Social norms help motivate people to adopt practices that protect water quality

March 4th, 2020 by

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,

Intern Blog: Crystal Hall conducts research with USGS

October 10th, 2018 by

Crystal Hall is interning with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) as a recent graduate of Purdue University Northwest (PNW) with a B.S. in Biology and a concentration in Ecology. Funded by IISG and mentored by Leslie Dorworth, an aquatic ecology specialist with IISG and PNW, Hall is positioned with the U.S. Geological Survey to carry out work that moves projects forward through IISG, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

When I started my internship working with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise other than something with fish. To be honest, I still don’t fully know. Over the six months I have spent at USGS, I have learned a great deal of information and have gotten to know a wonderful group of people.

I have worked on several projects and learned new things from each:

Round Goby Mesocosm

The purpose of the round goby mesocosm project is to look at the shed and decay rates of round goby DNA in water and sediment. Several round goby were placed into a tank, and weekly water and sediment samples were taken for environmental DNA (eDNA). After a set amount of time, the round goby were removed and weekly water and sediment samples continued to be taken to see how long before no round goby DNA was detected. Throughout this project, I learned a lot about eDNA and how concentrations are different in water and sediment.


Crystal Hall sits at a work station, separating zebra mussels from quagga mussels

Hall separates zebra mussels from quagga mussels on June 4, 2018. (Photo U.S. Geological Survey)

On the Cladophora project, we deployed EXO2 water quality sondes in the Great Lakes and collected samples of dreissenid mussels and Cladophora algae from several depths and quadrants for biomass and nutrient processing. Researchers are seeking to understand the influence of phosphorus on Cladophora growth. I have learned to successfully identify zebra mussels from quagga mussels. And I’ve learned that it is not zebra mussels invading the Great Lakes anymore—it’s quagga mussels.

Area of Concern

We test for E. coli in the water at Whihala Beach and Hammond Port Authority, which are part of the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern. This information is used to notify the public of whether the beach is safe for swimming. Scientists used to test several other beaches in the area as well, but many were removed from the project because the water quality improved and met standards.

Artificial Reef

A year ago, an artificial reef was put in at Jeorse Park Beach by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a large-scale restoration project for the beach. The U.S. Army Corps were hoping the reef would attract a number of native fish species that had once been in the area. In the artificial reef project I’m working on, I am assisting a master’s student with research that aims to see if this artificial reef has actually attracted native fish, or if round goby have colonized the reef since they’re attracted to rocky substrate.

Monthly water samples are taken and filtered for eDNA from several locations at Jeorse Park Beach, including surface water samples at the reef and water samples right above the substrate of the reef. After the sampling is complete, the DNA will be sequenced using fish primers for fish found in Lake Michigan to determine the composition of fish in the water based on the eDNA. Part of the project will be comparing the eDNA to traditional methods of monitoring (e.g., electroshocking).


I’ve learned so much. Before this internship, I knew nothing about freshwater reefs and artificial reefs. I didn’t know that breakwalls altered the flow of water in a way that can cause a buildup of E. coli and lead to unsafe water conditions. When I began my internship, everyone would talk about ongoing projects and try to inform me about the details of each one, but there was a lot that I didn’t understand. I’m proud to say that has changed, and now I am able to explain to others the projects we are doing, why we are conducting research in certain ways and what we are hoping to find.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to intern at USGS through Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and to work with a great group of people. I have definitely gotten more out of my internship than I was ever expecting, and while I still don’t know what I would like to do as a career choice, I’ve discovered that working on projects like these is certainly an option and something I very much enjoy.

Learn more about our internship opportunities online, or contact Angie Archer at (765)496-3722,

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

New video series helps gardeners get started

March 16th, 2017 by

Follow Illinois Water Resources Specialist Katie Hollenbeck as she shares easy tips for creating pollinator-friendly gardens and landscapes. Over the course of this seven-part series, she talks about everything from when to plant to how to create beautiful gardens with native plants.

“We really hope to connect with people interested in creating gardens with many purposes, like protecting water and soil quality, supporting pollinators and other wildlife, and planting plants native to this region,” Hollenbeck said.

“There are number of different kinds of plants that attract pollinators. People can really have fun designing a garden with lots of beautiful options.”

Be sure to check out all seven of the videos now available online!

