Bad tasting and polluted tap water are not just infrastructure problems.

When they distrust tap water, low-income residents and people in communities of color often turn to bottled water or water kiosks like this one in California’s Central Valley. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – October 3, 2022

Bad tasting and polluted tap water are not just infrastructure problems. Municipal drinking water failures like the crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, are also threats to government legitimacy.

That’s one of many arguments that Manny Teodoro and co-authors Samantha Zuhlke and David Switzer make in a compelling new book titled The Profits of Distrust.

Teodoro, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Circle of Blue that tap water in the United States is the “most intimate relationship between a government and its people.” Water is provided primarily by publicly operated utilities. The treated water enters the home, where people bathe in it, cook with it, drink it.

“So to drink tap water is to trust government,” Teodoro says. “To drink bottled water, or its commercial alternatives, is a sign that you distrust government, because you’re willing to pay tens to hundreds of times more for a commercial product that you believe is superior” — even though bottled water is less stringently regulated.

Who distrusts tap water the most? Based on the evidence, low-income households and communities of color. Those groups most frequently experience discolored, foul tasting, or contaminated water from their faucets.

Teodoro says that this mistrust is exploited by companies who sell water in bottles or in kiosks that are strategically installed outside grocery stores and strip malls in poorer neighborhoods. Those companies earned $36 billion in revenue from water sales in 2020. That’s significantly more money than Congress provides each year for drinking water and sewer infrastructure.

Breaking the vicious cycle of drinking water failures that result in loss of trust will not be easy, Teodoro cautions. But it can be done with focused efforts in the areas of administration, funding, data collection, and communications.

“One of the deep and fundamental challenges we have in the water sector,” he says, “is reaching and connecting with the people who already distrust us.”