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How is Drinking Water Delivered to Homes?

A Study of Public Perceptions of Water Infrustructure

A new study conducted by researchers from Indiana University indicates that the average American does not fully understand how clean drinking water is supplied to their home, nor what happens to wastewater that is flushed away. This is concerning considering that this knowledge and information is crucial to addressing some of the water related challenges we are currently facing, including prolonged drought, and water contamination due to failing water infrastructure.

For the study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Judgment and Decision Making, 500 university students were asked to sketch diagrams depicting how water is delivered to the taps in their home and how it makes its way back into the natural environment. Only 71% of the participants drew a water treatment plant (29% did not include water treatment as part of their water supply system), while only 36% included a wastewater treatment plant into their water system (64% failed to include a wastewater treatment facility in their plan).

Lead author, Shahzeen Attari of IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) warns that climate change is likely to increase both the competition for water as well as the risks associated with the water supply. "Water infrastructure is increasingly fragile," said Attari. "It's going to take political will and public support to respond to new and old risks, and we may not support the adaptation strategies we need if we take our water systems for granted. Whether it's in schools or through other means, public environmental education must address these gaps."

Attari together with Kelsey Hinton and Kelsey Poinsatte-Jones, two former graduate students of the SPEA, conducted the research in two phases. For the first phase of the project, they asked water experts to provide a sketch of a domestic water supply system.


The students were then asked the following question:

"Please draw a diagram illustrating your understanding of the processes by which clean water reaches the tap in the average home in the United States. Please draw how water reaches the home from its original source(s) and is then returned to the natural environment. Show all the processes that the water goes through."

Only 7% of the students had a good understanding of how a water system worked, while many students drew an idealized "magic" version of a water system (below).


The student's lack of awareness doesn't mean that they don't care. Over a third of them indicated that they considered water quantity on a weekly- or sometimes even daily basis. Their primary concerns are water cleanliness, limited water supply or failures in the water infrastructure system that result in water contamination.

Of all our resources, drinking water is the most essential of all, Poinsatte-Jones points out. Most people take access to safe drinking water for granted, however the complex behind-the-scenes water network infrastructure which makes this possible is obscure and therefore very often not fully understood.

Considering all the water related risks we are currently facing, it is vitally important that we are able to make informed decisions regarding our water supplies, management and policies, stressed Hinton, who indicates that their study suggests we are currently not in a position to do that.

Journal Reference

Shahzeen Z. Attari, Kelsey Poinsatte-Jones, Kelsey Hinton. Perceptions of water systems. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 12, No. 3, May 2017, pp. 314-327

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