As climate change accelerates all over the globe, scientists and governments are racing to figure out how to best protect the water supply from its consequences. One possibility, raised in a National Science Foundation-funded project from researchers at N.C. State, is to recycle water—in other words, treating wastewater and enabling it to be used for nonpotable purposes, which would help conserve water as access to that all-important resource becomes more unstable. The problem: overcoming people's perception that they're using water that has already gone down the drain.
In 2001, Cary became the first municipality in North Carolina to use reclaimed water. In a paper published last week in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, N.C. State engineering professor Emily Zechman Berglund and communications professor Andy Binder, who studies controversial science topics, used Cary's system as a model to develop a computer simulation that other municipalities could use when considering such an infrastructure investment.
Zechman Berglund explains that Cary uses a "dual system," which means houses need two sets of pipes to pump in reclaimed water: one for potable water and one for reclaimed water. That can be a cost-prohibitive proposition for many municipalities and developers.
"If you're just one homeowner, I would hate to use the word impossible, but it would pretty much be impossible to do," she says. "The city has to build the treatment plant, has to build the infrastructure, and then the developer has to build the pipes that go from the street into the house."
In 2007, Cary projected that seventeen thousand homes would have the option of using reclaimed water by 2030. More recently, Zechman Berglund says, that projection has been revised downward, perhaps because of the expense, although a Cary representative says the town expects the overall system to grow over time.
Once that infrastructure is in place, there are not-insignificant benefits to homeowners, most directly in cheaper water bills. In fact, in their paper, Zechman Berglund and Binder predict that 90 percent to 100 percent of homes with the pipes installed will use the reclaimed water by 2030.
The only obstacle? What Binder and Zechman Berglund call the "yuck factor."
"I came in as a social scientist to figure out how people make that sort of a judgment," Binder says. "The idea of using this [reclaimed] water makes people question if it's safe to drink or their children to be in contact with."
In a previous study, which surveyed twenty-eight hundred adults, Binder and Zechman Berglund found that perceptions of water reclamation varied in different areas of the country; in the South and Gulf Coast, people were colder to reclaimed water than those in the drought-prone West.
"They're already doing a lot of that in the West, and we're not doing it here as much," Zechman Berglund says. "I mean, look outside, it rains all the time here. If you're constantly confronted with the idea of not having enough water, the idea of reusing water seems like a great idea."
So while the researchers predict that the yuck factor will subside as people become more familiar with the technology and water conservation becomes more necessary, it'll take longer in some areas. The national outcry over lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, isn't doing reclamation any favors, Binder and Zechman Bergland say—even if the source of lead poisoning is the pipes rather than reclaimed water.
"In some ways, I'm glad [the Flint story] didn't happen when we were collecting our data, because I'm sure it would've impacted it," Binder says. "That's one of the reasons why we're interested in measuring risk perception, because that's a key element of whether or not they want to use the water like this, and if they trust the people treating the water to do it properly or not."
As Zechman Berglund points out, however, all water is ultimately cyclical.
"Almost everyone is downstream from another city," she says. "Somebody who gets very freaked out about reclaimed water may not understand the cyclical nature of water itself. We're all drinking someone else's wastewater, basically."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tapped Out"