The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Do low-income communities in Massachusetts trust the safety and quality of their public drinking water? Where do people get information about their drinking water supply and how does it relate to trust?

Team photo

A team of faculty and student researchers at UMass Amherst are conducting a community-engaged study bridging expertise in water utilities and public health to better understand and address water mistrust. The study is funded by the Institute of Diversity Sciences to advance STEM research for social justice and support mentored research experiences for students traditionally marginalized in STEM. 

The public’s perception about the safety and quality of their public drinking water – known as water mistrust – is a significant concern in the United States that disproportionately affects the health and wealth of marginalized ethnic/racial communities, low-income, and foreign-born populations. This persistent problem has been exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic-related financial hardships on both households and water utilities, as well as by climate change. When people don’t trust the water coming from their taps, they turn to unhealthy and more expensive drinking options such as sugar-sweetened beverages or bottled water. Some households even invest in household water treatment systems and filters, incurring additional expenses. What’s more, the purchasing of bottled beverages and water purification supplies creates waste, leading to environmental impacts of water mistrust. Despite high public mistrust of tap water, experts agree that tap water in the United States is generally very safe. Water from community water systems is regulated and monitored through the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure this. Utilities are required by law to send water safety reports to homes annually. If there are water quality problems that violate the law, utilities must inform the public in a timely manner about its impacts. So why this continued mistrust? Water utilities, dependent upon the public for their incomes, have a stake in better understanding this question and developing solutions. 

Experts agree the water is safe, so why this continued mistrust? 

Tap water splashing into a glassThere is surprising little scientific research on the sources of the public’s water mistrust and how mistrust relates to these regularly distributed official reports on water safety and quality. To address this gap in knowledge, and advocate for sustainable interventions, Emily Kumpel (engineering) and Airin Martinez (public health and health sciences) (both pictured above) and two graduate students will examine sources of information about water and the health impacts and household coping costs of water mistrust among residents in Springfield, Hadley, and Greenfield, Massachusetts. The questions they will ask are multiple: How do people make decisions on whether to drink tap water or not? Where and how do people get information about their water supply? Do they read water reports? How do decisions to drink tap water or not impact their health and wealth? Finally, how can water utilities better communicate information about the safety of tap water and gain public trust? The team will engage communities of diverse racial-ethnic groups and income levels in both urban and rural settings.

The project will have multiple impacts: on water utilities investments, on new and expanded research, and on STEM graduate student careers. 

With their research findings, Martinez and Kumpel will inform local water commissions on sustainable regional water planning and advise local water utilities on how to communicate the safety and benefits of tap water more effectively. The study comes at an important time for water planning -- with the recent $50 billion federal investment in U.S. drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure (part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law). This is the single largest investment the federal government has ever made in water. Massachusetts is slotted to receive $189 million in FY22 alone for water investment. The findings from this study will inform utilities about the best areas for investment and identify potential strategies for making public water safety reporting more accessible to the public.  

The team’s vision doesn’t stop there – they aim to use this pilot data to launch a wider research project funded by the National Institute of Health. To expand the project, they will also apply for funding from foundations and state and private agencies interested in improving water access, health equity, and public infrastructure such as the Kresge Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Water Research Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey Water Research Resources Grant program, EPA, the CDC, and the Water Quality Research Foundation. 

IDS funding for this project will provide mentored research experiences for two students -- one bilingual undergraduate public health student and an engineering graduate student. While the public health student is yet to be identified, the engineering student is Carlos Veras (pictured above, environmental and water resources engineering, Masters Program). Veras graduated with a BS in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering from Universidade Federal Fluminense, Brazil, with a Minor in Sustainability Studies from Roger Williams University. He is interested in pursuing a PhD with research interests in machine learning applications for water resources engineering.