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Evaluating determinants of social trust in water utilities: implications for building resilient water systems

Madeline A. Grupper, Virginia Tech, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Michael G. Sorice, Virginia Tech, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Marc J. Stern, Virginia Tech, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Madeline E. Schreiber, Virginia Tech, Department of Geosciences


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As global change increases the frequency and severity of drinking water threats, managers work toward building resilient water systems to adapt to these disturbances. A critical component of resilience is citizen trust in their water utilities. Trust in an institution is a function of individual’s calculation of their water utility’s capability and track record (rational determinants of trust), feeling that their utility shares values or has goodwill for them (affinitive determinants of trust), personal inclination to trust (dispositional determinants of trust), and belief that the utility is transparent and follows broader system regulations (procedural determinants of trust). Although trust also varies based on citizens’ awareness of drinking water issues, it has rarely been studied in a low-salience context where less consideration is given to the trusting relationship. Using a four-stage drop-off pick-up method, we randomly sampled residents in Roanoke, Virginia, an area where drinking water quality is a low-salience issue, to explore the relationship between trust, determinants, and salience. The four determinants best explained the high trust residents had when considered together in the same model alongside salience factors. Procedural determinants were most positively related to overall trust while affinitive and rational determinants had positive relationships only when those beliefs were low. Once affinitive and rational beliefs passed a threshold of strength, their relationship with overall trust became more neutral. Our findings indicate that, for low salience issues, managers looking to increase trust in their institutions should consider focusing on enhancing public understanding of regulations and transparency governing their institution and on reducing potential negative beliefs about their utilities’ capabilities, goodwill, and value alignment.

Key words

drinking water; governance; institutions; public water system; resilience; salience; trust; water; water security

Copyright © 2021 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087