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Measuring the Soft Stuff — Evaluating Public Involvement in an Urban Watershed Restoration

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Abstract:

Urban watershed restoration relies on the success of a wide array of stakeholder efforts. Some stakeholder efforts are easy to measure – a municipality that builds a storm water retention basin can monitor flows and water quality to determine the effectiveness of the basin. Other stakeholder efforts, such as public involvement, are more difficult to measure. This paper presents a case study for measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of a public involvement and education strategy for the Rouge River Watershed in metropolitan Detroit. It focuses on the public opinion telephone survey results from 1999. This paper compares the 1999 survey responses to those obtained from a similar baseline watershed-wide survey conducted in 1993 and an intensive mail survey also conducted in 1999 in a smaller area of the watershed.

In 1993, the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project (Rouge Project) developed a strategy for public involvement. The strategy was based on a series of interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders, and a telephone survey of 400 individuals representing households in four distinct geographic units within portions of three southeast Michigan counties that comprise the watershed. The Rouge Project, supported by funding from the USEPA and local matching funds, used this strategy to guide its public information and stakeholder involvement activities from 1993 through 1999. In 1999, a new telephone public opinion survey was conducted to evaluate the success of the strategy and to guide further public involvement and education activities associated with implementation of Michigan's new voluntary, watershed based, general storm water permit.

The initial focus groups, interviews and telephone public opinion survey conducted as part of the Rouge Project in 1993 sought to establish a number of parameters important to development of an effective public education and stakeholder involvement strategy for the project. Stakeholders were asked questions to determine their perceptions of water quality in the river and the relative importance of environmental quality versus other public issues (i.e., education, crime, unemployment, and health care). Questions were asked about the relative priority of a series of environmental issues (i.e., air pollution, water quality, hazardous waste disposal, and clean up of toxic waste sites). Also, a series of questions was asked to determine the respondent's knowledge of the Rouge River, recreational uses, and quality of life issues.

Questions were also asked in the original surveys, focus groups and interviews to determine the stakeholders' willingness to change personal behavior in order to improve water quality, and their willingness to spend public funds to protect and restore the river. Finally, a series of questions were asked to determine how respondents obtained information about the environment (e.g., newspapers, television, friends, church, environmental organizations, etc.) and which organizations or entities they trusted most when it came to communicating information about the environment.

The results of the 1993 public opinion survey indicated that nearly one third of the residents were “not very familiar” with the watershed in which they lived. However, a surprising 83 percent indicated that they were at least “somewhat aware” of the then recent efforts to restore the Rouge River, although less than 10 percent were aware of the Rouge Project. Over half of those surveyed indicated that they had visited a nearby park with a river or stream running through it in the previous year. Nearly half of the respondents indicated that they thought the river had poor water quality and that industry and businesses were the major source of pollution. Over 60 percent believed more public dollars should be expended to improve the river and 87 percent indicated that they would be willing to change their behavior to help improve the river. A vast majority said that they relied upon television news programs and major newspapers for information about the environment. Those surveyed trusted the state department of natural resource experts, university professors and a local non-profit advocacy group–Friends of the Rouge–the most when information about the river was communicated to them.

The 1999 survey confirmed many of the public opinions and perceptions found in the 1993 survey, with some important exceptions. About one-third of those interviewed indicated that they believed that the most significant source of pollution to this urbanized watershed was due to industrial/commercial discharges. One-third believed municipal combined sewer overflows (CSOs) were the most significant, and one-third believed storm water runoff was the most important uncontrolled source of pollutants to the river. The Rouge Project spent considerable effort between 1993 and 1999 in providing information to the public on the relative contribution of point source industrial discharges, municipal CSOs, and storm water runoff to the existing water quality problems in the river.

Few people in the watershed were aware of the Rouge Project when the 1993 survey was conducted. The results of the 1999 survey indicated that a majority of the adults in the watershed are now aware of this cooperative local, state and federal effort to restore the Rouge River. The 1999 results also indicated that more people would now rank environmental concerns higher in terms of public priorities than they did in 1993. This increased environmental concern may relate directly to improved economic conditions in the area that was suffering a significantly high rate of unemployment and economic uncertainty in 1993, and unprecedented low unemployment and economic growth in 1999. Other surveys have found that public concerns over quality of life issues increase once basic needs of employment, housing health and safety are met.

The 1999 survey also added new questions to help focus the Rouge Project on priorities for consideration in the development of comprehensive watershed water quality improvement plans now being prepared through a cooperative effort of over 43 local and regional public agencies in the watershed. When asked what the most important goals should be for restoring the river, a vast majority of those interviewed indicated that public health and aesthetic concerns needed to addressed first. Those surveyed were asked their opinions on the most effective way to involve the public in the development of watershed management plans and a majority indicated that a community newsletter mailed directly to their homes was the most effective means to communicate information and solicit comment.

The interviews, focus groups and public opinion telephone surveys have proven to be effective techniques in determining the level of public knowledge about the Rouge River, how best to communicate information to stakeholders, and in determining how to involve stakeholders in the development of action plans to improve the river. The use of public opinion surveys can be an effective means to evaluate the success of public education efforts and to monitor stakeholder optimism and support for river protection and restoration efforts that involve public expenditures.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2175/193864700785149648

Publication date: January 1, 2000

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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