Multidimensional Assessment of North Carolina Community Water System Vulnerabilities

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UNC-WRRI;495;WRRI Project ; 20-06-W

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Our project, Multidimensional Assessment of North Carolina Community Water System Vulnerabilities, assessed the nature and distribution of vulnerabilities in North Carolina community water systems through achievement of two objectives. First, we developed a network-based method for assessing interrelationships among water system vulnerabilities and used expert information and data from several sources to apply the method to North Carolina water systems. Our measurement of water system characteristics relied on population data estimated from a newly generated digitized statewide map of water system service area boundaries developed in collaboration with the Water Supply Planning Branch at the Division of Water Resources (DWR). Applying our multicriteria approach to 319 North Carolina water systems, we found that vulnerabilities are dispersed: poor performance on one dimension, especially compliance with safe drinking water regulations, does not indicate poor performance on other dimensions. We also found that financial vulnerabilities are correlated with economic conditions in the communities served—in particular, water systems struggling to meet their debt obligations tended to serve disproportionately low-income populations. Second, we used web scraping and automated data processing to measure and analyze the signals that the public receives about water system performance through news coverage of boil advisories, water main breaks, and other service disruptions. We found that coverage of service disruptions as a proportion of overall news coverage has not increased over time. Although coverage rises during severe weather, the most common news attention to infrastructure failure is not tied to weather, planned disruption, or human error—instead, it seems to signal the deterioration we would expect to see in aging systems. We carried out our work while the State Water Infrastructure Authority and the Local Government Commission were developing the Viable Utility Program and used much of the same data. Our purpose was different, however: whereas the Viable Utility Program seeks to identify particular utilities in need of assistance, our aim was to identify patterns in vulnerabilities across water systems to inform policy-making that addresses multiple systems. Overall, our results demonstrate the tradeoffs that water systems face in balancing affordability against the capacity to deliver drinking water reliably over the long term, especially in lowincome communities. Our findings also indicate that fiscally distressed water systems are performing by other measures similarly to non-distressed small utilities, suggesting that financial support could go far in improving water system performance. We have maintained ongoing communication with partners in state water agencies about our methods and findings, and we have conducted broader outreach with water systems about the service area maps. Members of our team have met four times with federal officials about applying knowledge from our vulnerability assessment to tools and requirements for the equitable distribution of water infrastructure funding under Justice40. We have produced four articles for academic and practitioner audiences based on our work (two published, one under review, one in preparation).