district (Kwon and Bailey 2019,
5.5. El Paso, Texas
5.5.1. Water scarcity conditions and public perceptions of scarcity
El Paso is in western Texas, and its water utility serves nearly 750,000 people (TCEQ
2019). According to the Texas Water Development Board’s website (as of July 20,
2016), the city experiences some degree of drought at least once every decade, so there
is great awareness of water scarcity among residents. In the 1970s, the Texas
Department of Water Resources developed hydrologic models that predicted the region
would run out of water by 2010 due to a decline in groundwater and an increase in
water demand. Although the predictions were not realized, they did raise awareness
that the region needed to diversify its water supply portfolio. Recent conditions have
kept water scarcity on residents’minds: a drought lasting from August 2010 to
October 2014 ranks as the second most severe and the second longest on record, and
2011 is considered the worst one-year period of drought on record.
The El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU), as described on its website (as of January 7,
2016), has been a pioneer in water reuse, delivering reclaimed water to the community
since 1963 and operating one of the most extensive and advanced reclaimed water sys-
tems in Texas for industrial and landscape irrigation. The city is also home to North
America’s largest brackish groundwater desalination facility, which opened in 2004,
and an IPR facility, which opened in 1985. For the upcoming DPR plant, which should
be online by 2020, El Paso will treat a portion of the effluent from the local WWTP
in an advanced water purification facility and the purified water will augment the pot-
able water supply.
5.5.2. DPR project introduction and characteristics of education and
Public outreach for the new DPR facility began in June 2015. Residents could tour a
pilot facility that was built on the site of the proposed full-scale facility. Fact sheets on
DPR were distributed to pilot facility visitors. The EPWU created a water reuse educa-
tion program and provided speakers for clubs, schools, and businesses to explain the
project and the treatment process.
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 21
City officials built on past public outreach and education experiences in developing
their DPR effort. Outreach and conservation programs began decades ago as a
response to the hydrologic modeling results of the 1970s, including a program to edu-
cate elementary school children about conservation strategies.
5.5.3. Public trust in the entities and individuals introducing and/or promoting the
According to the Vice President of Marketing and Communications, due to longstand-
ing water scarcity in the region, El Paso residents and EPWU saw the need for collab-
oration, which included mutual trust and cooperation. This collaboration has fostered
numerous water management strategies since 1991, and a successful water conserva-
tion program has been in place for decades. Because of El Paso’s history with safely
implementing other forms of water reuse and desalination, the community already had
an existing relationship of trust with EPWU and a familiarity with water from alterna-
5.5.4. Media outreach and coverage
Following the examples of Big Spring and Wichita Falls, one of the first steps EPWU
took in introducing DPR was to educate the media about the need for the DPR facility
and how it would work. Through this outreach and education, EPWU staff felt that
they could get the media “on board”with accurate reporting and coverage related to
the plant and other water scarcity issues. According to the Vice President of Marketing
and Communications, the El Paso Times regularly features data related to local conser-
vation efforts on its front page.
5.5.5. El Paso governance
The EPWU is, for financial and legal reporting purposes, a part of the City of El
Paso’s municipal government. But, as described on the EPWU’s website (as of March
15, 2015), since 1952 it has been operated as a quasi-independent agency. It is gov-
erned by a Public Service Board that consists of the city of El Paso’s mayor and six
residents of El Paso County who are appointed by the El Paso City Council. Policy
decisions are thus one step removed from officials who are directly responsible to vot-
ers, a hybrid of direct municipal operation as part of a general-purpose government
(the city) and a special district (by virtue of its independent board).
Table 1 provides a summary of each community’s service area, whether education
and outreach occurred, the type of media coverage received, the public’s awareness of
water scarcity, and whether opposition groups formed in response to DPR project
Although all communities mentioned in this paper experienced water scarcity, how res-
idents viewed or understood water scarcity and its possible solutions differed. Ormerod
and Scott (2013, 353) demonstrated that “potable reuse is a politicized issue, where
expressed concerns reflect social values more complicated than simple revulsion”and
individual perceptions of scarcity are shaped by local context. In addition to
22 C. E. Scruggs et al.
Table 1. Summary of community information related to DPR introduction.
