Research Summary

Impacts of targeted education programs on the adoption of residential best management practices (BMP) to combat non-point source pollution

Targeted best management programs may help residents adopt behaviors

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Urbanization is an ongoing threat to water quality. One example of this threat is the use of fertilizers and pesticides on lawns pollutes water via stormwater runoff. Best management practices (BMPs) for urban water quality have been developed, but convincing residents to adopt BMP behaviors is difficult. Past research shows that demographics (other than income) usually don’t predict adoption of BMP behaviors, but environmental values and awareness of local water issues do. Many BMP education programs seek to increase this awareness and therefore incorporate BMP adoption in residents. This study aimed to ascertain whether residents’ awareness of BMP education programs and/or water quality concern impacted their BMP adoption.

The research was conducted in the adjacent Lake Bloomington watershed (572 acres) and Evergreen Lake watershed (25,730 acres) in Illinois. Both watersheds are threatened by phosphorus contamination and are served by a nonprofit Ecology Action Center (EAC) that runs environmental education programs. Researchers randomly selected 1,000 households within the two watersheds to study. From May to June 2015, a total of 939 surveys were delivered, and 550 were completed and returned. The researchers credited this high response rate to their survey administration procedure, in which personnel dropped off surveys and returned to collect them at a set date.

The survey assessed respondents’ awareness of six EAC programs: rain barrel workshops, rain garden demonstrations, clean water messages on storm drains, safe landscaping programs, household hazardous waste disposal, and other educational programs and presentations. The survey also asked about residents’ adoption of seven BMP behaviors: creating rain gardens, keeping yard waste out of streets, using phosphate-free fertilizer, regularly servicing septic systems, properly disposing of pet waste, administering regular soil tests, and using rain barrels. The survey also measured water quality concern using a five-point scale. Data from prior research, including concern for specific water quality issues and demographic information, was also analyzed.

The researchers analyzed the data from the survey responses to illuminate trends in participants’ awareness of EAC programs and BMP behaviors. Among respondents, 73% had adopted at least one of the seven BMP behaviors, though the behaviors were adopted at different proportions: 54% of respondents kept yard waste out of streets, but only 2% created rain gardens. Only 31% of respondents knew of the six EAC programs. The researchers constructed a statistical model for the impact of program awareness on BMP adoption, but this model failed to explain much of the data. Environmental concern did not predict BMP adoption. Program awareness only predicted adoption of three specific BMP behaviors: the use of rain gardens, phosphate-free fertilizer, and rain barrels, which were taught in workshop programs. The data showed different percentages of adoption for different behaviors, leading the researchers to infer that the programs with the highest behavior adoption (rain barrel workshops, phosphate-free fertilizer, and rain gardens) may have had clearer targets than the other programs.

This study’s statistical model failed to achieve significance, so its conclusions are limited. The survey relied on self-reporting as a proxy for pro-environmental behaviors, which may be vulnerable to respondents’ bias.

The researchers recommended environmental educators design place-based programs with clear targets that link BMP behaviors to solving tangible water quality problems. To enhance the place-based approach, they suggest BMP education programs travel to neighborhoods where BMP should be used, such as those close to waterways.

The Bottom Line

Best management practices (BMPs) for urban water quality have been developed, but convincing residents to adopt BMP behaviors is difficult. This study aimed to ascertain whether residents’ awareness of BMP education programs impacted BMP adoption. In general, environmental concern did not predict BMP adoption, while program awareness only predicted some BMP behaviors (such as using rain barrels, rain gardens, and phosphate-free fertilizer). The researchers suggested that clear targets in these programs (such as rain barrel workshops) may have a positive effect on BMP adoption. They recommended that environmental educators design programs with clear links between BMP behaviors and solving water quality problems.