Survey | Environment

APM Survey: What do Americans think about water use and pollution?

 

March 26, 2019

Water touches many aspects of our lives, and indeed all life depends on it. However, Americans have a varied amount of knowledge about industrial impacts on our water resources. Are Americans’ opinions aligned with the facts? Effective water policy should be informed by public opinion, so we fielded a nationally-representative survey to find out what Americans know. Our study sought to gain insight on how informed the public is about two major aspects of industrial water use—how much water is used by industrial sectors relative to one another, and how much water pollution is due to each of these sectors.

Americans overwhelmingly believe (55%), correctly, that Food & Agriculture consumes more water than any other sector. According to our partners at the Water Main, this belief is consistent with reality—when it comes to consumptive water use, Food & Agriculture stands above other industries in its toll.

Most Americans correctly believe that “Food and Agriculture” consumes more water than other sectors asked about.

 
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When Food & Agriculture was removed as an option, a plurality of respondents (40%) thought manufacturing consumed the most water, followed by Energy at 28 percent. But what, exactly, does the science tell us? We asked Dan Ackerman of The Water Main to shed some light on the subject — which sector uses the most water, and which one pollutes the most? Dan told us that the answer depends on how you define “water use.”

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Technically, the energy sector utilizes the most water in daily operations, but most of that water is cycled back to its source — such as in a hydroelectric dam. Consumptive use, on the other hand, depletes water from lakes, streams, and underground aquifers and renders water unavailable for immediate use. As it turns out, when it comes to consumptive water use, Food & Agriculture is both the thirstiest sector as well as the sector that pollutes water the most.

You can read Dan’s full description of industrial impacts regarding water use and pollution in the survey report.

The survey results yielded some interesting differences in beliefs around water use. For instance, people living in the Western U.S. were more likely than those living in other regions to correctly choose “Food and Agriculture” as the sector that consumes the most water. This is understandable, considering that Western states like California have both massive agricultural sectors and experience droughts on a regular basis. Sixty-nine percent of Western residents got that question right. A higher percentage of respondents living in metro areas (57%) also chose Food and Agriculture than those living in non-metro areas (39%).

What about pollution? Most respondents incorrectly thought “Manufacturing” pollutes the most water.

 
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Not only does the agricultural sector have the highest consumptive water use, but it pollutes the most water as well, making Food & Agriculture the correct response. Only 23 percent of Americans know this.


ABOUT THE SURVEY

Americans’ opinions around water usage can help policymakers make judgments about the popularity, and hence political feasibility, of potential water policy interventions aimed at securing safe, abundant water for communities. As industries often have a large impact on water use and pollution, our poll aims to establish a baseline level of knowledge centered around two main questions: which industries use the most water, and which industries pollute water the most?

Given all of this, to what degree to Americans’ perceptions around water use and pollution align with the facts? In our nationally representative survey of American adults (18+), in collaboration with The Water Main, we utilized a split sample design to determine a baseline of knowledge. Half sample A included 500 respondents, while half sample B included 504 respondents.

We asked respondents the following two questions:

  1. Of the following industries or sectors, which one do you think USES the most water?

    • Food & Agriculture

    • Manufacturing

    • Energy

    • Health Care

    • Information Technology

    • Transportation

  2. Of the following industries or sectors, which one do you think POLLUTES water the most?

    • Food & Agriculture

    • Manufacturing

    • Energy

    • Health Care

    • Information Technology

    • Transportation