Community Area Serviced Education and Outreach
San Diego –
Greater San Diego area Limited Negative Yes Yes
San Diego –
Greater San Diego area Yes –Intense public
education and outreach
Positive Yes No
Toowoomba Toowoomba Education and outreach
occurred 8 months after
Negative Yes Yes
Village of Cloudcroft No Neither positive
Brownwood Brownwood Yes –Longstanding
education program on
water and tours of the
water treatment plant
Positive Yes No
Big Spring, Odessa,
Snyder, Midland, and
wholesale water to seven
communities and a water
Yes –Intense public
education and outreach
Positive Yes No
Wichita Falls Eleven municipalities,
Sheppard Air Force
Base, Allred Prison,
Yes –Intense public
education and outreach
Positive Yes No
El Paso El Paso Yes –Longstanding
education program on
water and tours of the
water treatment plant
Positive Yes No
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 23
perceptions of water scarcity and climate conditions, the local context surrounding a
water reuse project includes the people, authorities, and institutions that initiate discus-
sions about water reuse, public trust in those authorities, and how public outreach and
communication is conducted. Other local context details –such as whether public con-
versations about potable reuse started prior to project introduction or whether ongoing
water-related educational programs existed –also appear to be of critical importance
to public acceptance of DPR.
Based on our interview findings, all five of our case study communities in Texas
and New Mexico felt the crisis of water shortage and experienced it in different ways.
Others have previously pointed to the importance of long-term public education around
water resources –including conservation programs, public tours, in-school education,
and community outreach –to the success of IPR projects (Wegner-Gwidt 1991; Po,
Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003). However, not all of our DPR case studies presented
here –Cloudcroft, for example –had these types of intentional, formal, long-term edu-
cation and outreach programs. In addition, Cloudcroft was the one community from
our case study collection that did not reach out to the media. Following Ching (2010),
we propose that while such education programs and media coverage are important,
especially in larger communities where some residents may not personally experience
the effects of drought and water scarcity, at least one other factor may act as a substi-
tute for long-standing public education and media coverage in influencing public
acceptance of DPR: a daily lived experience with the effects of drought or water scar-
city, which helps create a sense of crisis. Cloudcroft residents were hauling water into
their community to keep up with demand, and through groundwater exploration inves-
tigations they understood that they had tapped all of their available freshwater resour-
ces. Further, with only 800 full-time residents in the community, the pubic meetings
held to discuss options to increase the local water supply likely succeeded in truly
engaging the public, incorporating community values into the solution rather than sim-
ply gauging community acceptance of predetermined options –a point that was
emphasized by Stenekes et al. (2006). Clearly, in the case of Cloudcroft, the norms
formed around reuse policies were disrupted, resulting in the public overcoming any
aversion to drinking purified wastewater (Ching 2010), even without formal, long-term
education and outreach programs and media coverage. What is unknown, however, is
whether the community would have accepted DPR had the residents been responsible
for the project’s high capital costs (Scruggs and Thomson 2017), since costs have been
shown to be an important factor in public acceptance (Po, Kaercher, and
For other communities included in our study, our data reinforce previous findings
that a combination of water conservation programs, facility tours for the public, and
in-school and community education and outreach programs promote public acceptance
(Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow 2003; Tchobanoglous et al. 2011; Lohman 1987).
Acceptance is thought to increase when communities with cyclical conditions of
drought maintain ongoing public education and outreach programs. For example,
Brownwood and El Paso have longstanding water conservation, education, and out-
reach programs that include in-school education and facility tours.
Previous research has also emphasized that a traditional project introduction
approach of “Decide, Inform, Defend”or conducting public education and outreach
after project conception is often inadequate or unsuccessful (Po, Kaercher, and
Nancarrow 2003; Simpson 1999). However, the approach of conducting public
24 C. E. Scruggs et al.
education and outreach specific to DPR after project conception apparently worked in
most of our case study communities; the exception was Cloudcroft, which did not
have a formal education and outreach program on DPR. In these cases, it is likely
that community understanding related to water scarcity and the lack of alternative sup-
ply options, along with public education programs and extensive positive media cover-
age, were of critical importance to public acceptance. As examples, interviewees
mentioned Texans’intense appreciation of water, communities experienced strict water
rationing, and/or residents could see their primary drinking water reservoir drying up.
Officials explained to residents that there were no other water supply options, and resi-
dents likely believed them –public communications about DPR came from the local
water and wastewater treatment plant staff and other entities promoting DPR (rather
than outside public relations consultants), a strategy shown to build public trust and
support (Bridgeman 2004; Harris-Lovett et al. 2015). Another difference from some
previous studies was that DPR was not already a topic of discussion in our case study
communities, giving local officials the opportunity to educate the public and media
using their own messaging and terminology, rather than starting with what was already
disseminated by opposition groups. Community leaders in Big Spring, Brownwood,
Wichita Falls, and El Paso worked closely with media outlets to provide accurate tech-
nical information from the outset, resulting in objective media coverage and precluding
the opportunity for opposition groups to reach the public first with misinformation.
