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Americans favor water recycling, but there's an "ick factor"

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most Americans have scant understanding about their water supply, but they are concerned about it, and believe recycling water gives the United States an advantage over other countries, a survey said on Tuesday.

However, Americans are less accepting of drinking recycled wastewater in a practice known as toilet-to-tap, the survey found.

With clean water growing scarce in much of the world, and with shortages possible in 36 U.S. states in the next year, according to the General Accountability Office, the survey conducted for General Electric Co found 66 percent of Americans feel positive about water re-use.

Eighty-three percent of Americans surveyed said they were concerned about the availability of clean water in the future.

GE makes water treatment equipment and technology. It commissioned the survey to figure out whether there was opposition to re-using water as a solution to water scarcity.

"We see water re-use as one of the key methods of addressing water scarcity that we have and the increasing gap between water demand and supply," said Heiner Markhoff, president and CEO for water and process technologies for GE Power & Water. "For us, it's an interesting and important driver in the markets around the world that we serve."

The online survey of 3,000 people in the United States, Singapore and China showed Americans' understanding of water issues lags behind those surveyed in the other two countries.

It also found what it termed an "ick factor" when Americans were asked about having wastewater recycled into drinking water - only 30 percent supported this - though 51 percent were in favor of swimming in recycled water and 51 percent agreed that it was drinkable.

However, eight out of 10 Americans favor using recycled water for other uses, including power generation, landscaping, industrial processing and manufacturing, toilet-flushing, car washing and agricultural irrigation.

While Americans generally feel water is the single most important service they receive, beating out electricity and heat, 31 percent don't know where their water comes from, compared with about one in 10 in China and Singapore.

The survey found that those who know more about water use and scarcity are much more likely to support water re-use, and Markhoff said public education and possible policy changes could raise that knowledge among Americans.

Emily Wurth of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch interest group said it makes sense to investigate re-use of some water, but stressed the need for water efficiency.

"Where we get concerned is about programs like toilet-to-tap, where they're presented as a panacea, as opposed to making some of the tougher policy decisions about how we should manage our existing fresh water resources," Wurth said in a telephone interview about the survey.

"If we take public water, allow industries to pollute it and then allow other industries to clean it up, we don't believe that is a wise policy," she said.

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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