The vast majority of people in the Bay watershed believe cleaning up the Chesapeake is important, and most think that government should increase efforts to restore the estuary, according to a new survey.

At the same time, the first ever "Bay Attitudes Survey" found that public knowledge about issues affecting the Bay is low. Contrary to what many scientists believe, a plurality of people think the water condition is worse today than a decade ago. Most people cannot name the leading sources of pollution and believe their own actions have little impact on the Chesapeake.

Still, government officials were encouraged by the strong showing of support for Bay restoration.

"An extraordinarily high number of people, when asked, care very deeply and very strongly about the Chesapeake Bay," said Peter Kostmayer, administrator for EPA Region 3. "Any pollster will tell you that these are extraordinary figures."

Of 2,004 people surveyed, 87 percent said they were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

And, when asked how important Bay restoration was compared to other social, economic, and environmental issues facing government, 50 percent replied that it was one of the most important issues, and 41 percent said it was important, but not the most important issue.

In addition, 61 percent said that current efforts to reduce pollution were too little, while 35 percent said current levels were about right and 4 percent said they were too much.

The telephone survey, sponsored by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, was conducted by the University of Maryland's Survey Research Center between Oct. 6, 1993, and Jan. 27, 1994. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent. Roughly 500 people aged 18 and over were questioned in each of the major Bay jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

The survey found strong support for cleaning up the Bay in each jurisdiction. In fact, the survey found that those living more than 100 miles from the Bay were as supportive of the cleanup effort as those living close to the water.

"One of the overall findings was the remarkable lack of drop in support for cleaning up the Bay as you move away from the Bay," said Bill Matuszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office in Annapolis. "As you move 50, 100 miles from the Bay, the support continues to hold up."

The survey was the first of its kind in the watershed and was intended to not only gauge support for restoring the Bay, but also to measure the public's knowledge of Bay-related issues so education efforts could be better targeted in the future.

Officials hope to conduct follow-up surveys in future years to track the public's perception of the Bay and to measure the success of outreach programs.

The survey found a wide gap between the public's perception of the Bay and that of many water quality mangers and scientists in the region.

Despite some indications that the Bay has improved over the past 10 years - such as the expansion of grass beds, a key water quality indicator - the survey found that 46 percent of the people think the Bay has gotten worse. Twenty percent thought it was less polluted, and 18 percent thought it was about the same.

And while reducing the amount of nutrients reaching the Chesapeake has been the main focus of the Bay Program's cleanup effort, only 25 percent of those surveyed thought nutrients were the most harmful pollutants to the Bay, while 67 percent cited chemicals.

Excessive amounts of nutrients cause too much algae to grow in the Bay water. The algae blocks sunlight needed by Bay grasses, which provide important habitat. And when there is more algae than predators can consume, the excess sinks to the bottom of the Bay where it decomposes in a process that depletes the water of oxygen needed by many types of aquatic life.

Reducing the amount of nutrients reaching the Bay by 40 percent by the year 2000 has been the cornerstone of the Bay restoration effort.

Not everyone felt the public response was off-base, though. Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - while agreeing that nutrients are a major problem - said the public's concern about chemicals is warranted. The survey "correctly identifies toxics as a major area of public concern," Baker said, adding that "government and industry must support responsible programs to address every aspect of Bay pollution."

The survey also shows that people do not recognize the main sources of nutrients as major problems for the Bay. Most people view business and industry as the biggest polluters, while recent studies have blamed farmers and individuals for most of the Bay's problems.

"People still tend to think that the problems are big, old industrial polluters," Kostmayer said. While that is still a problem, he added, it is less so today than it once was. Some of the major sources of pollution stem from activities such as agriculture, the use of chemicals and fertilizers on lawns, and automobiles which contribute "nonpoint" pollution to the Bay. Only 7 percent of the respondents thought that individual actions were the most serious problem for the Bay. Twice that number, 14 percent, thought they were the least serious issue.

Fran Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance, said the survey results show that educators needed to "redouble" their efforts to "build a personal stewardship ethic" among the public.

"We have not done that job very well yet," she said. "We have work to do to really convince people that it's their own personal stewardship of natural resources, and the things that they do in their daily lives that's going to make the difference. I think we've got to find more effective ways of reaching individual citizens."

She also said better efforts must be made to tell people that after millions of dollars of investments by federal, state, and local governments, progress was being made. "If we don't get that message out there, I think the public support that we value so highly is really going to be eroded," she said.

The poll does show that the Bay Program's ultimate goal - restoration of healthy populations of its living resources - is shared by the public. The survey found that 67 percent of the public felt that water quality improvements should focus on making the Bay safe for aquatic life.

When asked how money should be spent to stop pollution from entering the Bay, 40 percent favored enforcement, 30 percent said education, 12 percent said technical assistance to volunteer groups, and 10 percent cited scientific research.

Kostmayer used the strong support for the Bay and enforcement actions to criticize politicians in the Bay states who advocate weakening environmental laws.

"I think, frankly, those candidates for political office who suggest, as they have been recently, that environmental rules are too strict, are really missing the boat," he said. "What we are talking about here is essentially an issue of the public health. When we talk about the health of the Chesapeake Bay, we talk about the health of all of the 14 million Americans who live within range of the Chesapeake Bay. We're talking about the ability to eat the fish. We're talking about the ability to swim. These are issues of the public health. And I think when it comes to protecting the public health in this country, the average American want strong, tough, effective law."

But if the public understands that the Bay is getting better - and that they are part of the problem - would support for the cleanup wane? Kostmayer said he didn't think so.

"I think if people know what to do, they would be willing to do it," he said. "I think the problem is that they don't know what to do. I think this is why public education is so important. People need to go home and look in the kitchen closet and see what they're pouring down the kitchen sink."

"As people become increasingly aware that we have met the enemy and it is us, as Pogo says, they will be willing to correct those things," Kostmayer said.