Turns out there isn't much social cohesion around caring for water. Mae Davenport, one of the researchers at the University of Minnesota who studies human attitudes and behavior on the environment recently completed a survey of 750 land owners in two metro area watershed districts -- Sand Creek in Scott County and the Vermillion River in Dakota County. The majority were male, white and middle-aged.
She wanted to find out how people felt about their personal obligations and responsibility for protecting the creeks in their neighborhoods and backyards. The vast majority were worried about the impact of water pollution future generations and wildlife, and most felt they were responsible to help protect it.
But most said they almost never talked about it with their neighbors or community.
The Vermillion River. Star Tribune photo
"There is a strong sense of individual responsibility, but not the collective," Davenport said. "There is a lack of civic engagement around water resources."
In other words, it's not a shared "social norm," and until it is the state-wide strategy of improving water quality watershed by watershed is not likely to work, she said.
"That’s one of the biggest barriers to this watershed approach," she said. One landowner cannot improve the quality of a river. It takes all of them to accept the "shared responsibility and benefits of living near a stream," she said.
It's not possible to change people's values, she said. But understanding attitudes is critical for the local governments who are trying to improve the water in their area. That way they can come up with plans and programs that touch on what people do care about, and find ways to raise the noise level in the community.