Another important consideration is that –except for El Paso –our case study com-
munities are small, whereas most of the previous research on this topic has involved
larger communities. In smaller communities it is likely easier to: engage the local
media (and there is less of it to engage), communicate directly with a higher percent-
age of residents, demonstrate transparency, and secure buy-in of needed local experts
to help educate the population and promote project support. As a result, at least in our
case study communities, interviewees expressed that community members felt officials
were acting in their best interest and trusted those who were promoting DPR. El Paso,
by far the largest community in our study, had the advantage of existing successful
potable reuse and desalination projects, and therefore, according to Bridgeman (2004),
may not have needed the same level of education and outreach for their DPR project
as the other communities. While the literature suggests the question of scale has an
influence on the technological capacity of utilities to implement reuse (Meehan,
Ormerod, and Moore 2013), an observation supported by the cases of Cloudcroft and
Brownwood, our case studies suggest scale has less of an impact on the communica-
tion and acceptance part of the process.
Stenekes et al. (2006) discussed that trust in the organizations responsible for commu-
nity drinking water is strongly tied to perceptions of health risks, and it can be difficult to
establish and maintain a relationship of trust when those organizations feel distanced or
inaccessible to the public. Again, the fact that most communities in this study were small
may have made the water-related organizations feel more accessible to the public. The
largest city, El Paso, had the benefit of a track record of success with water from alterna-
tive sources, and public accessibility to water providers seems to have been well estab-
lished throughout the city’s long history of water conservation and reuse.
Other insights from the literature into how issues of trust can contribute to the success
or failure of water reuse projects, such as timely communication with stakeholders and
transparency in the decision-making process (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2010), appeared to
be critical to the success of the DPR projects in Texas and New Mexico. It is also
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 25
essential that community members believe they are being properly informed about the
safety of the reused water and potential health risks (Ross, Fielding, and Louis 2014), and
the deliverer of information related to water reuse is important in gaining public trust and
acceptance (MacPherson and Snyder 2013; Ormerod and Scott 2013). These considera-
tions were clearly made by our case study communities; for example, Wichita Falls
sought the assistance of the medical and university communities when introducing DPR.
Also, since public awareness about the need for DPR due to water shortages may be
necessary, but not sufficient to drive public acceptance of reuse (Po, Kaercher, and
Nancarrow 2003; Tennyson, Millan, and Metz 2015), “trust in the governance and admin-
istration”that would be responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing the
reuse project is likely a critical component of acceptance (Po, Kaercher, and Nancarrow
2003, 22); our interviewees emphasized that public awareness of the need for DPR went
hand-in-hand with trust in the individuals and entities promoting it.
While public education and outreach usually play a significant role in influencing
public acceptance of water reuse, the governance structures under which potable water
reuse decisions are made also appear to impact project outcomes. This is important
because successful institutional management requires more than simply public accept-
ance in some general sense –it also requires an understanding of the ways in which
public understanding is reflected in the decision-making process. This extends not only
to public understanding of reuse itself, but also to broader public awareness of water
issues more generally, including the fiscal implications of projects and the water scar-
city context in which the decision is being made.
Based on the literature and the Texas and New Mexico case studies presented here,
it appears that situations in which the policymakers making the reuse decision are dir-
ectly accountable to the public, either through direct City Council election or direct
plebiscite on the reuse question, pose the greatest challenges and the greatest risk that
non-scientific fears can be politically exploited to undermine a poorly presented pro-
ject. Governance structures where the connection between policymakers and the public
is less direct, such as an agency with an appointed board of directors or a water
wholesale agency whose customers are other utilities rather than the general public,
face less risk. Less democracy, in short, appears to make reuse easier, while a policy
process more directly accountable to the public raises the importance of an effective
education and outreach effort.
This finding about governance structure may also be relevant to long-term water
planning. We note that of our five case studies, the two where the DPR decision
makers were not directly accountable to voters chose to implement DPR to diversify
their water portfolios –not in reaction to an immediate water scarcity crisis. In the
other three communities, where decision makers were directly accountable to voters,
DPR was introduced during a water crisis where residents were hauling water or
looking at their almost-empty reservoir. It is possible that DPR was seen by politi-
cians as a potentially unpopular idea to pitch to the public, and officials believed
they needed this lived experience of acute water shortage to gain public acceptance
of DPR. Also relevant to long-term planning, the San Diego case study suggests that
having a longer project lead time and a demonstration facility may be highly benefi-
cial for educating and genuinely engaging the public on water reuse issues; these
details of San Diego’s public education and outreach program may have allowed the
public to move beyond fear and misunderstanding of potable reuse in San Diego’s
first attempt to implement IPR toward acceptance in the second attempt.
