Persuasion vs. pollution

A survey finds metro-area people willing to work for clean water but not pay for it

May 12, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

More than 80 percent of Baltimore-area residents say they're willing to do "a lot more" to prevent water pollution, but they don't want to pay more taxes to solve the problem, according to a newly released opinion survey.

This suggests an ad campaign to educate people about steps they can take in their personal lives - picking up pet waste, using less lawn fertilizer and stopping littering - could help clean up Baltimore Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay, according to a pair of local environmental groups that commissioned the research.

Changing personal behavior could be more politically palatable than asking the city to pay millions to install trash filters in its storm-water drains to keep floating debris out of the harbor, leaders of the Herring Run Watershed Association and the Jones Falls Watershed Association said.

"People want to solve problems, but they never want to pay for them," said Mary Sloan Roby, executive director of the Herring Run Watershed Association. "The issue has to impact people directly and personally. Are your children going to be safe to play in the water and eat the fish?"

The organizations, along with other groups in the Stormwater Action Coalition, hope to attract government and corporate donations to create an anti-pollution ad campaign.

One goal of the public education campaign is to end ignorance about what happens to rainwater when it washes over city streets.

Eighty-two percent of 800 Baltimore-area residents who were surveyed by phone last summer said they are aware that storm water from streets and parking lots flows into local waterways.

But 17 percent of the people falsely believed that the storm water was treated before it spilled into Baltimore Harbor. In reality, storm water - often full of trash, oil and other pollutants from the streets - flows untreated and mostly unfiltered into the harbor, which leads to the Patapsco River and then the bay.

And 38 percent of those polled don't know what happens to storm water. Only 16 percent knew for certain that storm water is not treated, while 28 percent thought it was probably not treated but weren't sure, according to research for the environmental groups by the Annapolis-based OpinionWorks polling firm.

"People don't understand how watersheds operate, and they don't understand the connection between their lawn and the harbor - but once they get that, they respond," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks.

Eighty-three percent correctly replied that it would make a "big difference" in cleaning up local waters if they picked up litter and kept their local storm drains clear of debris. Three-quarters of respondents said picking up pet waste would make a "big difference" and 67 percent said that using less fertilizer on their lawns would help a lot.

Eighty-eight percent said they were "very bothered" by floating trash in Baltimore Harbor, which they said was hurting tourism and the economy. "People are emotionally upset about the condition of the harbor," Raabe said. "Many people in authority may underestimate that level of antipathy and shame about the harbor."

But 63 percent of those polled said they would be "very bothered" or "somewhat bothered" to pay more in taxes to clean up water pollution.

During interviews with focus groups concluded by OpinionWorks, several people thought that the floating trash in the harbor is being tossed by tourists - not washed from the streets of Baltimore, which is the source of most harbor trash, Raabe said.

Over the past six years, the city has spent more than $1 million installing filters to catch floating debris as it flows out of storm-water outfalls toward the harbor in Canton, Carroll Park, Hunting Ridge and the Carroll Camden Industrial Area.

New York City has trash-catching systems in its storm-water pipes, and Chicago long ago rerouted its storm-water pipes to direct most rainwater and trash away from that city's waterfront.

Baltimore's four new trash filters have had some success, catching 133,955 pounds of floating debris last year, according to city figures. But the filter in Carroll Park broke earlier this year when it was vandalized.

"If people didn't litter, we wouldn't need any of this" filtering, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.

Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, said she doesn't think it's the best solution to spend millions more to build more trash filters.

"I would rather have people change their behavior in their own yards," Van der Gaag said.

She said the local watershed organizations would like to create ads that would persuade people to pick up after their pets, use rain barrels to catch water running off their roofs, spread less fertilizer in their yards, plant trees and stop littering.

The poll was funded by grants from the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Rauch Foundation, Abell Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Its results were to be made public today.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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