Recycling sewage into drinking water still faces 'yuck' factor despite strong science
By David Garrick, San Diego Union-Tribune, 5/21/14
DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO — San Diego will spend $1 million during the next two years educating the public about the city’s plan to recycle treated sewage into drinking water.
The money, which the City Council approved on Tuesday, will help San Diego move forward with plans to create a drought-proof water supply that would decrease reliance on expensive imported water.
City officials say purification methods have advanced enough to make recycled sewer water safer and cleaner than the tap water San Diegans drink today, but a promotional campaign is still needed to fight what the city calls “the yuck factor.”
Critics often call recycling sewer water into drinking water “toilet to tap,” a name supporters call misleading and unfair.
A consulting firm hired Tuesday will hold meetings with community groups, civic organizations, politicians and other regional leaders to explain the science and urge them to tell others, city officials said.
The firm, Katz & Associates, is also slated to give thousands of people tours of a facility at San Vicente Reservoir where the city has been successfully recycling sewer water into drinking water on an experimental basis since 2011.
A recent poll found that 74 percent of local residents would drink recycled sewer water, but subsequent focus groups have shown that significantly more education is necessary, Hallah Razak, director of the city’s Public Utilities Department, told the council Tuesday.
“The yuck factor is alive and well,” Razak said.
Transforming sewer water into drinking water involves using reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to kill viruses, bacteria, hormones and other impurities.
The water is then pumped into the ground or a reservoir, such as San Vicente, so that it will follow a pathway into faucets that’s similar to traditional drinking water.
Since the San Vicente pilot project was declared a success last year, the city has been planning to start recycling sewer water on a much wider basis.
Razak said it could account for 40 percent of the city’s water supply by 2035. It could also help the city avoid spending an estimated $2 billion expanding its sewer treatment operations, she said.
The county grand jury issued a report Tuesday urging the city to move more quickly on recycling sewer water, partly based on concerns that the region’s drought problems may worsen in coming years.
Sean Karafin, interim president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said the savings from recycled water make spending $1 million on public education a wise investment.
“Awareness is the No. 1 challenge,” he said.
Councilman Scott Sherman said the money was a necessary expense.
“In the business world, you put expenditures for marketing and advertising in your budget all the time,” he said.
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