Supplementing Water Supplies with Direct Potable Reuse


Direct potable water reuse (DPR), the injection of highly purified wastewater into drinking water systems, is among the newest, and most controversial, methods for augmenting water supplies. DPR is garnering increasing interest, but comes with significant barriers to implementation such as unrecognized social legitimacy and the need for new management structures to address the potential for catastrophic risk. Our works seeks to better understand the social and institutional context for DPR and how policy can address the barriers to its broader implementation.

Of Dreamliners and Drinking Water: Developing Risk Regulation and a Safety Culture for Direct Potable Reuse

This paper examines the notion that emerging regulation of DPR may lack sufficient attention to a particular class of risks: catastrophic risks with low probabilities of occurrence, but high consequences. We argue that proponents of DPR could benefit from proactively developing a safety culture in DPR utilities and establishing an effective industry-wide auditing organization that investigates unanticipated system failures. Developing independent oversight for DPR operation could ensure that stringent quality and management requirements are set and enforced, and that any system failures or “near misses” are investigated and adequately responded to.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on safety culture with DPR

The thorny road to technology legitimation — Institutional work for potable water reuse in California

This paper addresses this gap between technological innovation and societal legitimacy by proposing an analytical framework for the early technology legitimation phase that combines recent insights from innovation studies and institutional sociology. The framework we put forward in this paper conceptualizes technology legitimation as being enacted by different actors in a technological innovation system through specific forms of institutional work. This framework is illustrated with a case study on potable water reuse, in this case the injection of treated wastewater into drinking water reservoirs — a technology most consumers confront with revulsion. We outline how the legitimation process interrelates with other core development processes of a technological innovation system and discuss how our framework informs recent work in innovation and transition studies.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on moving beyond the “yuck factor” with DPR

Beyond User Acceptance: A Legitimacy Framework for Potable Water Reuse in California

This study takes a broader perspective on the adoption of potable water reuse based on concepts of societal legitimacy, which is the generalized perception or assumption that a technology is desirable or appropriate within its social context. To assess why some potable reuse projects were successfully implemented while others faced fierce public opposition, we performed a series of 20 expert interviews and reviewed in-depth case studies from potable reuse projects in California. Results show that proponents of a legitimated potable water reuse project in Orange County, California engaged in a portfolio of strategies that addressed three main dimensions of legitimacy.

Also see our Legal Planet blog post on moving beyond the “yuck factor” with DPR