Photos of Maura Allaire, assistant professor of urban planning & public policy, and Jun Wu, professor of public health.
Maura Allaire, assistant professor of urban planning & public policy, and Jun Wu, professor of public health, are members of a multi-disciplinary team at UCI that will examine the relationship between public water safety and the governance of public water supplies. The project is funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Steve Zylius / UCI

The National Science Foundation has awarded $350,000 to a team of researchers at UCI who are launching a new project to illuminate how governance failures cause inequities in drinking water and public health. Unequal access to safe water is a national concern, demonstrated most recently by tap water crises in New York and Mississippi.

Treatment technologies are often emphasized as the main solution to unsafe water. “However, we’re realizing more and more that the governance and policy side of things is absolutely crucial to get right,” said principal investigator Maura Allaire, assistant professor of urban planning & public policy. “That’s exactly what this project is diving into, using California as a testbed.”

The UCI team will use spatial statistics and focus groups to study how disparate exposure to water contamination can be caused by differences in accountability of elected officials and public availability of water quality information. The plan is to combine modeling with the lived experiences of communities to reveal policies to improve safe water access. Joining Allaire on the project are Jun Wu, professor of public health; Connie McGuire, director of the Newkirk Center’s Research Justice Shop; and Patricia Flores, director of Orange County Environmental Justice.

Many water boards across the county operate without much public scrutiny. A pilot study from Allaire’s research group revealed that nearly three-quarters of utilities with water boards do not hold regular elections. A large part of the problem is that there are not enough candidates running against current board members.

Data analysis and modeling will help the investigators determine “if there are connections between higher levels of democracy and better water outcomes,” said Allaire. “We’ll also dive into the community experience and see how that process actually plays out.”

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