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

Abstract

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 does not come without risks. 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. It may be instructive for proponents of DPR that such consequences have materialized in other industries, with damage to human welfare and to the industries themselves. We develop brief histories of risk regulation from the aviation, offshore oil, and nuclear industries, drawing out relevant lessons for the emerging DPR field. 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.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Sasha Harris-Lovett and David Sedlak for useful conceptual discussions. John Bowie provided useful research assistance. We are grateful for funding from Eawag (C.B), the Swiss National Science Foundation (Early Postdoc Mobility Grant P2BEP1_155474 to C.B.), and from NSF Grant 28139880-50542-C to the ReNUWIt Engineering Research Center.

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Correspondence to Michael Kiparsky.

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Binz, C., Razavian, N.B. & Kiparsky, M. Of Dreamliners and Drinking Water: Developing Risk Regulation and a Safety Culture for Direct Potable Reuse. Water Resour Manage 32, 511–525 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11269-017-1824-1

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Keywords

  • Water reuse
  • Water recycling
  • Safety culture
  • Wastewater
  • Water treatment
  • Drinking water
  • Urban water
  • Innovation