October 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB3

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Priority Water Issues in the Pacific Northwest

Abstract
We developed and conducted a region-wide survey to collect base line information documenting public awareness, attitudes, and priorities about water issues in the Pacific Northwest. The vast majority (over 90%) of survey respondents considered clean drinking water, clean groundwater, and clean rivers very or extremely important issues. Over two-thirds of survey respondents considered having enough water for economic development, prevention of salmon extinction, wetland protection, watershed restoration, water for power generation, and water for agriculture to be high priority issues. The results from this survey will be used to target our regional programming efforts over the next 5 years.


Robert L. Mahler
Water Quality Coordinator
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho
bmahler@uidaho.edu

Robert Simmons
Water Quality Coordinator
Washington State University
Shelton, Washington
simmons@wsu.edu

Fred Sorensen
Water Quality Coordinator
University of Alaska
Anchorage, Alaska
dffes@uaa.alaska.edu

J. Ronald Miner
Former Water Quality Coordinator (deceased)
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon


Introduction

Water quality has been a priority issue for Extension since 1990. At that time, then President George H. Bush created a national Water Quality Initiative (WQI) within the United States Department of Agriculture (Shepard, 2002). This initiative stressed solving water quality problems on a watershed scale through cooperation with other federal and state agencies (Huter, Mahler, Brooks, Lolley, & Halloway, 1999). The initiative eventually resulted in formula funding passed through to land-grant institutions under the authority of the Smith-Lever Act.

In 2000, the national water quality program was refocused to emphasize regional rather than state-by-state education of our clientele. This change at the federal level required us to assess our current water quality programs in Alaska, Idaho, , and Washington, and to find common programming themes that would be useful to clientele across the four-state region.

Consequently, the water quality coordinators of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington developed a region-wide water issues survey for our clientele to collect base line information documenting public awareness and attitudes toward water issues. The base line data collected in this survey could then be used to determine priorities and, in the future, gauge educational progress in all phases of our water quality programming efforts.

Materials and Methods

A 50-question survey was designed to assess public attitudes about water issues in the Pacific Northwest. The specific questions investigated in this article dealt with (1) the importance of specific water issues and (2) water quantity. The survey questions evaluated in this article were as follows:

Issue: Importance of Water Issues
How important are each of the following water issues to you? (circle one answer per question)

Issue

Not Important

Somewhat Important

No Opinion

Very Important

Extremely Important

Q-01.

Clean rivers

N
S
O
V
E

Q-02.

Clean groundwater

N
S
O
V
E

Q-03.

Clean drinking water

N
S
O
V
E

Q-04.

Having enough water for economic development

N
S
O
V
E

Q-05.

Prevention of salmon extinction

N
S
O
V
E

Q-06.

Water for recreation (fishing, boating, rafting)

N
S
O
V
E

Q-07.

Loss of wetlands (wildlife habitat)

N
S
O
V
E

Q-08.

Watershed restoration

N
S
O
V
E

Q-09.

Water for power generation

N
S
O
V
E

Q-10.

Water for agriculture

N
S
O
V
E

Issue: Water Quantity
(Is there enough water to meet all our needs--drinking water, irrigation, power generation, salmon)

Q-11. Do you regard water quantity (having enough water) as a water problem in the area where you live? (check one box)

□ No

□ Probably not

□ I don't know

□ Probably

□ Definitely

Q-12. Rank the following water uses from most (1) to least (5) important to you. (use 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 only once)

___ Power generation

___ Wildlife (salmon, wetlands)

___ Irrigation

___ Recreation

___ Drinking / Human use

In addition, demographic information, including state of residence, community size, zip code, length of time residing in the region, gender, age, and educational level was also collected from survey respondents.

Based on statistical advice to obtain a representative sample, a target of 900 residents of the Pacific Northwest was chosen as the sample size population. Surveys were sent to residents of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington on a proportional population basis. Residents from each state were randomly selected from phonebooks and switchboard.com. Surveys were actually sent to 1,888 residents; however, 114 were returned by the post office as being undeliverable. Consequently, the actual sample population was 1,774.

