New database offers comprehensive picture of municipal drinking water systems nationwide
Since March 2021, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Associate Professor Sara Hughes and her team have been working on compiling details about the drinking water systems of more than 2,000 cities nationwide. The project, funded by NSF, aims to pull multiple data sources into one place, integrating information about drinking water systems and city-specific information such as local government spending and revenue, election outcomes, demographics, and more. In February 2023, they achieved their goal and released the Municipal Drinking Water Database, offering a comprehensive picture of the municipalities that have their own drinking water systems nationwide.
Hosted by Harvard’s Dataverse, the database provides researchers and decision-makers with important information that can help identify how and where water investments are or are not taking place. Hughes says that one strength of the database is that it links demographic data about the communities with the drinking water system that serves the communities. “This data reveals some broad trends and helps demonstrate where there has or hasn’t been an investment in disadvantaged communities. This is important information for policymakers to consider as they make improvements and plans for future development,” says Hughes.
The database has already been downloaded more than 400 times, and Hughes has received interest from various organizations interested in learning more about municipal drinking water systems for their own projects and research. “I’ve been in touch with the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, for example. They are interested in using the database because they are required to reinvest in their local communities, and they are wondering if they can invest in service line replacements and have some way of knowing that those investments are generating benefits for disadvantaged communities,” says Hughes. She explains that this is a great representation of how her team imagined the database could be used in conjunction with other resources for other types of drinking water systems, such as private or county-level utilities. “There’s interest in having a more comprehensive understanding of who is being served by which drinking water system. Our database offers comprehensive coverage on the municipal side, and that’s feeding into national efforts.”
For the next phase of the NSF-funded project, Hughes and her team will focus on mining the data to be able to use it within their research. “We have a paper coming out where we paired the database with information about the cost of basic water services and are now able to look at how these costs vary and what drives some of that variation,” says Hughes. She adds that there are several other ways her team plans to work with the data, both as part of the grant and beyond, including the development of follow-up case studies to help interpret what the data represents.