About 85 percent of Chesapeake Bay watershed residents think that people working together can fix local water quality problems. Unfortunately, most of them have little idea of what they can do to help and — somewhat contradictorily — only 35 percent agree that their own actions contribute to local water pollution.

Volunteers bag debris along the shoreline  of the Anacostia River during the annual river cleanup in 2009. The survey found that less than one volunteer in 10 had participated in an activity to protect the water or the environment. (Dave Harp)

Those findings come from a survey of 5,200 watershed residents conducted for the state-federal Bay Program last year to measure individual engagement in efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake and the rivers and streams that ultimately drain into it. The Bay Program intends to repeat the survey every few years to see how, and whether, the level of engagement changes over time.

Based on the survey results, the Bay Program last year released its first Citizen Stewardship Index — a relative measure of public engagement. The score was 24 out of a possible 100.

That was somewhat worse than the Bay Program’s most recent Water Quality Index for the Bay itself, which was 39 out of 100.

But if the water quality goal is to be met — and maintained — agency officials and environmental advocates agree that boosting citizen involvement will be critical.

Every day, the Bay watershed gains more people. When state and federal restoration efforts began in the mid-1980s, there were about 13.5 million people living in the 64,000-square mile watershed. Now there are more than 18 million, and the number is expected to reach 20 million by 2030.

The region has reduced pollution by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, cutting air pollution and controlling runoff from farms. But as those cleanup efforts are exhausted — and the region’s population continues to grow — new efforts will be needed, whether it’s scooping up pet waste, reducing the use of lawn fertilizer, or installing rain barrels or rain gardens that trap water before it absorbs pollutants and carries them into local streams.

“At some point, we have to recognize how much of this watershed is held in private ownership,” said Kacey Wetzel, outreach and education program director with the Chesapeake Bay Trust and co-chair of the Bay Program’s Citizen Stewardship Workgroup that helped to organize the survey. “If we don’t get people to make different choices about what they are doing with their property, and we don’t significantly change our development patterns, we’re in trouble.”

Increasing citizen involvement has been a goal since Bay cleanup efforts began in the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until after the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement established a stewardship goal calling for increasing the number of “mobilized citizen volunteers,” that an effort was made to determine whether that was actually happening.

That led to last year’s hiring of a firm called OpinionWorks to help develop and conduct the telephone survey. In a roughly 13-minute call, the 5,200 respondents, representing all of the watershed states, were asked about their adoption rate of 19 actions they could take to improve water quality and environmental health — things like picking up other people’s litter (41 percent said yes); planting a tree (40 percent); or keeping fertilizer off hard surfaces (21 percent).

It also asked about whether people volunteer in community efforts to improve the environment (fewer than one in 10 do) and whether they had ever become engaged in an environmental issue by attending a hearing, writing a letter or undertaking a similar activity (14 percent said they had).

Installing a rain barrel is one of the actions that a homeowner can take to help in the Bay’s restoration. (Dave Harp)

The Stewardship Index merges that data to come up with a watershedwide score. To reach 100, everyone in the watershed would have to take all of their potential actions to improve water quality, and would have to volunteer and advocate on behalf of the environment. Among Bay jurisdictions, scores were similar, ranging from a low of 22 in Delaware to a high of 27 in the District of Columbia.

The survey not only gathered information about what people are doing, but also about what they might be willing to do in the future — information that can be used to guide future efforts.

For instance, while only 41 percent of residents say they usually or always pick up other people’s litter, more than half of those who don’t pick up litter say they may be willing to do so in the future.

It also gives clues about where outreach efforts can be targeted.

Slightly more than half of pet owners reported that they picked up dog waste. Of those who did not, apartment dwellers were significantly more likely to say they would begin to do so than most other groups — information that can be used to focus educational efforts.

And while 71 percent said they would do more to make local waterways healthier, 68 percent said they could not think of group in their community working on water quality with whom they could volunteer.

“We’re not mainstream yet,” said Al Todd, former executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and chair of the Stewardship Workgroup when the survey was undertaken. “I think to be successful [in the] long term we’ve got to become more commonplace.”

Over the years, the Bay Program has invested in “hard” science — research focused on water quality and programs that reduce pollution. Todd said the survey results show that investments are also needed in social science, to understand what motivates people to want to protect a resource.

“Both support and individual action are critical to our future success,” Todd said, “but we don’t spend a lot of time working on those aspects, for a lot of reasons.”

Among those reasons, he said, is that for many agencies and even advocacy organizations view behavior change as “outside their comfort zone.”

“We really need to invest some time figuring out what motivates people to do these things,” Todd said. “Just telling them that it’s a good thing to do is not enough.” 

One of the next steps, Wetzel said, is to build a new website that includes the survey data. That will allow watershed organizations and local governments to examine data about particular behaviors in different areas, which will help them determine which ones they are most likely to influence — and even which demographic groups could be targeted for outreach programs or to boost involvement.

“That is really where the power of the survey mostly is — to be able to use it locally in that kind of context,” Wetzel said. It is hoped, she added, that local governments or nonprofits will be able to develop successful programs that can be shared among others.

Answering the call: A Sampling of Results

Telephone interviews with 5,200 randomly selected Bay watershed residents were conducted from March through May 2017 to gauge their level of involvement in environmental and water protection stewardship activities within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Here are a sampling of results:

Adoption rates for select actions

  • Pick up other people’s litter: 41 percent
  • Inspect/pump out septic systems: 72 percent
  • Pick up dog waste (asked of dog owners): 57      percent
  • Replace part of grass lawn with other vegeta-      tion: 26 percent
  • Keep fertilizer off hard surfaces: 21 percent
  • Created a rain garden: 13 percent

Importance of citizen action

  • If people work together, water pollution around here can be fixed: 85 percent agree
  • My actions contribute to water pollution where I live: 35 percent agree

Volunteerism & advocacy

  • Can name a local water protection group: 32 percent
  • Have volunteered for an activity to protect the water or environment: 6 percent

Room for potential action

The survey helped to identify behaviors or actions that were susceptible to change. For instance:

  • Only 10 percent of rain barrel owners have connected their barrels to a downspout and empty them between storms. But 68 percent of owners who have not taken that action say they are likely to do so in the future.
  • Only 47 percent of residents usually or always bag, mulch or compost the leaves on their property, but more than 40 percent who do not take that action said they might do so in the future.
  • Only 41 percent or residents say they usually pick up other people’s litter, more than 50 percent said they were at least somewhat likely to do so in the future.
  • While rates of volunteering and advocacy were low, 71 percent said they were willing to do more to make their creeks, rivers and lakes healthier.

Differences among groups

In some cases, responses were different among various groups. When asked whether there is convenient access to the water for boating, fishing or swimming near where I live: 69 percent agreed. Broken down by ethnicity, the responses were:

  • White — 75 percent agree
  • Black — 58 percent agree
  • Hispanic — 57 percent agree
  • Asian — 71 percent agree