Despite good intentions, many of us don’t necessarily change our behaviors to help protect the health of local waters. What would make the difference? Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant researchers combined social science and biophysical data to understand the likelihood that residents of northwest Indiana would implement practices that can be beneficial to water quality.
Among other findings, the research team found that people are more likely to adopt a conservation practice if it is something their friends or neighbors are doing.
Zhao Ma and Sara McMillan, both of Purdue University, focused their study on two Indiana watersheds that flow into Lake Michigan—the East Branch–Little Calumet River watershed and the Trail Creek watershed—quantifying pollution inputs and interviewing and surveying residents.
The research team divided the population into five groups that covered a range of urban, rural and agricultural landowners to assess each group’s contribution to local water pollution and learn about their willingness to adopt practices that might make a difference.
For each group, the scientists assessed ongoing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment inputs as well as conservation practices already in place. These practices, also known as best management practices, are effective and practical approaches to reduce pollution and protect water quality, such as rain barrels and rain gardens in urban areas, and cover crops and conservation tillage in agricultural settings.
Overall, researchers found that participants were aware of water quality issues. “But what we’ve learned is that urban residents think farmers are the problem and farmers think urban residents are the problem” said Ma, a social scientist. “People tend to blame others.”
The study found that all five groups do, in fact, contribute to water pollution. The researchers also conducted a survey experiment by randomly including this information in some surveys to assess its impact on responses. But, when participants learned they are responsible for water pollution, this did not necessarily impact their willingness to adopt practices to reduce water pollution. Unless they already wanted to take action, survey respondents generally were unmoved by learning their contribution to local water pollution.
Providing general information on possible best management practices for improving water quality was not a key component for changing behaviors either, but it may provide a motivation for water resource professionals to engage in one-on-one discussions and explanations with residents.
“We learned that survey respondents didn’t necessarily have the knowledge or capacity to figure out if a conservation practice would work for them—this was a major barrier to action,” said Ma. “Residents knew what’s possible generally, but they wanted someone to help them decide what practices fit with their specific property and way of life.”
On the other hand, social norms are an important component in people’s decision making. Social norms include both descriptive norms—what you can observe in plain sight, such as your neighbors using rain barrels—and more subjective norms, for instance, what you think people expect of you.
The research team confirmed previous studies, demonstrating that people are socially driven. Generally, if we realize neighbors, friends and trusted peers are taking action, this makes us more likely to do something, too. Social norms can be a much bigger motivator to adopt conservation practices than information alone, and sometimes works better than other types of incentives.
For those interested in motivating residents, Ma suggests thinking about ways to capitalize on social norms. “Consider organizing community events or programming that encourages people to talk to each other—they become more aware of what others are doing and what is expected of them from their community,” she said. “Community role models and opinion leaders can also play an important role. The social aspect should be part of the solution strategy to protect water quality.”
The researchers have one more piece to this project. They are running different modeling scenarios to understand the realistic potential of using conservation practices to reduce water pollution in the watersheds. With that information, they will be able to further identify groups of residents to target for increased education, assistance and incentives to promote adoption of conservation practices.
You can listen to a podcast interview of Zhao Ma discussing this research in the first “Teach Me About the Great Lakes” Researcher Feature.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.
Writer: Irene Miles, 217.333.8055, firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a chilly May 12th, cloudy and windy as well. But 29 sixth graders from West Side Middle School in East Chicago, Indiana came to nearby Roxana Marsh to experience what the outdoors has to offer, learn new things, help with the cleanup and restoration of the natural area, and enjoy the afternoon.
Roxana Marsh is part of the larger Grand Calumet River Area of Concern, which has been undergoing dredging through the Great Lakes Legacy Act over the past six years. The marsh section of the project was completed three years ago with the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of sediment.
This accomplishment was celebrated with a press event attended by government officials and local school children. Those middle schoolers left their legacy in perennial plants that are now thriving along the marsh. This year’s class is the third group of gardeners in what may well become an annual tradition.
In addition to planting natives, the students learned the basics of birding, explored the small community of life in sediment, and manned trash bags for garbage detail. There were water beetles, egrets, killdeer, toads, dragonfly nymphs, and more to experience.
Throughout their afternoon tour, the 6th graders were guided by experts from Audubon Chicago Region, U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Indiana’s departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Dunes Learning Center, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
The first surprise for the students was just how close the natural area is to their school and their world. “They had no idea that this was here or about the dredging and restoration, said teacher Linda Padilla. “They were sure we would be going someplace farther away.”
Last June, she took part in a one-day workshop at Purdue University Calumet, which introduced the Helping Hands curriculum to 25 local educators. Helping Hands activities are ideally suited to schools in Areas of Concern that are going through the cleanup process—they provide opportunities to directly engage students in the larger project. The workshop also included a visit to several sites on the Grand Cal to see the dredging work in progress as well to walk around a finished site—Roxana Marsh.
Caitie McCoy, IISG environmental social scientist, has been helping keep residents informed during the dredging. She saw the Grand Cal project as an opportunity to connect students with their environment.
“The cleanup and restoration of the Grand Calumet River is brightening the northwest Indiana landscape,” she explained. “This work transforms space into places that students can visit, perform stewardship work, and develop pride in their local environment. Environmental educators teach students that nature is in their backyard, but for these students, high quality nature is in their backyard, right here in East Chicago, Indiana.”
At one point, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in the country. Through the remediation process, more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from this waterway, which runs through a highly-populated region. If funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues and non-federal cost share partners are secured, the river work could finish as early as 2019.
