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Raising Groundwater Awareness – A Rural Ontario Case Study

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A lack of community interest and involvement is a significant limiting factor when implementing local groundwater protection strategies. This is particularly evident where the rural community has been asked to change farm and home activities to protect what has been portrayed as a rural source of groundwater for an urban water supply. The lack of community interest is significant because changing daily activities around the home and farm are likely more effective for protecting groundwater than the most comprehensive strategy. Unfortunately, most groundwater protection strategies limit awareness and education to the traditional community consultation approach. The traditional approach typically involves talking to the rural community about groundwater protection efforts, but does not help the community members understand how they can help protect groundwater.

An alternative approach is to view the rural community as a group of potential partners who can implement groundwater protection activities by changing their activities around the home and farm. This involves a considerable philosophical shift for agency or government from the traditional approach, and requires an understanding of how individual community members' process and act on information. Some concepts important from an agency or governmental perspective, such as aquifer protection, need to be replaced by messages relevant to the community members: such as protecting their water supply quality. Further, the message must be delivered so that it catches the community's attention. It needs to be meaningful, memorable, and must indicate clearly what can be done to protect groundwater.

The use of such an alternative approach is demonstrated by a case study from the Regional Municipality in Ontario, Canada. To address the lack of rural community interest, representatives from a variety of rural agencies and stakeholder groups came together to cooperatively develop the objectives, content and delivery of a Rural Groundwater Awareness Program (RGAP) during 1995 and 1996. The objectives or core messages of the program were selected based on known concerns of the rural community – specifically, protecting family health and increasing economic benefits by changing household and agricultural activities, thereby protecting groundwater quality. The content was developed around a number of best management practices that could readily be implemented around the rural home and farm, many of which could also be implemented by the urban community. The program messages were delivered to the rural community using a series of eye-catching brochures and public presentations – at public events such as rural fairs, schools, and public libraries. The RGAP messages and materials were then pilot-tested in 1997 by distributing them to 200 rural households, along with a voucher for a free bacteria and nitrate water quality test. This was followed up with a questionnaire designed to determine if the program was useful, if it could be improved, and to learn more about the households and their information needs.

Twenty-four percent of the households took advantage of free bacteria and nitrate testing of water samples. Of these, 91% had nitrate concentrations below the Ontario Drinking Water Objective of 10 mg/L. Approximately 19% of the questionnaires were returned. Of these 78 percent indicated that the information packages could be remembered, 68% found them useful, and 49% stated that actions had been taken as described in the materials. Approximately 50% of respondents either lived or worked on a farm. Of these 52% were aware of, had undertaken or completed an Ontario Environmental Farm Plan. All respondents concluded that the RGAP program and materials were useful and important. This paper presents a detailed summary and evaluation of the sampling and questionnaire results, and their importance for groundwater awareness and education efforts.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2002-01-01

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