Winning in the court of public opinion
By Brandi Cowen
Public opinion can be a force to be reckoned with, especially in the Internet age when our wired world makes it easy for like-minded folks to find each other. Social media helps us connect, discussion forums give us platforms to share our ideas, and special interest websites and blogs help disseminate information and opinions. The Internet gives us the power to exchange information like never before, but there’s a downside to all of this sharing: it’s never been easier to step inside the echo chamber and immerse ourselves in online communities that confirm our beliefs. For those working to educate the public in order to inform opinion, making themselves heard over all the noise in the echo chamber can be a challenge.
The agriculture sector is currently confronting this challenge in Iowa, where Des Moines Water Works is pursuing a lawsuit against drainage districts in three counties. On Dec. 4, 2014, unseasonably high nitrate levels in the drinking water for 500,000 people forced the utility provider to activate its nitrate removal facility. For 97 days straight, Des Moines Water Works had to lower nitrate levels in the Raccoon River below the federal limit of 10 milligrams per liter of drinking water. The cost? About $4,000 per day. The utility contends the drainage districts and, by extension, farmers in the area, are responsible for these elevated nitrate levels. The lawsuit is seeking damages to compensate for the harm caused by the nitrates, assess civil penalties, and award litigation costs.
In February, the Des Moines Register reported nearly two-thirds of Iowans (63 per cent) believed Des Moines Water Works should move forward with the lawsuit. Just 23 per cent of those polled thought the water utility was taking the wrong approach. The poll also found 14 per cent of Iowans were undecided on the issue. That’s a lot of minds still to be made up.
The lawsuit will be settled in federal court, but how it plays out in the court of public opinion is equally important. This is where the online echo chamber can pose a problem. Agriculture professionals, including drainage contractors, must cut through the noise to answer key questions. Where does the nitrate come from and what is its role in agriculture? How does it end up in drinking water? What are we doing to reduce runoff? Drainage professionals need to add their voices to the conversation. If you don’t, other voices will take to social media, forums and websites, not to mention the traditional mass media, to fill the void and spread their own information on this issue.
Educating the public won’t be easy; many people are bad at wrapping their brains around science. A 2014 poll by the National Science Foundation (NSF) quizzed 2,200 Americans on 10 questions about basic physical and biological sciences. The average score was a barely passing grade of 6.5 out of 10. In the face of such poor science literacy, explaining what you do and why it’s important won’t be easy. The non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science offers four tips to communicate scientific information: define your audience; choose the right words; choose supporting information and visualizations; and develop your message in three points. You can learn more tips to effectively communicate science to the public online at www.aaas.org.
The drainage industry needs strong, well-informed voices to contribute to the water quality conversation, informing public opinion about the important role drainage contractors play in protecting a precious natural resource while helping farmers feed the world. What can you, as a knowledgeable drainage professional, add to the conversation?