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Urban Ethnohydrology: Cultural Knowledge of Water Quality and Water Management in a Desert City

Meredith Gartin, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University
Beatrice Crona, Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University, Sweden; Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Arizona State University
Amber Wutich, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University; Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Arizona State University
Paul Westerhoff, Department of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering, Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, Arizona State University


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Popular concern over water quality has important implications for public water management because it can both empower water utilities to improve service but also limit their ability to make changes. In the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, obtaining sufficient high-quality water resources for a growing urban population poses a major challenge. Decision makers and urban hydrologists are aware of these challenges to water sustainability but the range of acceptable policy and management options available to them is constrained by public opinion. Therefore, this study examines cultural models of water quality and water management, termed ethnohydrology, among urban residents. The study yields three key findings. First, urban residents appear to have a shared model of ethnohydrology which holds that a) there are significant water quality risks associated with low financial investments in city-wide water treatment and the desert location of Phoenix, and b) government monitoring and management combined with household-level water treatment can yield water of an acceptable quality. Second, people with high incomes are more likely to engage in expensive water filtration activities and to agree with the cultural ethnohydrology model found. Third, people living in communities that are highly concerned about water quality are less likely to share high agreement around ethnohydrology. The results have implications for water policy making and planning, particularly in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities where water quality is perceived to be low.

Key words

cultural consensus; cultural model; freelist; perceptions; Phoenix; urban; water quality

Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087