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Talking About Water: Vocabulary and Images that Support Informed Decisions about Water Recycling and Desalination

Project: 07-03
Type: Communication Tool
Year Released: 2011

Program: Principal
Funding Partners: Water Research Foundation, WateReuse Association, American Water Works Association, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Water Environment Federation, Pharmaceuticals Research and Manufacturers Association, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Public Utilities Board Singapore, Water Corporation Australia, City of San Jose
Total Investment: $319,784.79 (Cash: $232,974.98, In-Kind: $86,809.81)

Principal Investigator: Linda Macpherson, CH2M HILL


One of the significant benefits of developing and agreeing on appropriate terminology is that the industry will be in a much stronger position to communicate effectively with the public and the media. The need is to define the terms of the alternative water sources debate. The standard lexicon will help to minimize confusion between different types of reuse which will help to define acceptable criteria, including scientific, economic, and technological consideration, for a variety of applications and end uses of recycled water. It will also help to put into perspective the net environmental benefits and drawbacks of water reuse and desalination.

Goals and Objectives

The project investigates how the images and words used to communicate with the public can affect their acceptance of water reclamation and desalination projects. The work in this project involved (a) defining the issues related to the acceptance of water reuse and desalination, (b) completing a detailed review of published materials related to the acceptance of water reuse and desalination, and © conducting qualitative and quantitative field investigations.

Research Approach

Task 1. Conduct a thorough review of the literature for relevant information related to the terminology of water reuse and desalination. Determine current practices and policies currently in use by contacting appropriate federal agencies, utilities, regulators, state agencies, and relevant water associations (including the funding partners) to identify the variety of terms used to describe all aspects of production and distribution of water, noting the confusing or stigmatizing terminology that impedes informed consideration of water reuse and desalination.

Task 2. Through surveys and focus groups supported by linguistic analysis, determine the response to different vocabularies, terminologies, images, and visual analogies to determine which may be most useful in conveying appropriate information about values, risks, and benefits of water reuse and desalination. Test the words and ideas with social psychologists, industry insiders, and the public to ensure that the terms are clear and unambiguous to all.

Task 3. Plan and convene a facilitated workshop, including key water policy leaders, agencies, associations, mixed disciplines and interested parties, to propose a standard vocabulary, visual concepts, and images to describe various aspects of water and wastewater treatment, distribution, reuse, and desalination. Suggested attendees would include representative from the World Health Organization, International Water Association, International Desalination Association, WateReuse Association, WEF, AWWA, NACWA, AMWA, AwwaRF, WERF, EPA, and the USBR.

Task 4. Produce an illustrated, easy to understand glossary of the words and images developed over the course of this project which identifies the words, images, and definitions that will be most useful in defining water reuse and desalination.

Findings and Conclusions

After synthesizing the findings, the research team developed a glossary that can be used in communicating about water projects, including reuse and desalination. In addition, they have developed some recommendations for the water community to improve communication and public acceptance. Appendices of background research information is included on a CD-ROM. The glossary developed by the research team is available as an interactive tool at www.athirstyplanet.com.


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