What is required to facilitate the adoption of new technologies such as potable water reuse? According to a study carried out by environmental social scientists in California, users need to see not only how an innovation benefits them personally, but also that it is compatible the community’s values and can become a routine part of daily life. By Andres Jordi
For water utilities in many parts of California – a region suffering from chronic water scarcity – the introduction of potable water reuse has proved to be a hard sell: innovative systems enabling drinking water to be obtained from reclaimed wastewater have met with widespread scepticism. Although the technology is safe and proven, and the treated water meets quality standards, numerous projects have foundered on public opposition. Why is this? According to Bernhard Truffer, an environmental social scientist at Eawag, “Many engineers and scientists still believe that people will accept a new technology as long as you give them sufficient information, but usually it takes more than just public education and marketing.”
What it takes to gain acceptance for potable water reuse is shown by the case of the Orange County Water District (OCWD) utility in California. This agency has been operating a state-of-the-art groundwater replenishment system since 2008. Here, conventionally treated wastewater is purified in a three-step process, comprising microfiltration, reverse osmosis and disinfection with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide (Fig. 1). The treated water is then pumped into recharge basins. The OCWD plant produces 265,000 cubic metres of high-quality water per day, meeting the needs of around 600,000 people.
Targeted communication and public engagement
Together with colleagues at the University of California at Berkley, Eawag scientists Bernhard Truffer and Christian Binz investigated how the strategy pursued by OCWD differed from cases where the implementation of potable water reuse projects failed. The study involved in-depth interviews with stakeholders, including utility managers and executives, public relations consultants, regulators, academics and engineering consultants. Ultimately, the success of OCWD was found to be explicable in terms of legitimacy, a key concept in sociology and innovation studies. Public acceptance of an innovation is thus based on three fundamental factors: users must be able to perceive the direct benefits it offers, its compatibility with societal values and its potential to become a routine part of daily life. An organization seeking legitimation for the introduction of a new technology must ensure that its strategy addresses all three types of legitimacy (Fig. 2).
This was found to be the case with OCWD. For example, the water utility invested considerable time and resources in education campaigns. In over 1200 presentations, it informed the community about the benefits of potable water reuse – in particular, how the new technology would guarantee a safe, reliable water supply into the future. It communicated in comprehensible language adapted to the target groups, with information not only provided in English, but also translated into Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. As Truffer points out, “By becoming personally involved in outreach campaigns, OCWD managers established themselves with members of the public as trustworthy and competent experts.” Citizens were also able to express their wishes and concerns through representatives on the project’s advisory board. Their feedback was incorporated into project planning and implementation.
OCWD’s painstaking efforts to legitimize the treatment system were rewarded with a high degree of legitimacy among the public. In contrast, as Truffer notes, “The failed projects’ strategies did not address all the dimensions of the legitimacy concept, and there was considerable opposition as a result.” In some cases, the public was not sufficiently involved in planning and decision-making. In other projects, procedural standards were inadequate, there was a lack of knowledgeable spokespersons, or the public did not trust the operator’s intentions. Sometimes, inappropriate choices were made: for example, one utility advertised its potable reuse project as a wastewater management strategy rather than as a means of improving drinking water supplies.
The environmental social scientists emphasize that a comprehensive legitimation strategy is not in itself sufficient to guarantee success. “In a given context,” says Truffer, “certain projects may not be legitimate.” However, the legitimacy framework does indicate what is needed, in addition to sound technology, in order to gain public acceptance. At the same time, a successful strategy cannot be directly applied to other projects or stakeholders. Instead, a legitimation strategy needs to be developed in the light of the specific culture, values and history of a region or target group. Truffer concludes: “The authenticity of a project and its initiators seems to me to be one of the most important criteria for a high level of credibility.” The example of OWCD also shows that legitimacy cannot be established overnight, but is a long-term process: “Quick, poorly thought-out marketing campaigns are not advisable and can undermine the foundations for successful implementation.”