In San Diego, Recycled Water Quickly Wins Fans (And They Don’t Even Have It Yet)

San Diego, a coastal city that faces water stress. Photo: tomcio77/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons


Today, 73 percent of the residents of San Diego favor purifying wastewater and adding the cleaned water back into the potable water supply.

That’s an astonishing leap from 2005, when only 28 percent favored re-using water to extend the drinking water supply.

It’s even more astonishing because San Diego famously considered adding re-use water to its drinking water supply back in 1998 and 1999. But public opposition — you might say public distate — was so strong that the city council killed the plan.

Since then, San Diego’s Water Authority has been working quietly but steadily to change both the details of its plans to use recycled water, and to change public opinion.

Indeed, an astonishing 54 percent of those in San Diego think the water supply already contains recycled water — even though it doesn’t.

San Diego, in fact, is one of the cities in Southern California that is gradually pursuing a notion of “water independence” — finding ways to ultimately provide water for itself without having to depend, as it does now, almost totally on water brought in from both Northern California and the Colorado River, from Lake Mead.

The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) has been polling its water customers almost every year over the last decade, and just this month released the details of its 2012 poll about water attitudes (PDF).

The document detailing the water attitudes of San Diego residents is long (144 pages) and detailed, but it contains wonderful nuggets:

• 95 percent of San Diegans believe it is a “civic duty” to use water as efficiently as possible (but only 25 percent say they’ve used less water in the last year)

• San Diegans in the poll drink bottled water more often than tap water — 70 percent said they drink bottled water “often” or “sometimes”; only 55 percent said they drink tap water “often” or “sometimes.” (That one is hard to believe — 45 percent of San Diegans don’t “sometimes” use tap water for coffee? For toothbrushing? Really?)

• 82 percent of those in San Diego say that adding water from a desalination plant to the city water supply is “very important” or “somewhat important” to making sure water service is reliable (a number that hasn’t changed in 6 years).

• 57 percent of San Diegans think the price of water is either fair, or inexpensive — but 43 percent think water service is too expensive. (Efforts to make San Diego more water independent are likely to increase the monthly water bill.)

• But 62 percent said they are wiling to pay more, if the increases in water bills increase the reliability of the San Diego water supply.

As interesting as the specifics of the poll are (PDF), what’s really interesting is the effort the SDCWA is making to understand water attitudes as it tries to tackle supply challenges for San Diego. It’s clearly easier to make smart water management decisions, and palatable water management decisions, if you understand what your water drinkers think. It would be great if the water utilities in every major metro area made the same kind of effort to understand water attitudes in their service areas.

(Thanks to Rob Davis of news site Voice of San Diego for first tweeting about the San Diego survey.)

See photos of San Diego’s reclaimed rivers>>


Charles Fishman is an award-winnning investigative journalist and best-selling author whose most recent book, “The Big Thirst,” tackles the question of how people can successfully manage water in a coming age of scarcity. He can be contacted at



Meet the Author
Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. His recently released book about water, "The Big Thirst," has been widely praised by sources as varied as The Washington Post and the science journal Nature for its captivating storytelling and its incisive explanation of water, water issues, and our rapidly changing relationship to water. Fishman continues to report, write and speak about water issues. Contact him at: