Skip to content
LPPI Subscribe

Join us in making sure Latino voices are heard

We care about the protection of your data. Read our Terms of Use.

Policy Report Environment & Climate Resilience

Fear at the Tap: Factors Contributing to Public Drinking Water Distrust in Latino Communities

This exploratory study presents research with parents and caregivers in Kern County on tap water usage, water disuse, and solutions to address distrust, including a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Download this policy brief as a PDF

Fear at the Tap: Factors Contributing to Public Drinking Water Distrust in Latino Communities

Results from Exploratory Research in Kern County


Silvia R. González, Ariana Hernandez and Gregory Pierce

Executive Summary

In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 685, making California the first state in the nation to legislatively recognize the human right to water, a culmination of years of grassroots water justice advocacy efforts. In 2016, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted a resolution identifying the human right to water as a top priority and core value of the state’s Water Boards. Despite these largely symbolic policies, it was not until 2019, when Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 200, that an annual appropriation was made to improve access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for all Californians over the next decade. California is still far from achieving safe, affordable, and accessible water for all as a recent audit of the Water Boards found that 1 million Californians live with tap water that does not meet water quality standards for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

Compounding these inequities is the growing problem of tap water distrust and disuse, even in areas where drinking water meets or exceeds health-based water quality standards. The consequences of distrust include adverse health and economic and environmental consequences from heightened consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, bottled water, and other tap water alternatives. Latinos are the largest, youngest, and fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the United States, yet there is limited research on the factors influencing distrust among this population, its consequences, and solutions to address distrust in this community.

In this brief, we present findings from an exploratory study with parents and caregivers in Kern County to better understand tap water usage, factors influencing tap water disuse, and potential solutions to address distrust, including a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. We conducted the study in partnership with First 5 Kern located in Bakersfield, California. We used a community partnership research model and employed a mixed-method approach that combined online focus groups and an online exploratory survey to draw qualitative findings to inform future statewide data collection efforts.

The basic conclusion of this study is that meaningful shifts in the purchase and consumption of tap water will be realized only when residents can trust and use tap water to meet basic needs. Ensuring tap water safety, and addressing distrust and disuse is now more critical than ever given the Biden-Harris Administration’s $9 billion investment to help communities on the frontline of PFAS (“forever chemicals”) in their drinking water as well as their March 2023 announcement of a national standard to combat PFAS in drinking water. Only then will impacted communities truly benefit from the health, economic, and environmental benefits these infrastructure investments will offer.

"El agua. El agua es vida y muy indispensable."
— Kern County Caregiver

Key Findings

Our analysis of focus group conversations and survey findings yielded four key takeaways to inform policy decisions:

  1. Regardless of race and ethnicity, most caregivers reported not trusting their tap water. Caregivers cited concerns over poor residential plumbing, negative health experiences of friends and family with tap water, and not trusting local water systems to provide safe drinking water. Caregivers said improvements in residential premise plumbing would increase their trust in tap water.
  2. Fear of tap water is associated with past experiences, distrust of water providers, and aging infrastructure. About 60% of all survey respondents reported some form of bad experience with tap water in or outside their homes. Similar proportions were observed for Latinos (68%).
  3. Latino caregivers reported not drinking their tap water at higher rates than others. Caregivers said solutions such as at-home tap testing and access to water filtration systems would increase access to and consumption of tap water.
  4. Regardless of race and ethnicity, most caregivers said a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be regressive or unfair. However, they also expressed that a tax would decrease their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages slightly and that having a say in how revenue would be spent would increase support for such a tax. Caregivers also said revenue from a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages should be used to improve local water system infrastructure.

Policy Recommendations

Given these findings, we offer five recommendations for decision-makers to advance the state’s human right to water goals:

  1. Local and state governments should provide and promote programs to improve residential premise plumbing. Research participants emphasized concerns about their household plumbing and that improved premise plumbing would increase their tap water trust and consumption.
  2. Given distrust of water systems, decision-makers should fund trusted community-based organizations to design and implement evidence-based public education campaigns and tap water testing programs to increase tap water usage based on the unique drivers of distrust in their local communities.
  3. Fund local community-based health workers or “promotores” programs. This model is currently underused but could play a role in facilitating access to drinking water resources.
  4. Put community spending priorities at the center of any conversations on proposed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.
  5. Fund community-based research in Latino communities nationwide. Despite the growing Latino population in the state, there is limited research on drivers of tap water distrust and use for this population.


This report was made possible by generous support from a seed grant from the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. We are also thankful for funding from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute’s state appropriation made possible by the California Latino Legislative Caucus. The authors would also like to thank Hector Gutierrez, Paula De La Riva, Anastasia Lester, Kevin Bartl, Analy Martinez and First 5 Kern for their partnership, and our focus group facilitators Daniel Luu and Laura Daza-Garcia, and Mary Nguyen and Anahit Celio for their research assistance. We also thank Nick Cuccia for editing and designing this report, and for the thoughtful feedback from Francela Chi de Chinchilla, Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez, and Chroma Collaborative.

This work builds on the efforts of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, which advances fundamental research on the breadth and depth of solutions in each aspect of the human right to water: affordability, quality, and accessibility.

We acknowledge the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.