The Delicate Art of Promoting Recycled Water

by | Apr 18, 2011

Although Americans are used to conserving water during droughts, many still believe that water will always be abundant.  In reality, increased population, greater demand, and a stronger emphasis on environmental protection mean that existing water supplies may soon be insufficient (if they are not already).  In light of growing concerns regarding water scarcity and drought, water quality issues and global climate change, recycled water is increasingly viewed as a key component in augmenting existing water supplies.  Recycled (or reclaimed) water is former wastewater that has been treated to remove solids and impurities.  In the United States, it is distributed in light purple pipes to distinguish it from potable water, earning it the moniker “purple water.”

Recycled water is most often used for landscape irrigation.  Nationwide, landscape irrigation accounts for almost one-third of all residential water use – more than seven billion gallons per day.  Using recycled water for non-potable uses such as landscaping saves potable water for drinking.  Other non-potable uses include cooling water for power plants and oil refineries, industrial processing water for facilities such as paper mills and carpet manufacturers, construction activities, toilet flushing, and dust control.  Additionally, some recycled water providers are exploring indirect potable uses of recycled water, such as groundwater recharging.  For this use, recycled water is pumped into or percolated down to groundwater aquifers, pumped out, treated again, and finally used as drinking water.

In addition to providing a dependable, drought-resistant water supply, recycled water also offers significant environmental benefits.  Once wastewater has been treated to an acceptable level, it becomes an alternative to natural water supplies.  By acting as an additional source of water, recycled water enhances water conservation and can decrease the diversion of water from sensitive ecosystems.  Other benefits include decreasing wastewater discharges and reducing and preventing pollution.  Recycled water can also be used to create or enhance wetlands and riparian habitats.

Barriers to Recycled Water

In many parts of the United States, the uses of recycled water are increasing to accommodate the environmental situation and growing demands for water.  However, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates potable (tap) water, no federal law governs recycled wastewater for drinking.  Some states, such as California, require additional testing for contaminants, but regulation at the state level varies.  Given the fractured nature of water regulation, local, state and federal entities are all grappling with the issue of how to regulate and encourage the use of recycled water.  Involvement in the process of developing recycled water policies now can mean the difference between success and failure of recycled water projects in the future. Barriers to recycled water projects include:

Public Perception

Despite recycled water being used for decades across the country, there is still a lingering negative public perception.  A significant obstacle to increasing the use of recycled water is overcoming the stigma of “toilet-to-tap” water.  The phrase “toilet-to-tap” has connotations of uncleanliness, disease, and public health problems – the “yuck factor.”  This adds to the lingering misconception that recycled water is a lower quality product.  For these reasons, public reaction can be one of the most volatile aspects of promoting water recycling.  The public may more readily accept traditional uses of recycled water than projects in which the eventual end use will be a source of drinking water.  It is important to obtain public input in the development and implementation of recycled water policies, to both understand the opposition and gain support.

Financing and Pricing Considerations

In developing recycled water policies, it is important to bear in mind the cost effects on customers from investments in recycled water projects and from subsidizing the water produced.  Regulators must consider the allocation of costs between customers and providers, wholesalers and retailers, and municipal and investor-owned utilities.  Moreover, water utilities undertake considerable risk in making any major investment in recycled water projects, in light of the hazards inherent in dealing with public agencies, uncertainty regarding pricing and other variables.  Expanded access to public funding for recycled water projects – for both municipal and investor-owned water utilities – will help lessen this risk.  Additionally, in order to increase the use of recycled water, regulators must allow investor-owned water utilities to recover their financial investments in recycled water projects.  Failure to allow this recovery would create financial disincentives that would undermine efforts to expand the use of recycled water.  Last, recycled water policies also need to consider the economic impact of potable water customers switching to recycled water.  If recycled water reduces existing potable water use, water utilities must be able to recover the “stranded” costs in the potable water system.

Coordination of Multiple Regulatory Bodies

Inconsistent regulation is a further impediment to increasing the use of recycled water.  Recycled water policies at all levels should consider existing and proposed legislation governing the production, delivery, and use of recycled water, as well as interagency coordination and collaboration to implement recycled water production, sales, and delivery guidelines pursuant to existing state and federal statutes.  Recycled water goals should also be coordinated with other regional, state and federal agency goals on recycled water development, reliability of water supply, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  This will streamline the process by which water utilities integrate recycled water into their operations.

Competing Beneficial Uses

In developing recycled water policies, it is important to keep in mind the potential for conflicts that could arise as more recycled water projects are proposed and constructed.  For example, competing beneficial uses might exist if proposed recycled water projects upstream reduce return flows to a river, diminishing the water available to recharge groundwater supplies downstream.  Possible conflicts could also arise between multiple purveyors producing and delivering recycled water, particularly if there is an overlap in service areas. Agency coordination and development of processes for addressing inter- and intra-regional water resource management issues are necessary to address competing interests and beneficial uses.

Finally, recycled water policies at all levels must retain the flexibility to tailor policies to address the unique circumstances of each recycled water project and recycled water provider.  The decision to implement recycled water depends on a wide range of factors.  These include, among others, the best beneficial use of recycled water, demographics, customer demand and willingness, land use planning, availability of supply, funding, geographic considerations, the potential for public-private partnerships, and the possible effect on customer rates.  A “one size fits all” mandate to put “purple pipe” in the ground will not effectively encourage and promote recycled water.

Water recycling is finding its place as a viable solution to increasing water-supply demands. Water recycling, combined with water conservation, helps preserve valuable water resources and manage them in an effective and sustainable manner.  Often, recycled water policy, while well meaning, focuses on only one area – leading to neglect or unintended consequences in other areas.  Recycled water policies at all levels should at least consider these issues to ensure that the implementation of integrated recycled water policies is not counterproductive or create disincentives for recycled water use.

This column is the third in a series of articles by law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice. Earlier columns discussed California Renewable Policy and Environmental Liabilities in Bankruptcy Reorganizations. Lori Anne Dolqueist is a Partner with law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in San Francisco and focuses her practice on utility regulatory issues, particularly in matters involving water utilities. She has represented major water companies and a number of smaller water utilities in a variety of matters, including water policy proceedings. Ms. Dolqueist can be reached at (415) 291-7452 or

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