Exploring the Role of Trust in Drinking Water Systems in Western Virginia

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Virginia Tech


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.



Trust, salience, drinking water, resilience-based management, risk, drinking water behavior