Exploring the Role of Trust in Drinking Water Systems in Western Virginia
Grupper, Madeline A.
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As the impacts of global change drivers and anthropogenic influences increase, the lakes and reservoirs that communities rely on for their drinking water are threatened by more frequent, severe, and unpredictable disturbances. This study was a part of an interdisciplinary effort to understand and increase resilience in water systems to improve managers adaptive capacity to cope with these disturbances. A key element of social resilience is trust, which can improve the speed and effectiveness of management actions and can spillover into community wellbeing and behavioral outcomes, including acceptance or rejection of tap water. Using a four-stage drop off pick up method, I surveyed 611 residents in Roanoke, Virginia to examine the role of trust in drinking water systems between a community and their utility. I first focused on factors that related to a person's trust in their water utility. I examined the relationship between four determinants of trust ecology, the salience of a trusting behavior, and trust, as well as and the effects of information provision about new water security technologies on trust. I then assessed trust's role in characterizing drinking water behavior (i.e. water source usage) alongside factors of risk, water quality evaluations, and salience. I found that trust can be high in low salience situations and information provision had no effect on trust, suggesting that people might take their water security for granted when it is not at the forefront of their thoughts. Calculated beliefs about a utility's capability were only linked to increasing trust when those beliefs were negative, suggesting that people might have a threshold where their utility is capable enough to trust. Even in the absence of the information to form affinitive judgments, value and goodwill-based judgments were important to community trust. Lastly, understanding behaviors might provide indicators for managers about the state of community perceptions of their water since trust, risk perceptions, and evaluations of tap water's taste, smell, and appearance varied based on an individual's water source choice. These findings demonstrate the complexity and importance of community's trust in their water managers. This study of, and continued research into, trust can help us further our understanding of, and the tools to build, the resilient water systems needed to preserve water security and community health.
General Audience Abstract
The raw water sources that utilities use to treat drinking water are typically lakes and reservoirs. This means that the safety of public drinking water is reliant on the stability of the surface water sources that water utilities use. Because of extreme weather, warming temperatures, and human land use, disturbances to surface lakes and reservoirs are becoming more frequent, severe, and unpredictable. A key goal of water-quality researchers is to learn how to develop systems that are more capable of adapting to these disturbances. Trust is an asset to water systems ability to handle disturbance. If people trust their water utility, they offer less resistance to new management plans and worry less about their water. To better understand trust in water utilities, I conducted a survey on residents in Roanoke Virginia. Trust in an institution is a function of an individual's calculation that their water utility can deliver safe drinking water (rational determinants), their feelings of value affinity or goodwill to their utility (affinitive determinants), their natural inclination to trust (dispositional determinants), and their belief that the water utility is regulated by a larger system of procedures (systems determinants). Trust also varies based on salience of a trusting behavior, which, in this case, was the degree to which citizens are aware of and think about their drinking water safety and supply. I assessed how these four judgments and salience relate to trust, and if providing information about new technology designed to keep water safe could increase trust. I then looked how trust interacted with other factors of risk, water quality evaluations, and people's awareness of their drinking water to characterize the perceptions of people who drink from different water sources. I found that when people have had consistent outcomes for their water security, they don't think about their water much but still have high trust that it to be safe. Providing people with information about water safety technology did not impact their trust. All four determinants had different relationships with trust. Levels of trust plateaued after neutral levels of capability beliefs and moderate levels of value and goodwill judgements were reached while broader system beliefs maintained a strong positive relationship with trust and disposition maintained a weak positive relationship with trust. Affinitive, rational, and procedural determinants were important to trust. People were more likely to drink tap water if they had higher trust in their utility, lower risk perceptions, and more favorable tap water quality evaluations. Salience, though important to trust formation, played less of a role in characterizing drinking water behavior. Overall my findings show that several factors interact together to form trust, and that trust, once formed, plays an important role in characterizing different drinking water behaviors. This study and future attempts to learn about trust can help us understand how to build water system's adaptive capabilities and preserve community health through disturbances.
- Masters Theses