AbstractResidents often encounter water-quality issues in their drinking water systems. If these issues recur or persist, residents may, despite assurances of water safety from utilities, lose trust in the system and seek alternative drinking water sources, including bottled water. This erosion of trust can occur due to breakdowns in communication, perceptions of a utility handling an issue poorly, or misconceptions about the dangers of discolored water. This study analyzed trust as a triangular relationship between water provider, end user, and consequential action an end user takes regarding the use of tap water. We posited an interrelationship between the level of trust individuals put in a water system and how they interact with it. A survey deployed in 21 shrinking cities in November 2019 examined three questions of interest: (1) whether a water provider’s decisions are perceived to align with the best interests of the consumer, (2) whether the tap water provided is perceived to be of adequate quality, and (3) whether consumers feel the water provider promptly informs them of water-quality issues. We tested whether differences in individuals’ consumption of bottled water impacted different aspects of trust. We found that individuals using bottled water as their primary water source responded differently from individuals who do not. In other words, actions and end user interactions with infrastructure are in fact related to trust toward water purveyors. Trust appears to be significantly influenced by sociodemographic parameters, including the ability to pay water bills and the number of water-quality issues one has experienced. In shrinking cities, in which one challenge is that low water use can adversely affect water quality, utilities may encourage residents to use more tap water by implementing strategies or policies that build trust with certain demographics.

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