Published on 04/21/11

Georgians want clean water, local information

By Stephanie Schupska

More people value water quality over water quantity, according to a recent survey conducted by University of Georgia researchers. And, they trust local water information sources over federal ones.

The study, “Water Issues in Georgia: A Survey of Public Perceptions and Attitudes about Water,” was part of a national water effort funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. The goal of the larger project is to collect views on water issues from people around the country. So far, the survey has been conducted in 35 states.

The survey is “allowing us to compare states and see where we stand among states, to see our differences and similarities,” said Jason Evans, an environmental sustainability analyst with the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

The results of the Georgia survey were slightly surprising, said UGA Cooperative Extension engineer Mark Risse. “In general, it came out in the survey that people really place an importance on clean water,” he said. “Anything that had ‘clean’ in it ranked very high.”

Of the respondents, 94 percent ranked clean drinking water as very important. Following clean drinking water was clean rivers and lakes, at 76 percent, and clean groundwater, at 75 percent.

People were less concerned with interstate water issues, which have been debated heavily in recent years with Georgia’s bordering states. Survey respondents were also optimistic about how much water their communities will have in the future. And only 22 percent believed that an adequate water supply is currently a problem.

“Around the state, most of the planning has been focused on water quantity instead of water quality,” Risse said. “Part of the state water effort is identifying shortages, but Georgians also want it to be clean.”

Federal officials were surprised to see that those surveyed prefer to get their water information from local officials. “When we asked people who they trusted, local sources were trusted more than state, and state more than federal,” Risse said.

The local finding is an important one, he said, because Cooperative Extension, through the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, “is all about giving information at the local level. This survey points out that this is exactly what we need to be doing, giving local education on water. We in Extension can do that.”

The survey results are helping Risse and others in Extension plan water education programs. They’re now focusing more on drinking water in rural areas and septic tank upkeep.

Many of the respondents were from metro areas of Georgia and therefore on city sewage, while others used septic tanks, Evans noted. Only 15 percent said they had their septic tanks cleaned every four years. When tanks aren’t cleaned regularly, solids can build up, which can clog and destroy septic tank drain fields. Fixing those problems can be expensive.

As for well water, as long as it looks clean, most respondents said they weren’t worried.

“A thing that I found a little strange and discouraging was that only 5 percent had tested their water quality,” Risse said. “The bulk of respondents were municipal, but some are on wells. People feel like they have good water, but they don’t know whether they do unless they’re testing it.”

The 59-question survey was mailed to 1,998 randomly selected Georgia households. Of those, 26 percent (519 surveys) responded.

Researchers were not surprised to find that people conserve more water when they have concrete reasons to do so. “There were people adopting low-flow faucets,” Evans said, “but when you dig in a little for more detail, things like irrigation scheduling, which was required by state law, was more widely adopted. When people are forced to, they will change their practices.”

UGA recently implemented a new program called the 40 Gallon Challenge designed to encourage greater adoption of a variety of conservation practices.

Most survey respondents viewed groundwater as higher quality than surface water. Groundwater quality received 24 percent on “good or excellent;” surface water got 10 percent; and ocean water came in last at 8 percent. Most respondents indicated they did not know.

Evans and Risse found conflicting results when it came to water pollution sources. Respondents ranked industry problems the highest at 45 percent, followed by erosion from roads and/or construction, suburban development, stormwater and then agriculture. But, in a different part of the survey, 35 percent of respondents suspected or believed that fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural sources have some impact on their local water resources.

“Georgia as a state has done a great job of managing our water resources,” Risse said. “We do have areas where water is not as clean as others. Areas where we have high population, we generally have lower quality. Ultimately, people and their practices contaminate water, and they’re really the biggest problem when it comes to impaired water.”

For more information on water in Georgia, visit

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.

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