Understanding multidimensional aspects of public trust in the water infrastructure within US shrinking cities

Butcher, Daniel Allen
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Water contamination events, whether minor such as a boil water alert or major such as the Flint Water Crisis, are not unique or necessarily infrequent occurrences. Oftentimes, as these crises unfold, the topic of end users not trusting their water in spite of utilities ensuring the water is safe for consumption can occur due to the erosion of trust between the water provider and the end users for reasons such as breakdowns in communication or handling of the crisis. Consequentially, this can lead to end users seeking alternative—or substitute—products for tap water, such as using bottled water. This study analyzes trust as a triangular relationship between the water provider, the consumer, and the consequential action a consumer makes regarding the use of the provided tap water. We posit here that whether an individual trusts the water system and how the individual interacts with the system are interrelated. Enabling this study is a survey deployed to 21 shrinking cities in November 2019. Three questions of interest were modeled: (1) whether water provider’s decisions align with the best interests of the consumer, (2) whether the tap water provided is of adequate quality, and (3) whether the water provider informs the consumers of issues regarding the water system quickly. A Log-Likelihood Ratio Test (LRT) was used to test whether the difference in individuals’ action of consuming bottled water has an impact on different aspects of trust modeled. The LRT for all three models determined there is a greater than 99% confidence that trust should be modeled differently for someone that uses bottled water as their primary water source versus someone who does not. As such, these results verify that trust is relative to the consumer actions. Select independent variables were significant in influencing trust across multiple models, including the ability to pay water bills and the number of water contamination events an individual experienced. In shrinking cities, where underutilized infrastructure is already a challenge, utilities may invest in strategies or policies aimed at building trust with certain demographics revealed in the modeling to encourage use of water received at the tap.