New Survey Explores Americans’ Relationship to Water

People's personal connections to water and where they live determine how they feel about taking action on water issues, the survey found.
An irrigation canal transports water across farm fields in central Arizona. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

by | May 19, 2020 | Environment

The Water Main, a project from American Public Media, wanted to know how Americans think, feel and worry about their water. Among their findings is that knowledge of water issues isn’t the biggest predictor of whether someone takes the effort to act. Personal connections to particular rivers, lakes and oceans led to more concrete conservation measures.

“The big surprise is that knowledge, how much we know, and action aren’t as tightly correlated as we might think they are,” said Amy Skoczlas Cole, Water Main’s managing editor. “It wasn’t actually the people who knew the most about water who were doing the most, it was the people who felt the most connected to water who were taking the most action.”

Half of those surveyed reported feeling a strong personal connection to a river, lake, ocean or other body of water.

More people over the age of 65 felt this way than those under the age of 45, the survey found.

“So we may have a generational gap here of connecting to water that’s important to pay attention to,” Skoczlas Cole said.

The survey also found geographic and regional differences in how people think about water. Residents of Western states were more likely than the rest of the country to vote with water issues top of mind, but knew less about sources of water pollution than those in the Northeast or Midwest.

Western respondents were also twice as likely to say that water was too heavily regulated than those in eastern regions of the country.

Westerners were more likely to share information about water with others. Forty-four percent of Western residents said they share information about water and water-related issues at least once a month, which was the highest of any group surveyed.

The survey aimed to measure attitudes and perceptions about water. It looked at four specific dimensions: how much people know about water, how much they care, how concerned they are and their actions to protect water.

“Some of us who work on water fear that it is out of sight, out of mind,” Skoczlas Cole said. “But that’s really not the case. In reality, eight in 10 Americans expressed concern for the future of water.”

The survey is titled Water + Us, and it was compiled by the APM Research Lab and the Water Main.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

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About Luke Runyon

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, Luke digs into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S.

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