What Would It Take to Make Tap Water Trustworthy?

Transcript /

A conversation about water quality, trust, perception, and community input

What Would It Take is a series of short-form, podcast-style recorded conversations with problem-solving change agents committed to putting science to work for society. 

This is a transcript of episode four in a pilot season focused on projects designed to improve health outcomes. It features Stanford’s Khalid Osman, UCLA’s Greg Pierce, and SIL's Kate Green Tripp discussing the question What Would It Take to Make Tap Water Trustworthy?

We invite you to listen to the recorded conversation or read the transcript below.

Episode 4: Transcript

Kate Green Tripp: Welcome to What Would It Take, a conversation series from Stanford Impact Labs designed to expose and explore what it looks like to tackle social problems with a solutions-focused orientation and a dedication to partnership. I'm your host, Kate Green Tripp, and this is episode four in a pilot series focused on projects designed to improve health outcomes.

Today, we are joined by two researchers committed to making tap water trustworthy in communities across the U.S.

Khalid Osman is Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He leads the Osman Lab, which works to advance infrastructure systems design and management to promote equitable access and reduce environmental injustice. 

Greg Pierce is the co-director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation and the director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab within the center. He is also the co-director of the UCLA Water Resources Group within the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Greg serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Planning.

Khalid, Greg, thank you so much for joining me here today.

The two of you have teamed up, along with partners, other researchers, to tackle the issue of distrust of drinking water or tap water, particularly in historically disadvantaged or underserved communities in the U.S. And so I want to talk more about the nature of this problem and about who you're working with as you try to solve it.

But before that, I'd love to hear from each of you about how you come to this problem. I want to really understand your perspective. Greg, let's start with you.


Greg Pierce: Thanks Kate, for having us both. I really came to this problem, I'd say, in two ways. The first is a long (sort of, well not too long of a) career with a focus on a human right to water and in research to support folks having a human right to water. And that being, you know, high quality water, affordable and accessible water. In order to have high quality and affordable and accessible water, you really do need to trust what you're drinking.

I didn't think tap water trust was too big of an issue in the U.S. until about ten years ago. Part of that was the Flint scandal and crisis and cover-up in Flint, Michigan – getting lead in drinking water. Another part of that was sort of the stumbling in community-engaged work on other environmental justice issues—on high levels of tap distrust, particularly in Watts in South LA.

And then once I saw that and was working with community groups, it kind of came up over and over again and became a larger and larger part of my research.


Kate: And Khalid, tell us about your perspective.


Khalid Osman: Similar to Greg, thanks for having us, Kate.

I come to it from an engineering lens and trying to understand: What are the decisions that led to Flint happening in 2015? Or the indecision that may have led to that and the communities that were affected. And so when I started doing water research, I realized that, you know, this concept of equity in water was missing.

And for me, equity means that everybody has a minimum quality and quantity of water at a consistent rate. And what I noticed is in a lot of the north and northeast states where the Rust Belts are, there is a huge swath of communities that do not trust their tap water, and they're spending copious amounts of money on bottled water.

In some cases, those perceptions run pretty deep. It comes from either being close to a city that may have had something happen–so all the cities close to Flint. You know, Flint wasn't only affecting the city, but all the cities nearby. And so being in proximity to Flint had an effect on folks resorting over to bottled water.

And so just seeing that, knowing that bottled water is extremely expensive and that people are still paying a water bill while also buying bottled water, that double burden of having to purchase water twice, right? One for your water bill and one for bottled water—I saw that as a huge inequity. And I figured, you know, it is the job of water utilities to change those perceptions.

I think using community input to try and change those perceptions is extremely important. Often as engineers, we try to sort of disassociate from the communities in which we serve and just try to focus on the technical things. But I think it's extremely important that we also focus on social things. If nobody is drinking the water that we're serving, then we're doing a disservice.


Kate: So I'm hearing this is a public health issue and it also has a huge impact on consumer behaviors. And of course the issue of trust and what happens in the absence of trust. So, Greg, if we think about this issue on a broader scale and when we look at what's happening in the U.S., what does the data suggest?


Greg: In terms of, you know, how many people don't trust their tap water in the U.S.? Honestly, the answer varies depending on how the question is asked. But we know two things. One, that distrust is growing. When the question is asked the same way over time, especially post-Flint, distrust is growing in tap water.