The survey process was designed to receive a completed survey return rate in excess of 50%. If more than 877 surveys were returned completed, then sampling error could be assumed to be less than 5% (Dillman, 2000; Salant & Dillman, 1994).

Three mailings were used to achieve this return rate. The first mailing, which took place in January 2002, included the water issues survey form, a business reply envelope, and a cover letter that:

  1. Identified the survey's authors;

  2. Explained the purpose of the survey;

  3. Assured the respondent of anonymity; and

  4. Asked the respondents to fill out and return the survey via the business reply envelope.

The second mailing occurred 5 weeks later (March 2002) and consisted of a postcard that stressed the importance of the survey and remind the respondent to fill out and return the survey sent out in the first mailing. 5 weeks later (May 2002), the third mailing was sent to residents who did not respond to the first or second mailing. This mailing included a reminder letter, another copy of the water issues survey, and a business reply envelope.

Survey answers were coded and entered into Microsoft Excel. Missing data was assigned the number nine on the coding system and was excluded from the analysis. The data were analyzed at two levels using SPSS (Norusis, 1986). The first level of analysis was a basic data summary. This analysis showed both the total number and percentage of respondents that answered each question with a specific answer. The second level of analysis involved using cross-tabulation, or contingency tables, to isolate how specific subgroups of survey respondents (e.g., demographic groups such as gender and education level) related to specific questions. Significance (P<0.05) was tested using a chi-square distribution (Babbie, 1983).

Results and Discussion

The water issues survey achieved a return rate of 52.3% (928 either fully or partially completed and returned out of 1,774 surveys). The individual state response ranged from 50.6 to 57.6% (Table 1). Fifty-six percent of the survey respondents were male. Over 32% of survey respondents lived in communities of more than 100,000 people. Conversely, 18% of respondents lived in towns with less than 7,000 people. Thirty-five percent of respondents had lived in the Pacific Northwest all of their lives. Ninety-one percent of survey respondents were high school graduates. Overall, the demographics of the survey respondents (except for gender) closely reflected the actual demographics of the region.

Table 1.
Water Issues Survey Sample Size and Completion Rate by State

State

Sample Size

Completed

Return Rate

Alaska

232
120
51.7%

Idaho

278
160
57.6%

Oregon

506
256
50.6%

Washington

758
392
51.7%

Total

1,774
928
52.3%

Water Issues

Respondents were asked to describe each of 10 water issues as not important, somewhat important, very important, extremely important, or having no opinion. When the very important and extremely important responses were added together (high priority), the majority of respondents considered all 10 water issues as having a high priority (Table 2).

Table 2.
Percent of Survey Respondents Ranking the Surveyed Water Issues as Very or Extremely Important

Water Issue

Very or
Extremely Important
%

Clean drinking water

99

Clean rivers

94

Clean groundwater

93

Water for agriculture

84

Water for power generation

72

Water for economic development

70

Loss of wetlands (wildlife habitats)

69

Prevention of salmon extinction

69

Watershed restoration

68

Water for recreation (fishing, boating, etc.)

58

Over 90% of respondents considered clean drinking water, clean rivers, and clean groundwater as high priority. An additional 84% of survey respondents indicated that having enough water for agriculture was high priority despite the fact that over 80% of Pacific Northwest residents live in urban areas (United States Department of Commerce, 2002). Over two-thirds of Pacific Northwest residents indicated that water for power generation, water for economic development, loss of wetlands, prevention of salmon extinction, and watershed restoration were high priority (Table 2). Water for recreation (58%) received the smallest majority from the residents.

The demographic factors of occupation and education level did not affect how people viewed water issues. However, gender, age, length of residence in the region, community size, and state of residence did influence answers to at least one question. State of residence had a significant impact on how respondents answered the survey regarding the prevention of salmon extinction. Approximately 84, 71, 66, and 59% of residents of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho said preventing salmon extinction was a high priority, respectively. This difference is understandable because salmon are culturally important to many Alaskans. Conversely, salmon are less important from both cultural and economic viewpoints to many residents of Idaho, largely due to dams on the Snake River system.

