Chesapeake watershed residents overwhelming are concerned about the health of the Bay and their local waterways, and nearly half say that too little is being done to clean them up.

Similarly, more than nine out of 10 residents say they are interested in helping to improve water quality, but most said they don’t know what they can do.

Those were among the findings of a survey funded by the Bay Program to learn about residents’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors relating to the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

With the watershed population growing at the same time the region needs to make sharp nutrient reductions to restore the Bay, the survey’s findings will be used to better tailor messages to various groups about what they can do to help.

“We want to get people information so they can be part of the solution rather than unknowingly part of the problem,” said Bob Campbell, of the National Park Service, who is chair of the Bay Program’s Communication and Education Subcommittee.

For instance, the survey found that 51 percent of people said they did not know what they could do to help clean up waterways. “That’s an information gap that we can absolutely help address,” Campbell said.

But the survey also showed that people were unsure they could make a difference. Eighty-seven percent agreed with the statement that one person’s action can make a difference in improving water quality. But those surveyed were split on whether their own everyday actions adversely affected water quality, with 53 percent agreeing, and 47 percent disagreeing.

That poses an outreach challenge, said a report accompanying the survey results. “People generally believe that one person can make a difference, yet they lack the confidence or vision to understand that they can (or should) be that one person,” the report said. It said people needed more information about what they could do, and how it would benefit the resource.

The survey suggested that, generally, the greater level of knowledge, or concern that people had about water issues, the more likely they were to take stewardship actions.

The exception was in the urban centers of Washington and Baltimore, where residents had the highest levels of concern about local waterways, but were the least likely to be taking stewardship actions. Campbell said the survey shows there is more work to be done helping people in urban areas to understand the practical things they can do to make a difference.

The survey of 1,988 watershed residents was conducted by the Virginia Tech Conservation Management Institute. Survey questions had a 2.2 percent margin of error.

On a positive note, the survey found that 48 percent of those surveyed were able to correctly identify a watershed. This “knowledge” index is somewhat higher than what was found by some recent national surveys, suggesting that past education and outreach efforts in the Bay region are paying some dividends, and offering encouragement for continuing outreach efforts, Campbell said.

Eighty-eight percent of those polled said they were concerned about pollution in the Chesapeake, essentially the same as the 86 percent who said the same thing in a 1994 survey by the Bay Program. Also, 36 percent think the Bay is more polluted than 10 years ago, while 23 percent said it was about the same, and 15 percent say it is less polluted.

That reflects a slight change from 1994. In that survey, 46 percent said the Bay was more polluted than a decade before.
In reality, monitoring data suggests that overall Bay water quality is about the same as 10 years ago.

Generally, the closer people were to the Bay, the more likely they were to think it was getting worse, although there was not a significant change throughout the watershed.

Meanwhile, the new survey found that 42 percent believe their local streams are more polluted than a decade ago, while 27 percent think they are about the same and 20 percent think local waterways are less polluted.

When asked where they got their information about water quality, 31 percent said personal observations, 21 percent said environmental groups and 20 percent said media reports.

When asked about the causes of pollution to local waterways, people blamed business and industry, population growth and general littering as the top three problems, with 82 percent, 80 percent and 78 percent respectively saying those sources had an impact.

Those sources were followed by vehicles, general construction and landfills, wastewater treatment plants, farming, boats, septic systems, commercial spills and lawn maintenance.

(In terms of nutrient pollution — the biggest water quality problem for the Bay — agricultural runoff is considered the largest source, with wastewater treatment plant discharges and air pollution also contributing large amounts of nutrients. But for many local waterways, the sources of pollution would vary.)

Overall, 60 percent of those surveyed said restoring waterways in the region was very important, while another 34 percent said it was somewhat important.

Right now, 49 percent said that current efforts to restore water quality were too little, while 36 percent said they were about right. Only 2 percent said current efforts were too much.

When asked who was responsible for the restoration of regional waterways, people ranked business and industry on top, followed by local government, state government, private citizens, agricultural producers, environmental organizations and the federal government.

Given a list of 11 possible stewardship actions, the survey found people were most likely to have reduced water use, bought products because they were environmentally safe or planted a tree in the last five years. They were least likely to have bought an environmental license plate, joined an environmental group or contributed on a tax form environmental check off.

Overall, 97 percent of those surveyed said they have done at least one of the actions in the last five years. People between 35 and 65 were most likely to have taken some stewardship action, and the level of activity increased with level of education and income. Also, people who correctly defined a watershed generally took more stewardship actions than those who could not.

Given a series of eight choices, people said they would be most likely to take stewardship actions if they felt they were being affected by pollution; thought their actions would really make a difference; knew the time commitments would be minimal, or that the actions would save them money in the long run.

“One thing is particularly interesting about the survey,” Campbell said. “People ranked population growth pretty high as a cause of pollution, suggesting they may understand the cumulative impact of 15 million people living in the Bay watershed. Most also believe that one person’s actions can make a difference. We need to help them understand that one person is them.”