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

Species spotlight: Opossum shrimp

March 8th, 2016 by

What do you get when you cross a marsupial and a crustacean? The answer, as you may have guessed from the title, is none other than the opossum shrimp. Otherwise known as the order Mysidia, these creatures’ colloquial classification comes from the brood pouch present in the species’ females. This sets the order apart from other crustaceans, whose larvae are free-swimming.

The inter-species similarities don’t stop there, however, as the tails of opossum shrimp branch off into two distinct parts, resembling those of lobsters. But taken as a whole, this animal most closely resembles crayfish, having one pair of stalked eyes, two pairs of antennae, and eight limbs – the foremost two (known as maxillipeds), function like arms and hands, and are used for filtering plankton and other organic material from the water, while the following six (known as pereopods), are used for swimming. All these features are wrapped up in a relatively small package, with the majority of species ranging from a tenth of an inch to an inch.

Opossum shrimp can and do live in marine, brackish, and freshwater ecosystems, and are found the world over — Great Lakes included. They are benthic (water bottom) and pelagic (open water) organisms that migrate daily, moving downwards towards areas with less sunlight during the day, then returning to higher depths at night.

This curious crustacean is perhaps most well-known for its utility. A short reproductive cycle and a high adaptability to water conditions make opossum shrimp ideal organisms to culture in laboratories. Able to create and sustain large populations with relative ease, they are used as feed for other cultured organisms, like lake trout.

Like the lake sturgeon, opossum shrimp are sensitive to their surroundings. As such, they are often implemented as a way to monitor water quality, with researchers observing physical or behavioral differences in response to pollution.

Brandon Steppan is an intern from the English department at the University of Illinois. 

Update: This article has been corrected. The original version described the opossum shrimp as moving upwards towards areas with more sunlight during the day, then returning to lower depths at night, sometimes forming clusters as they swim. We also updated it to remove the reference to lake trout as a marine organism.

Students brave winter weather to study water quality

March 11th, 2015 by
Earlier this year, AP science students at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep traded in their textbooks for field equipment to study water quality in the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Hydrolab allows students to monitor water characteristics like dissolved oxygen, pH, and conductivity with sensors similar to those used by scientists at the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. The teacher, Dianne Lebryk, borrowed the equipment through the Limno Loan program to help students better understand the connection between water quality and man-made landscapes. 

Several students wrote in to share their experiences working with the Hydrolab. We wrap things up today with Gayin Au. 

Under the circumstances of an extremely frosty cold weather, our environmental classmates were still very eager to head out and experience the Hydrolab. As soon as we reached the river by our school, we saw a lot of trash in the river. The water looked very dense and had a very dark green color. 

Two people were responsible for holding the Hydrolab since it was quite heavy. The others stood back to watch. I was surprised that we were able to get results really quick; at first I thought it would take a lot of time to process the information.

Goose poop, which is high in nitrate, dissolves and mixes into the water and plants use this nitrogen to keep them nice and fertilized. However, the river is also greatly harming the living things in it. The water lacked oxygen, meaning it will be more difficult for living things in there to survive. It also might mean there aren’t enough plants underwater to keep the normal level of oxygen up. It was greatly contaminated, and fish and other organisms will be affected, making them act unusually.  

The lab was really quick and useful. It showed us the oxygen level, how much algae is in there, how polluted the river is in general, and more. The river goes by so many things that can affect it. Human trash, fertilizer, and goose poop (common near our school thanks to large fields of grass) all affect the quality of water. 



Website of the week: Bringing science to life has never been so easy

January 28th, 2015 by

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

For over two years, the Limno Loan program has been shaking up science class across the Great Lakes region. Coordinated by IISG and the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, the program gives students an opportunity to collect water quality data from local waterways with the same kind of monitoring sensors used by scientist aboard the R/V Lake Guardian. 

And now, teachers can take their Hydrolab projects one step further with help from IISG’s new Limno Loan site. In addition to information about the equipment and the parameters it measures, the site provides lessons and activities to help teachers K-12 better integrate the Hydrolab into their aquatic science sections. 

The activities, most of which were created by educators who used the equipment in their own classrooms, focus on demonstrating the connections between water quality, aquatic food webs, and human activities. Sample water quality data sheets are also available. 
The website also provides a unique opportunity for classes to share their data and compare it to information collected by fellow students across the region. 

New activities will be added as they are developed, so be sure to check back later. You can also read more
 about how the Limno Loan program has helped improve student understanding of Great Lakes sciences in our Winter 2012 Helm

Keeping drinking water safe still presents challenges

December 18th, 2014 by
Earlier this week, we celebrated the 40thanniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This law allows us to feel safe taking a sip from a water fountain or filling a glass from the tap virtually anywhere in the United States. It’s undeniably a feat worth celebrating, but it’s not to say that delivering safe drinking water to millions of Americans is without its challenges—as this year’s events in Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio prove.

