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Scare City

Water stress can strike fear into the hearts of communities, businesses, and ecosystems but a publicly-supported, scientifically-defended reuse movement can ease the anxiety and pave the way for sustainability even in the face of scarcity.

On October 23, 2012, GE released the results of a survey on public attitudes and knowledge levels in the U.S., China, and Singapore regarding water reuse. A thousand respondents in each of the countries answered various questions. Here are some of the basic points and my conclusions:

Americans are getting increasingly comfortable with the reuse of treated municipal wastewater, not only non-potable but indirect potable and even direct potable but the pace is relatively slow and the need increasingly great.

75% of Americans agree water scarcity can be combated using recycled water and 81% of those that are knowledgeable about where water comes from, support using recycled water for drinking. 70% of Americans feel the U.S. would have a competitive advantage over other countries if we increase the amount of water we reuse in a safe and efficient manner.

Respondents from China and Singapore show a higher “water IQ,” deeper appreciation of the water cycle, and greater awareness of and support for reuse but continued education can help Americans catch up.

Public acceptance of reuse for drinking increases if some natural barrier intervenes (such as aquifer recharge), even if only briefly. Americans support “toilet to turf,” if not “toilet to tap”.

Governments and educational, nonprofit organizations have important roles to play in providing guidance, tackling the “yuck factor,” and reducing water footprints. So do industries.

Frito Lay is a good example. The chip maker takes water sustainability seriously, particularly in the water-stressed area of Casa Grande Arizona. Among other things, they re-use their industrial process water, which means they’re reducing their water footprint and helping to conserve the region’s precious ground water supplies.  This is why Frito Lay won a 2012 U.S. Water Prize. You can learn more about them by registering for a FREE webinar showcasing their achievements: learn more and register HERE.

Here’s some other important news on the federal level:  In October, EPA released the Agency’s 2012 guidelines for water reuse. The guidelines update and build upon the Agency’s previous 2004 reuse guidelines, incorporating information on water reuse developed since the last document was issued. In addition to summarizing U.S. existing regulations, the document includes water reuse practices outside of the U.S., case studies, information on planning for future water reuse systems, and information on indirect potable reuse and industrial reuse. Disinfection and treatment technologies, emerging contaminants, and public involvement and acceptance are also discussed.

Another good source of information on water stress, including both quantity and quality, is the Growing Blue initiative. This is an effort, supported by the U.S. Water Alliance and many others, to include detailed data and case studies for cities and urban areas around the U.S. and the world facing challenges such as drought, ground water depletion, and unsustainable population growth.

Increasingly, governments, organizations, and industries are taking steps to reduce water waste and promote reuse. It all comes together in the U.S. Water Alliance’s Urban Water Sustainability Council. This collection of utilities and public and private organizations probes opportunities for not only green infrastructure but resource recovery and reuse as well. The Council looks to help boost the overall mission and work of the WateReuse Association and foster new collaborations by developing principles on “resource recovery”–a key prong of sustainability that includes wastewater, stormwater, gray water, nutrients, biosolids, energy and heat.

The best way to avoid scaring or scarring cities is to tackle scarcity with a combination of water supply and demand strategies and to reach out to all the key players, including agriculture, public opinion leaders, and for-profit entrepreneurs. When you do, more often than not, you find that reuse is at the heart of it.

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