Feeling the Squeeze: Collaborative Research on Financial Stress and Drinking Water Systems

Portrait of Dr. Christine Kirchhoff, a woman with shoulder-length light brown hair wearing black glasses and a black top.

Associate Professor Christine Kirchhoff has been awarded a $202,204 grant from the National Science Foundation for a project titled, "Collaborative Research: Feeling the Squeeze: How Financial Stress Shapes Decision-Making and the Reslience of Municipal Drinking Water Systems." 

The grant is awarded through the NSF's Decision, Risk and Mangement Sciences (DRMS) program, as part of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. The three-year project will run from January 2021 through December 2023.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with Sara Hughes, Assistant Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Dr. Hughes will be awarded $218,063.

Project abstract:

Collaborative Research: Feeling the Squeeze: How Financial Stress Shapes Decision-Making and the Resilience of Municipal Drinking Water Systems

Across the nation, cities face immense fiscal stress brought about by the confluence of increased demands for critical city services – including drinking water, education, transportation, fire protection, and housing – and precipitous declines in revenues needed to support those increased demands. Decisions made under conditions of fiscal stress may erode and undermine the resilience of these critical city services by impeding the ability of water managers to respond to today’s challenges and plan for an uncertain future, while maintaining affordable and equitable service delivery. Financial stress therefore presents a significant risk to the resilience of the services upon which millions of people depend. Despite these risks, the effects of financial stress on decision-making by city governments and the influence of local political, institutional, and physical contexts on decision-making is poorly understood. This award supports fundamental research that will address this fundamental gap in knowledge. Specifically, this research will advance understanding of the ways that financial stress affects decision-making and resilience of drinking water systems (DWS), produce actionable knowledge that will improve equity and resilience of DWS, generate a new, publicly accessible database, and educate and train students and water professionals about the intersection of fiscal stress, risk and resilience, and equity in municipal decision making.

This research advances empirical and theoretical understanding of the relationship between financial stress, fiscal behavior, and resilience using a novel mixed methods approach. This research also advances practical understanding of how financial stress affects decision making and resilience in municipal DWS and generates a novel, integrative, publicly accessible database of municipal government spending and revenue, political and institutional context, drinking water system conditions, and demographics. Results from this research will provide scholars with new theoretical insights for understanding the relationship between fiscal stress, behavior, and resilience and its implications for equity in public services, and provide actionable insights to support effective interventions to improve equitable resilience now and in the future. This research will train a postdoc and graduate and undergraduate students including those from underrepresented groups including women, students of color, and first-generation students in rigorous, interdisciplinary research and engagement and reach over 100 more students through instruction using case studies developed from this research. Broad dissemination will occur through publications, conferences, webinars, and case studies