Also, distrust is, no matter how it's asked and how it's measured, higher in low-income, minoritized communities.

And that's a consistent finding really across every study I've ever seen. And yeah, there's a lot of different drivers of distrust, ranging from the water is clearly unsafe and people are being told it's unsafe to people's purely individual sensory perceptions and everything in between.

I think what's really been under-recognized by the data, and by previous analysis, is, again, what Khalid referenced: if people don't trust the water, that's a problem regardless of the driver, but also that there's a lot of rational distrust of tap water, even when the water is not technically unsafe.

If water is coming out of folks’ taps in disadvantaged communities, that is discolored, tastes bad, smells bad, they're not going to drink it. They shouldn't drink it. And we need to address those problems. And we really need to pair perception and trust data with actual water quality data at the tap, which is hard to do because water utilities generally aren't required to, and don't report, actual tap level results.

They report at higher levels for regulatory purposes. So that's sort of the problem or the set of problems that we're wading into with this work.


Kate: So as you wade into this work, I understand you're doing that in partnership in a couple of communities in particular. I'd love to hear more about who you're working with, Khalid, and maybe also what the particulars are you're learning in terms of what is needed.


Khalid: Yeah, absolutely. For this specific project, we're working in two communities. One is in East Palo Alto, a largely Hispanic, smaller population community. I believe the entire East Palo Alto has about 20,000 people—maybe a little less, maybe a little bit more. But the community is largely Hispanic, largely low-income relative to the rest of the Bay Area.

But they are serviced by three different water providers. Some are getting water from surface water, similar to where people in Palo Alto get water, but others are getting water from groundwater. And there's a couple of utilities that are doing that. It's not very common that you see three different water providers for a community of 20,000 people—at least across the U.S. So it's a pretty unique situation happening in East Palo Alto. 

As Greg mentioned, the community has for long talked about, you know, their water being brown, their water not tasting right, or their bottled water smelling weird or making their skin feel weird. We're doing home water quality tests and a few of the families we spoke with talked about, oh, you know, my hair is falling out a little bit more than I'm used to.

And we don't actually know if we can compare these perceptions to the reality of what their water quality is until we get our results back. And so to get access to household level data, we've partnered with Nuestra Casa in East Palo Alto. They have a water justice arm of their organization, and they've actually given us access to 50 households who are doing both perception tests and water quality tests.

We're doing a similar study in Detroit, Michigan, which for long, you know, ever since the Flint water crisis has dealt with issues of water shut-off and affordable water given that Detroit is a shrinking city, you now have a population maintaining a system that was designed for a much larger population. And so the revenue generated by that system is now much less, because of a huge decline in population. 

The challenge there is that a lot of the population that's left and or the people that were left in Detroit are people who are of low income, who are from marginalized communities. And so they're now being sucked into sort of, poor quality and levels of service at the water level. There, we've partnered with We the People of Detroit, an advocacy group that does both advocacy and support services for the communities and they mostly focus on water. They have a couple other things that they also do, but their primary focus is on water.

And similarly there, they've given us access to 50 households in which we'll have both perception data from surveys and water quality data from conducting water quality tests.


Kate: I hear you talk about the importance of measuring quality in tandem with perception. So given that, Greg, can you help me better understand the kind of impact your team's approach is aiming at?


Greg: I think our biggest impact (our desired impact) is helping communities and individuals actually trust their water more and feel safe drinking it and using it for other purposes. In order to do that, though, it actually gets quite complicated and I'll spare the details, but there's at least like six different types of actors or stakeholders that have to be involved usually to bring together solutions for communities, because this isn't a clearly regulated and overseen space. 

And that can involve not just the households getting better information, getting water quality filters. It involves the water systems, of course, but sometimes cities, sometimes the county has to get involved. Regulators, advocacy groups, and that's not just a criticism of sort of this being an under-regulated, under-supported space. It's also because the information flow is exceedingly technical, and making it sort of digestible for folks is a challenge, even for the best water systems. 

But all that to say, in addition to, you know, supporting research, supporting actual trust, we really hope to provide tools to other communities and other water systems, to make, trust happen more easily and also to inform new policies to support households and to force water systems that aren't proactively working on this to do better in terms of reporting and actually improving the water quality coming out of taps. 

