UConn Researcher Performing Collaborative Research Assessing City Water Systems Resilience

Christine Kirchhoff is studying the effects of financial stress on decision-making by city government as it relates to essential services like drinking water.


City governments throughout the U.S. face significant financial stress. Financial stress arises from the combination of increased demands for critical city services — including drinking water, education, and fire protection — and the decline of revenues needed to support them.

The impact the COVID-19 pandemic on city government finances may further exacerbate this problem.

Associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Christine Kirchhoff has received a $202,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of financial stress on decision-making by city governments in collaboration with Sara Hughes, an assistant professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of Michigan. Hughes is the principal investigator on this project.

“While we know decision-making under financial stress is a pervasive challenge in U.S. city governments, we do not know how financial stress affects the resilience of public services upon which millions of people depend,” Kirchhoff says.

Alarmingly, most drinking water systems cannot cover the cost of existing services through the rates they charge residents alone. These economic conditions undermine the resilience of water systems, or their ability to manage today’s risks, rebound after a major disruption like a natural disaster or an accident, and build back better.

While research on drinking water resilience has risen dramatically over the last decade, there has been much less attention paid to the human dimensions of resilience including the political and institutional origins of risk and resilience, tensions and trade-offs between resilience and equity, and the importance of finance in building resilience.

Kirchhoff and Hughes will combine their extensive experience in engineering, policy, and interdisciplinary social science to address these critical gaps in knowledge and advance a research agenda aimed at building actionable knowledge for resilient drinking water systems.

“The project will advance understanding of how financial stress affects decision-making and resilience of drinking water systems, producing actionable knowledge,” Hughes says. “The project will also generate a new, publicly accessible database and educate and train students working at the intersection of financial stress, risk and resilience, and equity in local decision-making.”

Kirchhoff will lead the case study research that provides an opportunity to learn from cities that have found ways to build resilience in the face of financial stress. These lessons can inform ongoing national conversations and initiatives around building and supporting resilient, equitable drinking water systems in the U.S.

The interdisciplinary collaborative research effort will generate actionable insight for water managers, professionals, and city leaders. Kirchhoff and Hughes will actively disseminate recommendations for strategies that can reduce risk and build resilience in drinking water systems to policy makers and practitioners through papers, articles, presentations, and a webinar.

Kirchhoff holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include water resources management and policy, science-policy interactions and decision support, adaptive capacity and resilience, and adaption to climate variability and change. She currently holds the title as the Castleman Professor in Engineering Innovation.

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