Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Misperceptions Cloud Milwaukee-Area Waters

A survey released today by organizations throughout the region indicates that people are concerned about water quality, but do not know that everyday runoff from rural land, or their own homes, city parking lots and roads is now a bigger water pollution problem than industrial or sewage overflows.

Hence, people are unaware of the progress made to stem easily-seen sources of water pollution, but also do not know that their own individual or group actions, when added cumulatively to those of others, can have a big impact on water cleanliness, the economy and the region's environmental health.

Bottom line: there is a lot of educational work to do to bridge the gap in our area between the importance of water and how best to build on successful programs that protect it.

My take: 

Media will report on dramatic sewer overflows, for example, and talk radio will inflame listeners about them for political purposes, but it is harder and less attractive from a story-telling perspective to get into a discussion about the relationship between water pollution and de-icing chemical runoff from one's front steps. or ash trays dumped in parking stalls.

The survey was developed in partnership with the Public Policy Forum, which analyzed and summarized the data from 388 households from six counties across the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, and Milwaukee River watersheds.

Sweet Water, a public-private regional partnership, and the Public Policy Forum released the survey findings at events today; the full report is available at www.swwtwater.org.

“While these results show that we must reach out to residents in our area with information about their role in water quality improvements, we are very encouraged by the percentage of our neighbors willing to lend a hand in improving our rivers and lakes," said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, a key partner in Sweet Water's efforts.

Additional highlights: 

Just 4% of survey respondents affirmed that water was important to economic vitality - - so most of the public does not connect water quality to the value of water industries in the Milwaukee area, or to tourism or development along the Milwaukee riverfront.

Most respondents view the effectiveness of local government actions to protect water quality as at least somewhat effective. They view as very effective regulations to protect and restore wetlands, requiring natural vegetation along river and stream banks, prevention of erosion during construction, and efforts to remove or prevent invasive species in protecting water resources.

With the majority of the respondents reporting that environmental organizations are the most trustworthy source of information on water issues, these groups have an opportunity to improve residents understanding of the issues facing our water resources and the importance of their role in helping to protect our waters.

That seems especially important - - and speaks to the challenges ahead - - given these findings:

"...roughly half of respondents feel actions such as river/beach clean-up days, reducing pesticide use, using water-efficient household appliances, cleaning up pet waste, and river/ wetland restoration projects are very effective ways to protect local water resources (Table 6) Actions seen as less effective include use of rain barrels and using less water at home during major storms.

"Respondents also were asked whether they currently perform any of these actions and, if not, whether they might be willing to do so. In general, most respondents are willing take action to protect local waterways (Table 7). The actions they are willing to take are not necessarily those they deem most effective, as shown in Table 8.

"For example, despite seeing participation in river and beach clean-up days as a very effective action, less than half of respondents say they do so, or are willing to do so.
Actions that do align with perceptions of effectiveness include two aimed at reducing non- point pollution: reducing use of pesticides/ fertilizer and reducing use of salt.

"In addition, using water-efficient appliances at home is seen as both effective and doable.
Actions seen as both less effective and less doable include two that would combat non-point source pollution in stormwater runoff (reducing yard waste and using rain barrels) and one that would combat sewer overflows (repairing sewer lateral lines)."

The survey, primarily funded by a Wisconsin Coastal Management Program grant with additional support from the Joyce Foundation and other partners, will inform 2011 public outreach efforts of Sweet Water and its partners, aiming to boost public understanding of issues facing our rivers and Lake Michigan and promote the positive impact residents can have in protecting our water resources. The survey received additional financial support from Sweet Water, American Rivers, and Badger Meter.

Sweet Water, the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc., is a nonprofit organization created in 2008 as a partnership of local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, academia, and neighbors working collectively to improve the water resources in the 1,100 square miles of Greater Milwaukee Watersheds.  The five Sweet Water watersheds include the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, Milwaukee, Oak, and Root.    

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