Minnesotans admit they don't know much about pollution in the state's lakes and rivers, but they know what concerns them most: Having fish that are safe to eat.

Asked to name their top three water quality concerns for a survey by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, most respondents said clean water for the consumption of fish mattered most, followed by clean water for drinking and swimming.

The agency developed the survey as part of an effort to discover Minnesotans' priorities and how to discuss water quality issues with the public.

Overall, 98 percent of respondents said lakes and rivers are an important aspect of life in Minnesota. But 42 percent said they were "not at all knowledgeable" about water quality issues.

Trevor Russell, Watershed Program director at Friends of the Mississippi River, said he was not surprised that human health issues, such as fish contamination, mattered most to respondents.

"It makes pollution issues more tangible," Russell said. "It's taking an environmental issue and putting it home on your dining room table."

Russell said he was surprised to learn that the impact of agriculture on water quality placed in the top five concerns in two portions of the survey. Farming is exempt from the main federal statute governing water pollution, the Clean Water Act, a fact that surprises many Minnesotans, Russell said.

"It indicates that Minnesotans are starting to link cause and effect more than before," he said.

The survey suggests that, while people are aware of water quality issues, they don't always understand the underlying causes, according to Rep. Jean Wagenius, chair of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.

"The missing piece is understanding why this is happening and how you can fix it," Wagenius said.

Large quantities of data

In releasing the survey results, agency officials admitted they don't have a strong system for disseminating water quality information to the general public. The vast majority of survey respondents said they have never received information about the pollution control agency.

Since the agency releases such large quantities of data, often in 300- to 400-page reports, people often find it difficult to find information that interests them, said Cori Rude-Young, who works in the agency's communication and outreach office and served as a leader for the study.

"We've been working pretty hard to take this technical information and boil it down to something people want to read," Rude-Young said.

Some environmental advocates said they hope the survey helps the agency communicate pollution challenges more effectively.

"Quite frankly, I think at times they have been so browbeaten by special interests that they sometimes are reluctant to say what the science is," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

The agency plans to use the data to tailor its messages to more specific communities, according to Glenn Skuta, Surface Water Monitoring manager.

For example, the agency found that water cleanliness for fishing mattered most to people in the southwest part of the state, swimming quality ranked highest in the north-central region, and mining was a big concern in the northeast.

Russell said he agrees that people tend to identify most with specific bodies of water — the lakes in their back yards, for example. He said he thinks it's the agency's responsibility to present its research in bite-sized pieces that all Minnesotans can understand.

"As the science advances, it becomes harder for people to keep up," Russell said. "In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, no one can be expected to know it all."

The agency contracted with the state's division of Management Analysis and Development (MAD) to carry out a portion of the study, the first of its kind for the group, which took place between July 2013 and June 2014.

The MAD portion of the survey reached 958 members of such interest groups as lake associations and farming organizations. In addition to this "interested general public," researchers collaborated with the state Department of Transportation to send online surveys to 280 research subjects from the general public across the state. Despite the differences in the two survey groups, findings were fairly consistent.

Samantha Schmidt • 612-673-4641