Community size had an impact on only one of the 10 water issues evaluated. Respondents from larger communities (> 25,000) were more likely to consider having enough water for economic development a high priority issue than respondents living in small communities (< 25,000).

Based on this survey, a higher percentage of females than males viewed clean groundwater, prevention of salmon extinction, wetland protection, water for power generation, water for agriculture, and watershed restoration as high priority (Table 3). Even though this gender gap was not statistically significant at the 0.05 level for the other four water issues, the trend was apparent.

Table 3.
Gender Influence on Water Issues Ranking in the Pacific Northwest

Water Issue*

Female

Male

--------%--------

Clean groundwater

96

92

Prevention of salmon extinction

72

66

Loss of wetlands

78

64

Water for power generation

76

69

Water for agriculture

87

81

Watershed restoration

71

67

* Within a water issue a difference of 4.0 percent is statistically significant at the 0.05 level.

Age of respondent had a significant effect on answers to two survey questions. A higher percentage of younger respondents than older respondents viewed wetland protection as a high priority issue (Table 4). Conversely, senior citizens were more likely than younger people to view having enough water for power generation a high priority (Table 4).

Table 4.
Age Influences on Water Issues Rankings

Water Issue*

--------Age (in years)--------

< 50

50-69

> 69

--------%--------

Wetland protection

74

67

55

Water for power generation

67

75

82

* Within a water issue a difference of 4.0 percent is statistically significant at the 0.05 level.

Length of residence in the Pacific Northwest affected the response to the issues of salmon extinction, wetland protection, and water for economic development (Table 5). Over 80% of respondents who have lived in the Pacific Northwest for less than 5 years considered salmon extinction and wetland protection high priority issues. However, only about 60% of the long-time residents considered these issues high priority. In contrast, long-time residents were more likely to consider water for economic development a higher priority than newcomers to the region.

Table 5.
Length of Residence Influence on Water Issues Rankings

Water Issue*

Time in PNW (years)

All Life

> 10

5-9

< 5

--------%--------

Prevention of salmon extinction

60

72

75

89

Loss of wetlands

64

72

74

83

Water for economic development

75

69

57

59

* Within a water issue a difference of 5.0 percent is statistically significant at the 0.05 level.

Water Quantity

A majority of survey respondents felt that water quantity issues were not a local problem ("no, not a problem" + "probably not a problem" answers) in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (Table 6). However, the demographic factors of gender, state of residence, length of residency in the Pacific Northwest, education, and age did affect the response to this question. To evaluate differences due to demographics, the answers of "no" and "probably not" were pooled as "not a problem."

Table 6.
Responses to the Survey Question: "Do you regard water quantity (have enough water) a problem in the area you live?"

Answer

Percentage of Respondents

No, not a problem

41.9

Probably not a problem

20.2

I don't know

4.1

Probably a problem

19.3

Definitely a problem

14.5

Males were more likely than females (65.1 vs. 57.8%) to conclude that water quantity issues were not a problem in their residential locality (Table 7). Residents of Alaska were more likely to conclude that water quantity was not a problem. Conversely, Idaho residents were more likely to conclude that water quantity issues may be a local problem. These state results are logical because, on a per capita basis, Alaska is the most water-rich state, while Idaho receives the least amount of precipitation.

Table 7.
Demographic Factor Influences on Water Quantity Survey Responses

Demographic

Parameter

Not a Problem

Definite Problem

--------%--------

Gender

 

Male

65.1

15.3

 

Female

57.8

14.0

State

 

AK

95.4

2.8

 

ID

52.5

24.1

 

OR

59.7

15.6

 

WA

58.6

13.8

Length of residence

 

All life

66.5

14.0

 

> 10 years

62.4

16.5

 

5-9 years

56.4

15.1

 

< 5 years

53.3

11.5

Education

 

H.S. or less

76.4

9.0

 

Some college or more

58.0

16.7

Age

 

< 40

54.4

14.0

 

40-50

58.0

14.8

 

> 50

69.4

10.2

* Within a demographic a difference of 5.4 percent is significantly different at the 0.05 level.

