Overcoming Psychological Resistance toward Using Recycled Water as a Solution to California's Climate Change Challenge

January 2, 2016

By Bruce E. Cain and Iris Hui

Working Paper, Bill Lane Center for the American West, January 2016

California’s traditional hydrological system assumes a heavy, reliable snowpack and the timely release of surface water in the warmer months.   However as a consequence of climate change and a prolonged drought, California must now consider alternative water supply sources such as recycled wastewater. But state officials fear that a proposal to expand direct or indirect potable use wastewater programs would trigger strong public resistance due to the ‘yuck’ factor, an instinctive aversion to many recycled wastewater uses. Here we use data from a representative sample of adult Californians (N=1500) to examine the relation between information and socio-demographic factors to the willingness to adopt recycled water in ten different applications. We find that direct consumption or skin contact with recycled water stirs the strongest resistance. We conducted a randomized experiment to test how respondents would react to learning that there is large, existing, indirect potable use program in Orange County and about the scientific reliability of purified wastewater. While both messages boost support for almost all uses of recycled water, respondents still resist drinking, bathing and cooking with it.  Contrary to some previous findings, the response to both information cues generally does not appear to depend upon level of education.  

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