A new survey suggests that many of the Bay’s 15 million watershed “stewards” have little idea that their actions affect the Bay. And many routinely do things that can result in increased water pollution.

Some findings:

  • More than a third of dog walkers admitted that they never bother to pick up Fido’s doo-doo.

  • A full 25 percent of homeowners appear to overfertilize their yards each year — and only 1 in 10 bothered to have a soil test done to determine whether any fertilizer was even needed.

  • Half of all septic system owners admitted they hadn’t had their systems pumped out in the past three years. In fact, 12 percent didn’t even know where their septic systems were located.

“We have not articulated a good message about what it means to be a steward of your own half acre,” said Tom Schueler, director of the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit research organization that conducted the survey. “Clearly, the nutrient message and the watershed message have not hit home with everybody."

The survey was part of a research project by the Center to better understand individual behavior and what educational efforts are most likely to successfully modify that behavior.

First, the Center surveyed watershed residents about lawn care, septic system maintenance and pet waste disposal, all of which contribute water-fouling nutrients to the Chesapeake Bay.

Then, it examined nutrient education programs both in the watershed and around the country to determine their effectiveness at reaching residents.

“We felt that there wasn’t a great deal of information about specific watershed behaviors of individual residents,” Schueler said. “The key to educating them is to understand them, and find out who is doing what, what their attitudes are and what techniques they’re receptive to.”

But the findings were bad news on both fronts. Many people — including those well educated and considered environmentally aware — are doing things that could harm waterways. That’s not because they don’t care, but because they are pursuing other goals, such as a well-manicured lawn.

At the same time, most educational efforts were considered largely ineffective in reaching people with any coherent message to change that behavior.

“It’s a tough educational message to send,” Schueler acknowledged. “But we shouldn’t kid ourselves, or take any credit for nutrient reductions from the pitiful efforts that we have so far.”

The message is tough because most people still perceive pollution as being something that comes from the end of the pipe, not a byproduct of routine, daily activities. “We have tiptoed around the lifestyle question,” Schueler said. “And a lot of behaviors, whether it is car washing or septic system maintenance or lawn fertilization, are part of a suburban lifestyle.”

Results of the study, supported by the Chesapeake Research Consortium and the Chesapeake Bay Program, were published in a report, “A Survey of Residential Nutrient Behavior in the Chesapeake Bay.” Schueler and his colleagues have also written several papers based on the research which discuss watershed behavior and watershed education.

The findings are sobering because officials say that protecting the Bay in the future will rely on the stewardship efforts of millions of people inhabiting its 64,000-square-mile watershed. Not only is the number of people growing, but they are occupying more land, planting more lawns that need fertilizer, and building homes linked by roadways, which rush nutrient-laden runoff to waterways.

The trends are troubling. Runoff from urban and suburban areas account for about 10 percent of the nitrogen and 11 percent of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake, according to the Bay Program; an increase of 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively, from 1985 to 1996, a time when most other nutrient sources declined.

Septic system pollution grew even faster. While it contributes only about 4 percent of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake, that represents an increase of nearly 20 percent in just a decade — and the number of septic systems is expected to rise sharply in the future.

The cumulative impact of many individual actions could offset the nutrient reductions the Bay states have struggled to achieve. A new Bay Program report, “Maintaining Progress in Restoring the Chesapeake Bay: Holding the Line on Nutrient Pollution After 2000,” warned that efforts to “cap” the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Bay will require better stewardship by everyone.

“Reducing nutrient pollution in the face of population growth and development will require changes in individual behavior,” the report said. “Choices by homeowners, car owners and all consumers impact nutrient pollution.”

Schueler’s research shows that while many residents don’t understand their connection to local waterways and the Bay, but it’s not totally their fault: They are not getting much of a message.

Most programs aimed at educating homeowners are understaffed and underfunded. The survey found that most nutrient education programs got only $2,000 to $25,000 a year in funding — enough to pay for only one-tenth to one-half of a position.

Perhaps even worse, Schueler said, is the “enormous gap” between the way information is provided and the way people want to get it.

According to the Center’s survey of residents, media outreach in the form of newspapers, newsletters and television was the most popular way of getting nutrient management messages. Other research shows that up to 30 percent of the population can recall messages received through those venues.

