A widely distributed Associated Press story published in late January reports that despite new federal investments in water systems, "fewer Americans trust the water coming out of their taps." It’s a thoughtful piece that explores how water quality problems in one community can erode trust in tap water across the country.
The AP cited data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which “found persistent disparities in the tap water consumption gap from 2011 to 2018. Black and Hispanics’ probability of not drinking tap water increased following the Flint Water Crisis.”
The observation that Black and Hispanic consumers have lower confidence in water quality is echoed in two recent surveys recent surveys conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Morning Consult. The AP story notes that many factors influence these perceptions, including historical government indifference toward disadvantaged communities, poorly maintained infrastructure, misinformation regarding health risks and even legacy distrust of tap water among immigrant populations.
Water professionals often have an uphill battle in convincing consumers the water is safe to drink, even if the science says otherwise. They are overwhelmed by voices that makes questionable claims or benefit from misleading arrangement of facts. While many organizations have consumers’ best interests in mind, there are others that do not. Unscrupulous home filter companies, water bottlers, click-driven publications and even some advocacy groups have more ways than ever to influence tap water perception.
The AP story points out that “distrust can translate to unnecessary spending on bottled water or make it more likely that adults reach for sugary drinks that can increase the risk of health problems such as diabetes and cavities, said Asher Rosinger, a Pennsylvania State University researcher who studies water access.”
One encouraging finding from the 2021 AWWA/Morning Consult poll. The survey indicated higher satisfaction (85%) among people who recall receiving communication from their water utility in addition to their bill in the last year. This includes those who report their water as safe (86%) and those who say their water quality is excellent/good (84%). So, in addition to investing in pipes and treatment, water utilities need to invest time and resources in talking to their communities.