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John Horvick, Senior Associate, August 17, 2012

Water. It intrigues me like no other topic that we work on here at DHM Research.

When we ask people in surveys what they value about living in the Northwest, access to rivers, lakes, and oceans are near the top of the list. And when we ask the public about the environment, water quality is typically the number one concern. Yet, I know from many qualitative studies, when we sit down and talk to average folks about their local water supply, they often know little or nothing about it. It varies from community to community, but high percentages of people cannot even name the source of their drinking water, let alone describe what happens to it after it goes down the drain. It is this combination of absolute necessity, high perceived value, but lack of knowledge that fascinates me as a public opinion researcher.

It is easy to bemoan the fact that the public is unaware of basics of their water supply, but in a very real way, it represents a staggering achievement. In the course of human history, it is only in the last few moments that securing a daily supply of clean water hasn’t been a central focus of everyday life (at least, in the developed world). Because we don’t have to worry about where our next drink of water will come from, our time, labor and resources can be dedicated to other pursuits.

On the other hand, because we have been so successful at providing clean water, we have largely taken for granted that the supply is inexhaustible and the infrastructure to deliver it will never fail. This causes challenges for policy makers who need public support to make investments in maintaining and replacing aging water systems. When I lead focus groups about community water, people are frequently in disbelief that their water infrastructure may need any improvements. From their perspective, they are already receiving high quality water, reliably, and at a good price. Therefore, they see little need to invest in modernizing or replacing what they have, especially when they are unlikely to notice any immediate improvements in quality, safety, reliability or cost. Yet, many communities do have serious deficiencies, such that in 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure D- minus grades.

To raise public conscience about water, we have found that it is valuable for providers to develop communication strategies that connect water to other important values, especially public health, environmental protection, and economic development. It is also beneficial to regularly communicate what is being done to maintain the existing infrastructure and the value the public receives from those investments.

To learn more about the public’s perceptions about water quality, I encourage you tune into EarthFix, which is a collaboration among public broadcasters in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. DHM Research recently conducted a survey for EarthFix about water quality, which they will be reporting on over the next several weeks.