But managers continue to use more traditional techniques of outreach such as training workshops and demonstration projects, which reach a much smaller segment of the population. “To achieve significant changes in resident behavior, modernizing the way that nutrient messages are relayed is necessary,” the report said.

Most communities can’t afford a massive media campaign to educate the public, Schueler said. But they can do a better job of optimizing resources by using surveys to identify behaviors that pose the greatest threat to waterways, and crafting clear messages to change them.

From there, Schueler suggests a two- pronged education approach.

First, a simple — preferably humorous rather than preachy or depressing — stewardship message is needed to broadly educate people about watersheds and why their actions make a difference. It’s a connection most people don’t make: A recent Roper survey found that only 41 percent of Americans had any idea of what the term watershed meant, and only 22 percent knew that runoff was the most common source of pollution to streams, rivers and oceans.

Schueler suggested that communities pool resources to improve educational campaigns.

He also said they could more effectively target audiences. For example, research shows the people most likely to fertilize the lawn are men ages 35–55 with a higher income and education, an audience that may be reached with radio ads on weekend sports events.

Another group is the 18– to 25-year-old “rubbish rebels” who have low watershed awareness, may engage in polluting behaviors — and are often employed in lawn care and service industries. This group may be more easily reached through ads on alternative radio stations or at concerts.

Resources can also be stretched by working with potential private sector allies in getting the message out. For example, Schueler said, septic companies would benefit by educating people about the importance of septic system maintenance. In addition, a growing number of lawn care companies are learning they can “sell” environmentally sensitive practices.

The second educational prong is a more complex message sent through intensive training workshops, consultation and guidebooks. Those would hit a smaller, but more interested audience who might share their information with others. While the broader media campaign can raise awareness about negative behavior, more intensive programs are superior at changing individual practices in the home, lawn and garden.

Both techniques need simple, clear-cut messages. Too often, Schueler said, educational materials give residents only “wishy-washy” statements like “use less fertilizer” or — on the other extreme — try to make up for tight budgets by packing too many messages into one publication, overwhelming the average resident.

With the two-pronged approach, Schueler estimated it was possible to shift the behavior of 10–20 percent of a watershed’s residents. Preventing pollution through education is still less expensive than the costly rebuilding of stormwater systems in developed areas to do a better job, he said.

“If you look at the cost of retrofitting a 10-square-mile watershed to reduce nutrient loadings with stormwater practices, you are talking about millions of dollars, and the cost per pound of nutrients removed is astronomical,” he said. “If you could change lawn fertilization, and increase septic system maintenance over a broad population, you could make a difference.”

Though tackling the “lifestyle issue” is daunting, it is not an impossible task. Schueler noted that efforts targeting littering, smoking and the dumping of used motor oil are all campaigns that have had some success.

“A steady campaign can make a difference,” Schueler said. “I think you can change many behaviors.”

Copies of the report, “A Survey of Residential Nutrient Behavior in the Chesapeake Bay,” are available for $25 from the Center for Watershed Protection. To order a copy, call 410- 461-8323.

Two papers discussing implications of the survey, “On Watershed Education,” and “Understanding Watershed Behavior,” are available on the Center’s web page at www.cwp.org

Developing a Watershed Ethic

Here are some suggestions from Tom Schueler and his colleague Chris Swann, of the Center for Watershed Protection, for messages that effectively build a “watershed ethic” in the population:

  • Inspect septic systems annually, and pump them out regularly.

  • Apply no fertilizer or pesticides to lawns.o Minimize turf area and avoid growing lawns in regions where the climate cannot sustain them without supplemental irrigation.

  • Gradually replace lawns with native trees, shrubs and ground covers.

  • Cultivate lawns with the primary goal of absorbing the runoff from roofs.

  • Choose vehicles with low emissions and inspect them regularly.

  • Choose, in where we live, to reduce the miles we travel and prevent sprawl.

  • Be sensible in water use, as the cumulative demand for water during dry weather dramatically affects the flow of urban streams and rivers.

  • Use a commercial car wash, or at least wash cars on lawns using phosphorus-free detergents.

  • Avoid using hoses or leaf-blowers near the street or storm drain.

  • Maintain neighborhood stormwater practices, buffers or conservation areas.

  • Take responsibility for disposing of the wastes of pets and hobby livestock.