Pure Water San Diego raises awareness about a safe, reliable and cost-effective local drinking water supply using water purification technology. The education and outreach program includes a sizable youth engagement component which emphasizes partnerships with local schools and organizations.
The city of San Diego has limited local water sources and imports 85 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River and the Northern California Bay-Delta. Recurring drought, the potential for earthquakes, and the rising cost of imported water threaten San Diego’s long-term water reliability. In order to address its water supply challenges, San Diego has worked for many years to develop a successful potable reuse program to treat wastewater through multiple steps to produce a safe local drinking water supply.
In the 1990s, the city launched a demonstration project to evaluate the possibility of making potable reuse a reality for San Diego. The San Diego City Council ultimately cancelled the project. Residents did not understand the water purification process and opponents used the phrase “toilet-to-tap” to describe the project, which contributed to the negative view of the technology.
Currently, the city of San Diego is moving forward with Pure Water San Diego, a phased, multi-year potable reuse program that will provide one-third of San Diego’s water supply locally by 2035. After several years of testing that confirmed the water purification process can produce a safe drinking water supply, the city is in the design phase for an initial full-scale water purification facility scheduled to come online in 2021.
A robust education and outreach program has proven to be key to the program’s success, reversing misconceptions about the potable reuse and providing a vehicle for the city to communicate clear and accurate information to the public about the water purification process. A 2014 survey commissioned by the San Diego County Water Authority showed that 73 percent of San Diegans are now in favor of using advanced treated recycled water as part of the drinking water supply.
To ensure public support for the program remains steady as water purification facilities come online during the next 20 years, the city decided to make youth engagement a major component of the Pure Water San Diego education and outreach program. Collaborations with local schools and organizations have been instrumental in raising awareness about the need for the Pure Water program now and into the future.
San Diego partnered with the University of San Diego (USD) in fall 2014 and 2015 to teach students about the program and provide them the opportunity to develop outreach materials and recommendations for a real-world program. Students from USD’s Small Group Communications class conducted surveys in the community to find out what information influences the public’s perception of recycled water. They then worked in teams to create videos, infographics and social media hashtags to inform the selected demographics of young adults and mothers about Pure Water San Diego.
Approximately 100 journalism students from eight high schools in the San Diego Unified School District attended Pure Water Media Days in February 2016 to learn about the program and participate in a challenge to develop a news package about it.
The agenda included a Pure Water Facility tour, a workshop on storytelling and photography, and panels on careers in the media and the water industry. Local reporters led the storytelling and media career sessions, and city staff, including chemists, water resource specialists and public information officers, led the water industry sessions. The day also included a dedicated session for the students to interview city staff, film their own reports and take B-roll footage.
Project SWELL Lesson
Since 2014, the city of San Diego has partnered with San Diego Coastkeeper and Think Blue San Diego to develop a lesson about Pure Water San Diego to include in the Project SWELL 5th grade “Water in San Diego” earth science curriculum for San Diego Unified School District. The goal of Project SWELL is to promote environmental stewardship among San Diego youth, while also enhancing science education opportunities for local students and providing resources for teachers.
The lesson plan guides teachers through a presentation that includes vocabulary, water cycle diagrams, videos about the water purification process and interviews with Pure Water program engineers. Students then work in small groups to do an interactive activity that models the three-step water purification process and takes water from dirty to purified.
Girl Scout Patch Program
Girl Scouts are some of the most frequent youth visitors to the Pure Water Facility. Brownies participate in the tours to fulfill part of the requirements for their Wonders of Water Journey patch, which tasks them with learning about water’s importance in the world. In 2015, program staff created and began offering a unique Pure Water patch that can be earned by Girl Scouts of all ages. Scouts fulfill the requirements for the patch by participating in an interactive presentation about the program and touring the Pure Water Facility.
Through partnerships with the University of San Diego, San Diego Unified School District and the Girl Scouts of San Diego, the city of San Diego has enhanced and expanded its youth engagement and has taken a major step in ensuring that the next generation of San Diegans understand the water purification process and the program’s benefits for San Diego. In 2015 alone, the Pure Water education and outreach program engaged more than 3,000 youth of all ages in program activities. Engaging youth has helped to also reach their families, friends and communities by extension.
The USD partnership received USD’s 2015 Innovation in Community Engagement Award. The award is given to one professor/program annually that innovatively connects their expertise and scholarship with community outreach in ongoing ways that benefit the public, the campus and the scholarly community. The partnership was also featured in the November 2015 issue of the Journal AWWA and on USD’s News Center website.
The USD students’ feedback on the partnership was overwhelmingly positive; they were grateful for the opportunity to have a class assignment that helped them develop skills for their future careers. The city has used the materials and recommendations provided by the students to enhance its outreach strategy for the community. Additionally, one of the students who participated in the partnership was selected for and completed a three-month internship with the Pure Water outreach program.
To support the launch of the Pure Water Project SWELL lesson, 5th grade teachers were invited to attend a professional development session at the Pure Water Facility in November 2015 where they received a tour, were taught the curriculum and received a kit of lesson plans, presentations and activity supplies to aid in teaching their students.
Educating San Diegans from a young age has helped to develop understanding of and support for the Pure Water program. The youth the city is educating now will be adults and ratepayers by the time the Pure Water program reaches full build-out in 2035. Other cities can learn from San Diego how important youth outreach is for the success of a long-term government program, as well as what types of partnerships are the most successful.