Long-term residents of the Pacific Northwest were more likely to conclude that water quantity issues were not commonly a local problem compared to people that had moved into the region in the last 10 years (Table 7). Residents with a high school diploma or less were also more likely to conclude that water quantity was not a local problem. Age also affected how people viewed water quantity on a local basis. In general, older respondents were more likely to conclude that water quantity is not a major local problem.

Survey respondents were also asked to rank power generation, wildlife, irrigation, recreation, and drinking water from most important (1) to least important (5). The lower the overall score, the more important the use. Overall, survey respondents ranked drinking water as the most important water quantity use (Table 8). In fact, over 78% of respondents ranked drinking water as the most important water use. Conversely, only 6% of respondents ranked drinking water as the least important use.

Survey respondents ranked wildlife, power production, and irrigation as having similar levels of importance, although they were considered less important than drinking water. They were considered  to be of higher importance than recreation (Table 8). Recreational use of water was ranked as the lowest priority.

Table 8.
Public Ranking of Water Uses from Highest (1) to Lowest (5) Priority

Water Use

Score*

Ranking #1

Ranking #5

--------%--------

Drinking water

1.47

78.2

6.0

Wildlife

2.97

9.8

10.9

Power production

3.06

6.3

11.7

Irrigation

3.22

3.4

13.3

Recreation

4.25

2.3

58.1

* Scores differing by more than 0.32 percent are statistically different at the 0.05 level of probability

Summary and Conclusions

The water issues survey provided us with a wealth of information about public attitudes toward water issues in the Pacific Northwest. Even though differences were seen among states on some issues, it is noteworthy that there is much commonality in water attitudes among states. This commonality makes  regional water educational programming logical and efficient for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

The key findings of this survey included the following.

  • The importance that respondents placed on the 10 identified water issues provides justification for a significant amount of programming on these issues over the next 5 years. Demographic response differences indicate that programs should be tailored for local audience interest and needs.

  • The vast majority (over 90%) of survey respondents considered clean drinking water, clean groundwater, and clean rivers very or extremely important issues in the region.

  • Over two-thirds of survey respondents considered having enough water for economic development, prevention of salmon extinction, wetland protection, watershed restoration, water for power generation, and water for agriculture to be very or extremely important issues.

  • Most survey respondents did not consider water quantity to be a critical issue. However, people living in drier areas of the region (Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon) did express concern.

  • Survey respondents felt that water for human consumption was the most important use of water. Conversely, the recreational use of water was ranked least important.

  • The survey results will be used to guide our water quality programming efforts over the next 4- to 5-year planning period.

  • Based on survey results, residents are receptive to additional educational programming about drinking water and human health, groundwater, and watershed management issues.

Acknowledgement

We dedicate this paper to J. Ronald Miner, longtime water quality coordinator at Oregon State University, who died while this article was in the review process. Ron was an outstanding scientist and cooperator. His contributions to Oregon State University, the Pacific Northwest, and the national water quality program were extensive and outstanding. He will be sorely missed.

References

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Huter, L. R., Mahler, R. L., Brooks, L. E., Lolley, B. A.  & Halloway, L. (1999). Groundwater and wellhead protection in the HUA. University of Idaho Bulletin No. 811. Moscow, ID.

Norusis, M. J. (1986). The SPSS guide to data analysis. SPSS, Inc. Chicago, Illinois. pp. 233-251.

Salant, P. & Dillman, D. (1994). How to conduct your own survey. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. pp. 10-55.

Shepard, R. (2002). Evaluating extension-based water resource outreach programs: Are we meeting the challenge? Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(1). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2002february/a3.html

United States Department of Commerce. (2002). U. S. population data. U. S. Census Bureau. Available at: http://www.census.gov