Communicating about water in the water-rich Midwest

The Midwest is blessed with abundant water resources. Thanks to its many tributaries like the Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, more freshwater flows through the Mississippi River than through all but four other rivers in the entire world. The Great Lakes and their connecting channels contain roughly 18% of the world’s surface freshwater, second only to the polar ice caps. Wisconsin and Minnesota both boast having more than 10,000 lakes each.

Municipalities, environmental coalitions and water utility companies often struggle when creating and implementing behavior change campaigns to reduce water use and pollution in the American Midwest. To many Midwesterners, these abundant resource make it seem like freshwater is an unlimited resource.

But it’s not.

With so much water for drinking, swimming and fishing at our easy disposal, communicators must connect water conservation and pollution messages to the values that audiences already hold dear.

Since 1995, Biodiversity Project has worked with cities, coalitions and nonprofit organizations to persuade people to change harmful water behaviors through values-based communications. While every audience is unique, our work to protect water and reduce pollution in the Mississippi River, Great Lakes and through several local stormwater campaigns in the Rock River basin in Wisconsin and Scioto River basin in Ohio has taught us some fundamental water communications strategies

Connect water issues to our national economy
In poll after poll, Americans rank jobs, the economy and government spending as their primary concerns, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also care about water quality. Instead, this information provides insight on some of the best ways to talk about the importance of water quality issues. For example, in the Great Lakes, research from the Brookings Institute has shown that for every dollar put into restoration, the region gets two dollars back on the investment.

In addition, many municipalities and regions are faced with serious price stags for infrastructure repairs. The simple fact that the cost of restoring our waterways will increase the longer we wait—like fixing a leaky roof—can help persuade audiences to take action now. If water quality is poor, more treatment (and thus more chemicals and energy) are necessary to treat it. If a utility has to pump water from greater depths as aquifers decline, energy costs will be greater.

Talk about family expenses
Americans are also concerned about their personal financial health—and water isn’t free. Communicators can appeal to an audience’s personal finances to persuade them to change behaviors like over-watering the lawn. In an annual survey, Circle of Blue, an international network of journalists and scientists that reports information on the global freshwater crisis, found that the price of water is going up. Water prices in 30 U.S. metropolitan areas have increased an average of over 9 percent for residential customers with medium consumption levels. Since 2010, the largest relative rate increases occurred in Indianapolis (29.3 percent increase), Milwaukee (25.4 percent), and Houston (24.3 percent). From 2007 to 2010, the cost of water in Chicago increased by half.

Include place-based examples
One of the most powerful and successful examples of place-based messaging on water quality in the past 60 years is the iconic image of the Cuyahoga River burning in Cleveland. By naming a city and river, people can more easily connect with it and the need for change. Therefore, we don’t want to just “protect our waterways,” we want to “protect the Rock River in Beloit.” Identify specific problems in a local waterway and point to actual sources. For example, “leaves and yard waste from the Dublin’s Wedgewood Glen neighborhood cause ugly algae blooms in the Scioto River.”

Use numbers—sparingly
Statistics can be a great way to explain the magnitude of a problem, but too many numbers and numbers that are too big cause people to simply gloss over them as inconsequential and impossible to understand. Whenever possible, show numbers with charts and comparisons so they have meaning. For example, the average American uses about 151 gallons of water per day. The average European uses only 66 gallons per day. In addition, be sure to use units of measurement that your audience will understand: gallons instead of liters or miles instead of kilometers.

Midwesterners are generally proud of the region and the incredible freshwater resources that help define it. By appealing to their closely held values like community and regional pride and economic concern, we can rally support for water protections and inspire audiences to change behaviors.