Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Episode 564 (2-15-21): Exploring Customers' Trust in Their Water Utility

Click to listen to episode (4:42)

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Sources for More Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 2-12-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of February 15, 2021.

SOUND - ~7 sec – Pouring water then ice cubes

This week, we focus on drinking water and Virginia Tech research on customers’ trust of their local water supply system.  Our guest voice this week is Maddy Grupper, a recent master’s graduate from the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.  We start with a 40-second except of a talk Maddy gave on her research at the Nutshell Games, conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science. 

VOICE - 38 sec – Nutshell Games excerpt: “It’s 2014, you live in Toledo, OH…Thick green algae has invaded Lake Erie, your water source, and for days you can’t fill up your water from the faucet and drink. What if we could prevent this? What if we could predict when water is going to go bad the same way a weatherman predicts a tornado…  We’re developing this technology…  But successful technology isn’t just the ones that work, it’s what the public trusts, accepts, and uses.  I study what factors impact that trust.”


Hello, I’m Maddy Grupper, speaking to you now in 2021.  As you heard in that excerpt, I study people’s trust in the quality and safety of their drinking water. The quality of lakes, reservoirs, and other sources that humans use for drinking water can be affected by climate change, infrastructure degradation, and pollutants. Researchers are looking for innovative methods to maintain drinking water quality, such as technology to forecast threats like algae blooms and metal increases. But without trust, people might not support such new technologies or other changes. That can slow the ability of utilities to stay ahead of fast-acting threats. 

The focus of my Virginia Tech master’s study was on the trust that community members have, or don’t have, in their utility.  In the fall of 2019 we surveyed over 600 customers of the water utility serving the Roanoke Valley of Virginia.  We found that 61% of the respondents mostly or completely trusted their utility to deliver safe drinking water to them.

What is the basis of such trust?  Our study found evidence supporting a framework that claims a person’s trust is based on four sources: 

1. Rational – that is, I trust you because I think you’re capable and have a good track record.

2. Affinitive – that is, I trust you because I like you, think you share my values, and have my best interests at heart.

3. Dispositional – that is, I trust you because I’m a trusting person.

And 4. Procedural – that is, I trust the system that regulates you.

Our study in the Roanoke Valley showed that as each of these factors increased, so did trust.  But we also found that high trust didn’t rely on just one or two of these factors; it needed all four.

If water managers want to increase community support through trust, they need to take all four factors into account.  Understanding these trust factors might help water managers build more resilient systems. For community members, such understanding might give them a greater sense of control and peace of mind about what they drink.

So, the next time you take a sip of water ask yourself, why do you, or don’t you, trust what you are drinking? 


Thanks to Maddy Grupper for lending her voice and expertise to this episode.


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


Virginia Water Radio’s guest voice this week was Madeline (Maddy) Grupper, an August 2020 graduate of the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

The opening excerpt heard in this episode was from Maddy’s presentation at the October 27, 2018, Nutshell Games, conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science.  Maddy’s presentation was one of three top-honors winners at the event, where graduate students take 90 seconds to present their research and highlight its importance.  More information about the October 2018 event is available online at https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2018/11/2018-nutshell-game-winners.html.  More information about the Center for Communicating Science is available online at https://communicatingscience.isce.vt.edu/.

A 2020 report on Maddy’s research is available online at https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/100105.

The water utility participating in Maddy’s research was the Western Virginia Water Authority, serving customers in the City of Roanoke and the counties of Botetourt, Franklin, and Roanoke.  More information about that utility is available online at https://www.westernvawater.org/.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at http://newstandardbluegrass.com.


Maddy Grupper during her survey in 2019 of trust in drinking water among utility customers in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley area.  Photo courtesy of Maddy Grupper.


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Drinking Water,” online at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/index.html.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Ground Water and Drinking Water,” online at https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “Drinking Water and Sources Water Research,” online at https://www.usgs.gov/mission-areas/water-resources/science/drinking-water-and-source-water-research?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.

Virginia Department of Health/Office of Drinking Water, online at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/drinking-water/.

Virginia Cooperative Extension/Virginia Household Water Quality Program, online at https://www.wellwater.bse.vt.edu/vahwqp.php.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Overall Importance of Water” and “Science” subject categories.

Following are links to some other episodes on drinking water or water sources. 

Drinking Water Week – Episode 314, 5-2-16.

SERCAP (Southeast Regional Community Assistance Project) work on rural water needs – Episode 366, 5-1-17.

Virginia Household Water Quality Program – Episode 361, 3-27-17.

Worldwide water needs – Episode 122, 8-6-12.

Following are links to some other episodes on research by Virginia university students, including research presented the Nutshell Games, conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science.

On antibiotic resistance – Episode 290, 11-16-15.

On avian malaria – Episode 259, 3-30-15.

On the Emerald Ash Borer – Episode 376, 7-10-17 (based on a Nutshell Games presentation).

On headwater streams – Episode 397, 12-4-17 (based on a Nutshell Games presentation).

On oysters and nitrogen – Episode 280, 9-7-15

On soils and greenhouse gases – Episode 312, 4-18-16.

On streams buried under human infrastructure – Episode 409, 2-26-18 (based on a Nutshell Games presentation). 


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-5: Earth Resources

3.8 – Natural events and humans influence ecosystems.

4.8. – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6

6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.

6.8 – Land and water have roles in watershed systems.

6.9 – Humans impact the environment and individuals can influence public policy decisions related to energy and the environment. 

Earth Science

ES.6 – Resource use is complex.

ES.8 – Freshwater resources influence and are influenced by geologic processes and human activity.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course

CE.8 – government at the local level.

CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course

WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Virginia and United States History Course

VUS.14 – political and social conditions in the 21st Century.

Government Course

GOVT.1 – skills for historical thinking, geographical analysis, economic decision-making, and responsible citizenship.

GOVT.8 – state and local government organization and powers.

GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

GOVT.15 – role of government in Va. and U.S. economies, including examining environmental issues and property rights.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.

Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.

Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.

Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.

Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.

Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.

Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.

Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.

Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.

Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.