One of the trickiest parts that we're still trying to address is the role of landlords, because a lot of the issues that people face in the water coming out of the tap, particularly if it's aesthetic, is due to the pipes in their home. And that's actually not a water system's responsibility. It's the responsibility of whomever owns the property. So those are some impacts we're looking to undertake. Again, it's not terribly a simple story. But I think we're on our way to making some of those.


Kate: I appreciate the complexity. This is clearly a water quality issue, a public health issue, a trust issue. There's also a whole social environment to consider. I'm hearing you talk about the regulatory elements, and then, of course, where people live and just the infrastructure of who's responsible for that. So yeah, a lot at play. 

As we close out and think about really understanding what it would take, what it would genuinely take to make water trustworthy, I'm curious just to hear what you both think. Khalid, I'll start with you.


Khalid: May I just add one more piece to the impacts section? A lot of the communities that we're working with or the two communities we're working with have for long felt like they're voiceless. And so I believe one of the impacts we do, you know, hope to have is to give them data and knowledge to be able to self-advocate through a research lens and to have a voice because they've been complaining about these issues for a really long time and nobody's been listening.

And so I think that is one of the desired impacts that we hope to have. But to answer this question of what would it take? I think, you know, building trust starts before getting to water systems. I think a lot of the communities not only have distrust of their water, but also distrust of any sort of governmental or overarching entity.

And so I think a key piece of what we're trying to do is show people, in a digestible way, their water quality at the tap. Getting them starting to say, okay, actually, maybe I can trust my water. But if we find that, you know, a lot of the water quality in their homes is not that great, I think this is where we would start to implement or seek to implement some interventions.

Can we provide people with water filters that will make their water taste better or remove some of these contaminants? Can we, you know, provide landlords with the data that they, you know, should change out some of the systems in the house, so that people can start drinking tap water instead of having to pay for jugged water.

I had a woman in East Palo Alto tell me that since the pandemic, what she spends on bottled and jugged water has gone from $15 to $45 a week. And I've had families in Detroit tell me that they're spending copious amounts of money on bottled water because they're using it for things like their animals or washing their kids’ hair because they just distrust the water so much. 

And so I think getting back to a place where people don't have to go through those issues, and really seeing water as a human right, I think that is what we would like to get to by showing, you know, water quality at the tap may be better than you think. And then if it is as bad as you think, here are some interventions that can help it be better so that you don't have to spend all this money on bottled and jugged water.

So I think those are the key pieces for me in terms of what I think it would take. But then the last piece, just from a water utility perspective, is more proactive engagement with communities. I think water utilities publish their annual water report because it's required by law, but they don't actually take the time to help communities digest what's in those water quality reports, or to, you know, let communities know what their initiatives are.

Oftentimes, the only time they interact with communities is when something goes wrong. I really think that communities need a chance to engage with water utilities or the people who are providing the water every day when things are going right.

I think that's a key piece in building trust. 


Greg: I think process, particularly utility involvement, change of culture, is as important as any of the technical information. It's about listening to community concerns, translating information, and really just being there consistently and not trying to get rid of community concerns, but be a consistent voice. And it's going to take some time. 

The culture shift has started to change for a lot of larger utilities, but there's a long way to go to really build trust and it requires a lot more than technical information. Relatedly, I'd say, nonprofit groups, advocacy groups, who work in similar spaces need to be better equipped to be able to be resources in their community over the long term on these issues. And so I think there's an important role they can play to be more trusted than utilities ever will be. I think to really see solutions, local advocacy groups and community groups need to be better equipped on this. 

I'd say, relatedly, you know, researchers need to be there in the long haul, particularly in working with community nonprofits and advocacy groups because, again, it is an exceedingly technical space, and there's new information we're learning scientifically about water quality and water quality threats, all the time. So I think those three things, in addition to everything Khalid covered, could really help us realize the impacts that we want to see in the culture change.


Kate: Thank you both for everything you've shared on this incredibly important topic to anybody in this country who turns on their water. And thank you both for taking the time. It's a pleasure to speak with you.


Greg: Thank you.


Khalid: Likewise. Thank you, Kate.


Kate: Thanks for listening to What Would It Take, a conversation series from Stanford Impact Labs. To learn more about Stanford Impact Labs, and how we partner with communities to put social science to work for society, please visit impact.stanford.edu.