MINNEAPOLIS — Where does drinking water come from? Many people don’t have a clue, even though water quality remains a hot topic in the news and at national conferences like the One Water Summit in Minneapolis.
“More than half (54 percent) of people we polled have no idea where their water comes from,” said David Metz, president of FM3 Research, a California-based company that conducts public policy-oriented opinion research. “Another 23 percent guessed wrong, and only 23 percent knew the correct answer.”
Metz shared these findings during the One Water Summit, which ran from July 10-12. Coordinated by the non-profit US Water Alliance, the summit included a diverse mix of rural and urban delegations of farmers, government officials, community organizers, environmentalists, staff members at non-profit organizations, academics, media and more.
“We know the water challenges we face are significant, but our capacity to drive durable solutions is even greater,” said Radhika Fox, chief executive officer of the US Water Alliance.
Of the nearly 900 attendees, Iowa farmers and agribusiness professionals joined the Iowa delegation to address a range of timely topics, from building productive ag-municipal partnerships to sharing stories of how farmers are incorporating conservation and water sustainability into their farming practices.
“Within our family, we constantly remind ourselves we are tasked to leave the land in a better state than we received it,” said Dave Walton, an Iowa Soybean Association director who farms near Wilton in eastern Iowa and spoke at the One Water conference.
What does the public think about water quality?
While farmers like Walton are focused on water quality, are water quality issues top of mind among the American public?
Water-related issues ranked among the top five of American’s worst fears in 2017, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which provides an in-depth examination into the fears of average Americans. In May of 2017, a random sample of 1,207 adults from across the United States were asked their level of fear about 80 different fears across a huge variety of topics, from crime to the government to the environment.
Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes came in at number three on the top 10 list, with 53.1 percent of survey respondents citing this as a top fear. Pollution of drinking water was number four, with 50.4 percent of respondents citing this concern.
These water quality issues trailed far behind corrupt government officials, which Americans cited as their number-one fear (74.5 percent), followed by healthcare costs (55.3 percent).
Addressing concerns about water quality issues requires collaboration among a wide variety of groups, from rural to urban, noted Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs and services for the Iowa Soybean Association.
“We want science to guide water quality practices and help ensure sustainability, productivity and profitability,” said Wolf.
Finding solutions to water quality challenges also requires research.
“Water connects all of us, and that’s a core belief we have at the Iowa Water Center (IWC),” said Melissa Miller, associate director of the IWC at Iowa State University.
The IWC is part of a nationwide network of university-based water centers that support interdisciplinary water research, education and outreach to ensure research results are applied to real-world problems.
“I was interested in participating in the topics at the One Water conference so we can bring back this information for our Iowa Water Conference to expand and continue the conversation,” Miller said.
Speaking the language of water quality
How can people who care about water quality, including farmers, reach a wider audience? Start with the why.
“Why are you motivated to focus on water quality? Determine your why, think about what audiences you need to persuade and think of people you can engage with to help spread your message,” said. Abby Gardner, communications adviser for the Value of Water Campaign and the US Water Alliance.
Also, use the “message triangle” framework to organize your message and help communicate a more effective story that resonates with audiences.
“At the core of the triangle is your main focus, which in this case is the idea that water is essential to everything we do,” Gardener said.
Around this core are the three points of the triangle, including the problem, solutions and the payoff. Problems like water quality can range from nitrate levels to aging water infrastructure. After identifying the problem and detailing solutions, don’t forget to tell people about the payoff. “In this case, the payoff is clean, safe water for generations to come,” Gardener said.
Taking the long view is second nature to farmers like Mark Jackson, a past president of the Iowa Soybean Association who farms near Rose Hill in Mahaska County. He honors the generations who went before him and looks to the future as his son, Mike, and grandchildren live and work on the farm.
“My family’s legacy in agriculture is generations deep,” said Jackson, who attended the One Water conference. “Farmers need to be at the table at events like the One Water Summit when conversations about water quality take place. If we work together, the opportunities for future generations are boundless.”
This article orginally ran in The Messenger.