Indiana communities along Lake Michigan are celebrating this year’s SepticSmart Week, Sept. 22-26, by reminding homeowners of the importance of septic system maintenance to environmental and public health.
An estimated 60,000 households in Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties depend on septic systems to treat wastewater. Without regular maintenance, these systems can backup or overflow, contaminating nearby lakes, rivers, and groundwater supplies with everything from excess nutrients to E. coli to pharmaceutical chemicals. Septic system failures are also one of the primary causes of beach closures in Indiana.
To prevent failures, U.S. EPA and the Northwest Indiana Septic System Coordination Work Group has some advice for homeowners:
Protect it and inspect it: Have your system inspected every three years by a licensed contractor and have your tank pumped when necessary, typically every 3-5 years. Many septic system failures occur during the holiday season, so be sure to get your system inspected and serviced now before inspectors’ schedules fill up around the holidays.
Think at the sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease and solids down the drain. These substances can clog pipes and the drain field.
Don’t overload the commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. Coffee grounds, dental floss, diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can clog and damage septic systems.
Don’t strain your drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day. Too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Shield your field: Remind guests not to park or drive on the drain field, which could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
The Northwest Indiana Septic System Coordination Work Group brings together federal, state, and local governments and agencies, state and county health departments, and not-for-profits to provide homeowners with information and assistance on the proper care of septic systems. IISG’s Leslie Dorworth has been a part of the group since it began in 2012. For more information or to get involved locally, contact Dorreen Carey at the Indiana DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program at 219-921-0863 or email@example.com.
SepticSmart Week is part of U.S. EPA’s year-round SepticSmart program. In addition to educating property owners, the program is an online resource for industry practitioners, local governments and community organizations that provides access to tools to educate clients and residents.
Educators from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin attended IISG’s workshop Nov. 9-10 to increase the presence of Great Lakes science in their classrooms and to improve student awareness of issues related to the Lakes.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant partnered with Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and the National Park Service Great Lakes Research and Education Center and the Dunes Learning Center to host the workshops, which provided opportunities for teachers to engage in science and math data collection and hands-on field work. Educators previewed Sea Grant’s Greatest of the Great Lakes and Fresh and Salt curricula to familiarize themselves with the diverse range of learning formats to enhance their science, math, and engineering units, as well as activities from Great Lakes in My World by the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Also, as part of the new Center for Great Lakes Literacy, workshop attendees learned how to help protect and restore coastal areas in the Lake Michigan watershed through a variety of teaching methods.
All of the teachers who attended this year’s workshop were excited to learn about programs like the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach, as well as the many exciting student stewardship activities offered by the Shedd Aquarium, the Dunes Learning Center, and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore botanists. They also enjoyed the hands-on activities, including using the Enviroscape model to learn about point source/non-point source pollution, and learning how to use GLNPO’s Hydrolab water quality monitoring instrument.
The feedback and comments from teachers was especially positive. Said one attendee, “You’ve given me great ideas about water quality, drinking water, invasive and noninvasive species, habitat restoration, and stewardship projects I can provide for my kids to become ‘Great Lakes literate.’”
To learn more about IISG’s educational programs and resources, visit our education webpage, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more events, workshops, and information.
This Center for Great Lakes Literacy project was funded through a grant from the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office.
Changes in weather patterns, such as warmer winters and lower rainfall averages, can have large effects on water availability, lake levels, plant and fish life, and more. Because so many people and industries rely on the Great Lakes, those changes can have a significant impact beyond the obvious, as is the case for the shipping industry.
“For decades, the mathematics of waterborne transport here were simple. For every 10 to 11 metric tons of cargo that moved into and out of the Toledo port, about one metric ton of sediment left the channel. (Last year, 10.4 million metric tons of cargo were handled at the port.)
But with climate change, the equation is almost certain to get more complex and more expensive, say scientists and port managers. More mid-winter snow melts and rainstorms — and more frequent heavy rainfalls, especially in spring — may lead to higher soil-erosion rates, meaning that Great Lakes rivers are likely to carry more soil into harbors. Higher air temperatures already are warming the Great Lakes, blocking ice from forming, and increasing rates of evaporation that may lead to lower lake levels.”
Follow the link above to read the complete article on these potential consequences for the Great Lakes, the shipping and transportation industry, and the communities that rely on these resources.
Ensuring safety for visitors to Lake Michigan involves several factors, many departments and people, and a terrific amount of work. And still, unless good, accurate information reaches visitors and people who need it, potential problems can’t be avoided.
One such concern each summer season is the presence of rip currents
– a strong flow of water under the surface that carries away from the shore. Each year, swimmers and surfers in all major bodies of water can be endangered by the presence of these currents. That is why developing a more accurate and immediate way of warning beachgoers about rip currents is incredibly important, and why the National Weather Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, life guards at several beaches, and other organizations are partnering to develop and share information about rip currents.
From the Northwest Indiana Times:
“…the National Weather Service’s Chicago office in Romeoville, Ill., and the Northern Indiana office teamed up with beach operators to enhance predicting and warning of rip currents along Lake Michigan’s beaches in an effort to reduce drowning deaths.
In addition to modeling to predict rip currents, forecasters now have the help of lifeguards at beaches at Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton, Washington Park in Michigan City, Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Mich., and Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph, Mich. The lifeguards report water conditions twice daily and can see the rip currents in the water from their guard stands.”
Read the complete article here
, and find information about rip currents and beach conditions at the Great Lakes Beach Hazards
from NOAA. And most importantly, stay safe and have fun this summer at all of the Great Lakes.