Do Iowa Residents and Farmers Care about Improving Water Quality and Reducing Harmful Algal Blooms? Results from Two Household Surveys

Yau-Huo Shr, Wendong Zhang
April 2021  [21-PB 32]

Executive Summary
Nutrient pollution from agricultural non-point source runoff is one of the most critical water resource issues in the United States today. The establishment of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to address hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico led to the creation of the 2013 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. However, implementing these efforts is costly and requires significant federal and state funding. For example, in 2018, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ first legislation provided $282 million over 12 years to fund edge-of-field and in-field infrastructure projects designed to meet nutrient reduction strategy goals and to fund projects to improve the quality of Iowa’s surface water, ground water, and drinking water.

Understanding the economic benefits from reducing nutrient pollution is essential to justify these investments and determine the direction of conservation programs. This policy brief uses recent results from two household surveys in 2019 and 2020 to gauge Iowans’ perceptions and attitudes toward water quality issues and associated policies. Iowa Water Center grants funded both surveys.

Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology conducted the surveys in summer 2019 and summer 2020. The data collection process followed Dillman’s mixed-mode (web/mail) survey design. The first wave of the survey targeted the general public and received a total of 858 completed surveys during the data collection period, a response rate of 28.7%. The second wave of the survey targeted farmers in the Boone and North Raccoon River watersheds and received a total of 493 surveys during the data collection period, a response rate of 49.4%. Major findings from the two surveys are as follows:

  • Farmers believe water quality is less of a concern than the general public.
    • Thirty-two percent of the public and 55% farmers think Iowa’s water quality is good or very good.
    • Half of the general public and 30% of farmers think algal blooms are very harmful.
    • Thirty-five percent of the general public and 26% of farmers are concerned about nitrates in drinking water in their neighborhood.
  • Iowans increasingly regard harmful algal blooms as an important issue.
    • Sixty percent of respondents have seen algal blooms at least once in person.
    • Fifty-eight percent of Iowa general public is at least somewhat aware of algal blooms in Iowa’s lakes.
    • Twenty percent of the general public has no awareness of algal blooms in Iowa’s lakes.
  • The knowledge of and views about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is somewhat mixed and differs between farmers and the general public.
    • Sixty percent of the general public and 32% of farmers think agriculture (manure + fertilizer) is the biggest source of excessive nutrients in Iowa’s lakes.
    • More than 60% of the general public and 20% of farmers have no familiarity with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
    • Forty-seven percent of farmers agree or strongly agree that the strategy is a feasible plan to reduce nutrients, 42% are neutral or do not know.
    • Nearly 40% of the general public has no familiarity with the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
    • The majority of the general public, but only 22% of farmers, consider a special sales tax on all fertilizer the most appropriate way to fund lake protection programs in Iowa.
    • Thirty percent of farmers chose a recreational fee as the best way to fund the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

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