26 C. E. Scruggs et al.
While some scholars have focused on individual disgust at drinking purified waste-
water as the explanation for opposition to –and in some cases rejection of –potable
reuse projects, the results from this study lend support to previous research suggesting
that explanations for acceptance or rejection of DPR are more complicated. This paper
considers both failed and successful potable reuse projects in drought-prone commun-
ities and suggests that attitudes towards water reuse are community specific and
responsive to local context, which includes geography, geology, climate, perception of
water scarcity, public education and knowledge related to water, trust in the individu-
als or entities introducing the project, media coverage, and governance.
Numerous communities across the inland southwestern US are candidates for pot-
able water reuse, and IPR, which is much more common than DPR in the US, may
not be an option due to lack of a suitable environmental buffer. For water planners in
arid inland communities who are interested in the feasibility of DPR, this paper builds
on existing literature to better understand how decisions about DPR have been made
in several arid inland communities.
Based on the literature surrounding public acceptance of potable reuse, which has
mostly focused on IPR and non-potable reuse in larger coastal cities, we expected our
Texas and New Mexico case studies to reveal intense community engagement/involve-
ment in the deliberation of water supply options, as well as long-standing and compre-
hensive education and outreach programs –especially since there are so few DPR
plants operating in the US and DPR has been shown to be the public’s least favored
water reuse option. However, this is not what we found.
In most cases, the level of public engagement and involvement in the deliberation
of water supply options was lower than what is recommended in the literature. In most
cases, the level of public education and outreach and media outreach related to DPR
(most of which happened after the DPR projects had been conceived –counter to rec-
ommendations in the literature) was about on par with suggestions from previous
work. Only two of our five case study communities had long-standing public education
and outreach programs.
Our findings suggest that two factors –a lived experience with extreme water scar-
city and community “smallness”– may have a strong influence on public acceptance of
DPR. Residents in most of our case study communities were directly affected by water
scarcity and they understood that no additional freshwater supplies existed. It is pos-
sible that this lived experience with scarcity may serve as a substitute for public delib-
eration of water supply options and/or long-term public education and outreach in
disrupting norms around water reuse. Also, the small size of most of our communities
may have facilitated public communication and transparency, therefore making it eas-
ier for local officials and water planners to gain public trust. We believe that a better
understanding of how community size impacts acceptance of water from alternative
sources, and water planning in general, is an important area for future research, and
we encourage additional studies like ours, as DPR is considered by more communities
across the inland southwestern US.
Further, in the cases where DPR decision makers were not directly accountable to
voters, the situation allowed for long-term planning to diversify the communities’
water portfolios (it is important to note, however, that these communities also had
excellent programs of public education and outreach and communication with the
media). In cases where DPR decision makers were directly accountable to voters, the
Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 27
decision makers allowed water scarcity conditions to become obvious and dire before
acting. In this type of situation, instituting a continuous, effective public education and
outreach program will likely be of utmost importance; rather than reacting to a crisis,
it may allow water planners to proactively create a long-term plan to diversify their
community’s water supply portfolio. Plus, a long-standing education and outreach pro-
gram will help policymakers and the public understand the value of water resource
management even after the water crisis has passed. Also, planners in these commun-
ities should begin a dialog with the public about future options to address water short-
age as early as possible, not when crisis is imminent.
Our findings, while somewhat different from those reported in the literature to
date, do not suggest that city officials and other proponents of DPR should leave the
public out of the decision-making process. On the contrary, we believe they should
engage communities in deliberating potable water supply options and create and main-
tain excellent public education and outreach programs to the fullest extent possible.
With these new findings on DPR in inland communities, we emphasize that commu-
nity context and trust in public officials and water planners is extremely important to
creating sustainable water supplies that make sense for a particular community. There
is no one-size-fits-all approach to DPR.
The authors thank the numerous interviewees who gave their time to participate in this research,
Professor Bob Berrens who provided constructive feedback on an earlier version of this
manuscript, and the anonymous reviewers whose valuable suggestions improved the quality of
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
This work was supported in part by graduate assistantship funding from the University of New
Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning and the Water Resources Program, and by the
National Science Foundation under Grant No. . Funders were not involved in the
study design, data analysis, or dissemination of results.
1. While acknowledging the importance of understanding how the locus of policy action may
affect the success or failure of DPR projects, the scope of this paper does not afford an in-
depth analysis of this topic.
2. This interview was conducted later due to difficulties in connecting with an appropriate
interviewee for Cloudcroft, NM.
3. This research was classified as “exempt”by the University of New Mexico’s IRB.
Caroline E. Scruggs http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2840-0068
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