COLLEGE STATION — An initial study on attitudes toward treated wastewater indicates more San Antonio consumers might be willing to drink the recycled water than expected, according to a new study by Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers.
The recent survey shows, however, that public education campaigns may be needed to increase acceptance of recycled water for some purposes, the researchers said.
That’s because slightly more than half the people surveyed consider treated wastewater or effluent fine for irrigating golf courses or farmland. But they draw the line at using it for potable water even though it may be no riskier than what they’re already drinking.
“The technology and economic incentives to take advantage of treated effluent already exist,” said Dr. Ronald Kaiser, a professor and water policy expert in Texas A&M University’s department of recreation, park and tourism sciences. “Having people accept recycled water as they have other natural resources is another issue, but I think it will happen.”
Kaiser and graduate student Michele Foss surveyed San Antonio citizens about their attitudes toward reusable water because the city soon will need to either supplement its water supply with new reservoirs or pursue other water management strategies.
They asked open-ended questions to give respondents as much opportunity as possible to express how they felt about the issues, as well as a series of questions with multiple-choice answers for statistical analysis.
The survey was limited to a relatively small number of respondents (42), but nevertheless provides useful information for understanding how consumers view water issues, Kaiser said. The small sample size and face-to-face interviews allowed greater depth of questioning, he added, and because almost no research on attitudes toward reusable water exists, the findings will help build a body of knowledge on the issue and will be especially helpful in helping address citizen concerns about use of recycled water.
Eighteen respondents, or 43 percent, had no concerns about using or drinking recycled water if it met current federal standards. If such water were mixed with other sources, such as surface water from reservoirs, 22 respondents, or 52 percent, would have no concerns.
In addition, 71 percent of respondents would have no concerns about swimming, fishing or boating in such a mixture of water.
In the personal interview portion of the survey, respondents expressed concerns about potential health impacts, reliability of treatment and distribution systems, and possible pollution of potable and other water supplies when it came to using potable recycled water.
Foss said those top concerns were all related to an underlying worry about direct impacts on consumers’ health.
Respondents also were concerned about the public right to know if recycled water is being mixed with potable supplies, public involvement in planning, availability of alternative supplies, expense, and aesthetic issues.
“Many of the concerns associated with both potable and nonpotable water reuse stem from missing information, misinformation or distrust of information. Part of the reason is that science cannot completely quantify risks,” Foss said.
“We know that reusable water is fairly safe from a viral or bacterial standpoint, although we’re not sure of what the potential damage is from organic chemicals. But that’s the same problem we face with all our water.”
Foss added that although many people understand water goes through natural cycles of reuse in soil, waterways and the atmosphere, they are still concerned about recycled water.
“Whether these concerns are due to psychological repugnance or ignorance, public education campaigns are necessary to ensure that communities are aware water reuse can be an appropriate alternative to traditional water supplies,” she said.
In the future, other types of water reuse also may be reconsidered in a number of Texas cities as demands increase, Kaiser said. El Paso already recharges aquifers and irrigates parks with treated wastewater, and San Antonio is considering treated wastewater for park and golf course irrigation.
The Tarrant Regional Water District is considering running discharged effluent through man-made wetlands, storing the water in existing reservoirs and then reusing it, Kaiser said.
While producing drinking-quality water from effluent is possible and already in limited practice in other places, Kaiser said, it may take some effort for it catch on in San Antonio.
“The level of acceptance was still higher than I expected, and I think that’s a function of people’s awareness of water shortfalls and the cleanliness of municipal discharges,” Kaiser said. “Also, most people probably would rather use treated effluent than go without water. So it’s also a function of them not wanting to change their lifestyles.”