Every time in rains in Anne Arundel County, it pours bacteria into its local streams and tidal creeks, making them off-limits to users. That’s a big deal, as residents in the county love their access to the water — with 533 miles, it has more shoreline than any other county in Maryland.
Soon, county residents — at least those who own dogs — might be asked to help solve the problem. Later this year, the county’s stormwater program hopes to launch a campaign urging dog owners to pick up after their pets before their wastes get swept down the storm drain, adding to local bacteria problems.
The county isn’t operating in the dark when it comes to targeting dogs. In a recent survey, they found that nearly half of its households — 48 percent — have a dog.
And they even have an idea of what activity to target. County officials were surprised to learn that while dog owners do a good job of keeping their own yard tidy when it comes to scooping doggy-doo, they are less likely to do so when out on streets and sidewalks.
“That was kind of a shock to us,” said Robb Fish, the stormwater education specialist for the county’s Watershed Protection and Restoration Program. “Our logic said that most people would pick it up when they were out and about. But most people [only] picked it up when they were on their own property.”
Fish and his colleagues are still developing the campaign, but that information will help them fine-tune their strategy, identify places to target and find techniques to get the word out. For instance, he said, they may enlist dog-owning “ambassadors” to offer friendly reminders to others to scoop their animal waste when walking their pets.
“It could be more peer pressure,” Fish said. “As opposed to coming from the government, the message would come from someone that person potentially trusts.”
Like other municipalities with a stormwater discharge permit, the county is required to have a public education program to help citizens understand their role in contributing to stormwater runoff — and what they can do to reduce their impact. But like other municipalities, its program faced a fundamental problem.
“We realized we did not know what people think regarding stormwater, or about their own actions, and how those actions potentially have an impact,” Fish said. Without that, he said, it was hard to craft effective outreach strategies.
Survey measures involvement
That changed last year when — thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust — the county was able to conduct of survey of more than 600 of its residents about stormwater, water quality and their individual activities.
For instance, 27.6 percent of county residents say they “always” pick up litter when they see it, but only 19.7 percent “always” or “usually” take care to sweep lawn fertilizer off hard surfaces where it can easily be washed into the stormwater system.
Overall, most findings were similar to those for a similar survey conducted for the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed as a whole, although Anne Arundel County residents — living right on the Bay’s edge — tended to be a bit more knowledgeable about water quality issues than the watershed as a whole.
Last year, the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program conducted a survey of 5,200 watershed residents to measure individual engagement in efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake and the rivers and streams that ultimately drain into it. The effort included many of the same questions as those used in Anne Arundel. It was performed by the same outfit, OpinionWorks, an Annapolis-based research firm.
Ultimately, the goal of the surveys is to provide data that helps local and state officials, and even local watershed groups, better understand what citizens do — and do not know. That will help them develop strategies to improve both citizens’ knowledge and level of engagement over time.
The need for such programs was illustrated by the Baywide survey. It found that 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.
New efforts needed
Improving that is important. 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 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.
In a roughly 13-minute call, the 5,200 respondents — representing all of the watershed states — were asked about adopting 19 actions to improve water quality and environmental health: 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).
Based on that data, the Bay Program developed a “Stewardship Index” that merged all of 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. In between were Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia at 24 and New York at 26.
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.
Across the Bay watershed, 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 a group in their community offering water quality volunteer actions that they could join.
“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.
Support & action critical
“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 many agencies, and even advocacy organizations, view behavior change as “outside their comfort zone.”
One of the next steps, Wetzel said, is to build a new searchable website — which should be available next year — that includes the survey data. This would allow watershed organizations and local governments to examine data about particular behaviors in different areas to 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.
Indeed, that is what Fish said he hopes for in Anne Arundel County.
“I’m a pretty data-driven guy, so this helps me wrap my head around things,” he said. “But it also helps to justify developing something that is outside of the box. You have that data to help justify it either to the administration or to the supervisors once you get it developed and you need resources to implement it.”
“I’m looking forward to utilizing it to help us improve our education and outreach program through the county.”
For details on the Bay Program survey and some of its results, visit chesapeakeprogress.com/engaged-communities/citizen-stewardship.
Answering the call: a sample 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 is 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 a grass lawn with other vegetation: 26 percent
- Keep fertilizer off hard surfaces: 21 percent
- Create 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 said they are likely to do so in the future.
- Only 47 percent of residents usually or always bag, mulch or compost 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 of residents said 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
- Asian - 71 percent agree
- Black - 58 percent agree
- Hispanic - 57 percent agree