One of the largest challenges lies in the system itself. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is more than a century old and in desperate need of repair. Leaky pipes and broken water mains cost the country around 6 billion gallons of water every day—roughly 16 percent of our daily use. In the Great Lakes region alone, the annual water loss is enough to supply 1.9 million Americans with safe drinking water for a year.

In northeastern Illinois, the cost of leaky pipes is heightened by overtaxed aquifers and legal limits on how much water can be pulled from Lake Michigan. And as the region’s population grows, there is increasing concern that demand for clean water will outpace supply if communities don’t take steps to encourage conservation, including adjusting water prices to reflect the real costs.  
Treating water to meet national standards poses its own problems. In fact, some of the chemicals used to treat contaminants regulated under SDWA have themselves proven toxic under the right conditions.
Water suppliers today also face the question of how to deal with emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals and chemicals found in personal care products. Our wastewater and drinking water systems weren’t designed with these in mind and often don’t eliminate them. These chemicals have been found across the country in the rivers and lakes we rely on for fresh water, including Lake Michigan. In fact, a 2008 Associated Press investigation found pharmaceuticals and their byproducts in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. They’re present in very small concentrations—too small to be toxic to humans. But the long-term risk to humans is still largely unknown. What is clear is that at least some pose a significant threat to aquatic wildlife.  
One of the biggest culprits in lake and river pollution is stormwater runoff. When it flows into waterways, runoff brings everything with it—from gasoline and trash on city streets to fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farms. These pollutants and the algae growth they spur on can make it more expensive to treat drinking water. In rare cases, water quality can drop so low that it doesn’t meet federal standards even with treatment. And concerns about pollutant-laden stormwater runoff continue to grow in the Midwest as storms get bigger.  

Fortunately, while public water systems and communities continue to grapple with these and other challenges at a larger scale, there is a lot individuals can do day-to-day. For example, properly disposing of unwanted medicine can help keep pharmaceutical chemicals out of waterways and drinking supplies. Homeowners and gardeners can also adopt natural lawn care practices that reduce water usage and prevent landscape chemicals from washing into nearby rivers and lakes. Even simple practices like washing your car with a bucket and sponge or waiting for a full load to start the washing machine can go a long way towards conserving water. 

Visit EPA’s Conserving Water site for more information and tips. 

This day in history: Drinking water standards go national

December 16th, 2014 by
Grab a glass, turn on the faucet, and take a drink. It’s a simple thing we do every day without much thought. But it wasn’t that long ago that at least parts of the country had reason to pause before reaching for tap water. As recently as the 1970s, in fact, concerns over drinking water quality were high and news was abuzz with reports of contaminants that posed risks to public health.
The tides began to turn on Dec. 16, 1974 when President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) into law. One in a string of environmental legislation, the act set the stage for the first national health-based standards for drinking water. 
The standards—set by U.S. EPA and enforced primarily by the states—set maximum levels for roughly 90 contaminants ranging from pesticides to human waste to naturally-occurring chemicals that can endanger public health. The more than 150,000 public water systems regulated under SDWA are required to test for contaminants and make changes when standards aren’t met.
Over the years, Congress has expanded SDWA several times. The original act focused primarily on treatment processes and technologies. Today, states are also required to assess the quality of rivers, lakes, and groundwater used for drinking water and determine their vulnerability to contamination. Grant and loan programs were also established in 1996 to help providers, particularly small water systems, protect source water, improve treatment processes, and train system operators and managers.   
The 1996 amendments also make it easier for you to learn where your water comes from, how it is treated, and what you can do to protect drinking water supplies. Community water systems are required to provide this information in annual consumer confidence reports. You can also get answers to specific questions by calling the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline.
Despite these improvements, ensuring Americans have access to safe drinking water is not without its challenges. Check back here later this week for more information on some of the major obstacles faced by water providers and communities.  

Friday Foto: Green infrastructure funding is part of newly-signed Clean Water Initiative

July 25th, 2014 by

This week Governor Pat Quinn signed the Clean Water Initiative, which will provide financial support for communities in Illinois to improve stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water infrastructure, and be better prepared to cope with the impacts of climate change – increased risk of drought and extreme precipitation.

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