Public perceptions of environmental risk have long been controversial when used as a tool to help set public policy. Many scholars have argued that there is a fundamental “mismatch” between “notoriously inaccurate” public perceptions of the magnitude and sources of environmental risks, as compared with expert analyses of the same. Even if that is true, public perceptions would be worth measuring for other reasons: for example, studies have confirmed that “federal environmental laws reflect public perceptions of risks more than they do scientific understanding.” And just this year, a gathering of environmental law scholars discussing the future of environmental law stressed the increasing ethical obligation to consider (often marginalized) community voices, turning environmental law into “a tool for collaboration and connection . . . rather than conflict.” In short, perhaps “public perceptions of environmental risk deserve more credit than comparative risk analysts admit.”
Despite a general sense of “increasing public concerns about issues of water quality and the health of riparian environments,” surprisingly few efforts have been made to quantify the level of public disquiet over these problems. To help fill that gap in Wisconsin, two surveys were conducted in August 2016 by the Marquette Law School Poll, and find significant levels of concern over water quality and policy generally. However, most Wisconsin voters reported lower levels of worry regarding their personal sources of drinking water.
Interest in Water Quality
Recent reporting has highlighted drinking water concerns across the state—including lead levels, agriculture-related bacterial contamination, and a failed legislative effort to ease municipal water system privatization. Our survey results indicate that not only journalists are taking an interest in these topics. Seventy-eight percent of respondents reported hearing at least some about the lead crisis in the Flint, Michigan water supply. When asked about the safety of the water supply in Wisconsin’s own low income communities, 68% were very or somewhat concerned, 17% not too concerned, and just 13% not at all concerned. However, when asked about the safety of the water supply in their own community, respondents were more confident. A combined 56% were either not too concerned or not at all concerned, with another 44% being very or somewhat concerned.
People from lower-income households were more concerned about their communities’ water quality. Among households making less than $40,000, 53% reported being very or somewhat concerned. This view was shared by only 36% of those in households earning at least $75,000. Wealthier respondents were also the least likely to express concern about the quality of water in low income communities. Thirty-three percent of those earning at least $75,000 expressed little or no concern about water quality in low income communities, compared with 19% of respondents earning less than $40,000.
In a tangible demonstration of interest in water quality, 56% of respondents reported having had their drinking water tested at least once in the past. As expected, testing is much more common among residents served by private wells. According to the Wisconsin DNR, the state currently holds over 800,000 private wells. Thirty-four percent of registered voters reported receiving their home’s drinking water from a private well. Of these private well-users, 81% had tested their drinking water—compared to 42% of those serviced by public utilities.
Concerns about Regulation
In January 2016, the state Assembly passed a bill easing the ability of municipalities to sell their drinking water systems to private companies. After widespread opposition from civic groups, the Senate declined to hold a vote. The Marquette poll is the first measurement of statewide public opinion on the issue. Respondents were asked, “How concerned, if at all, would you be if a private company were responsible for treating and delivering your drinking water supply?” Seventy percent of registered voters said they would be very or somewhat concerned, 14% not too concerned, and 13% not at all concerned. Unlike measures of concern or previous testing, partisanship plays a strong role. Thirty percent of Republicans reported they would be very concerned, compared with 57% of Democrats. Republicans, however, divide substantially along geographical lines. Twice as many rural Republicans claimed they would be “very concerned” by privatization (40%) as suburban and urban Republicans (20%).
Widespread skepticism of water privatization does not, however, indicate great confidence in government regulation. Views of the state government were middling. Ten percent of registered voters said the state of Wisconsin was doing an “excellent” job in protecting the safety of public drinking water. Forty-two percent said the state was doing a “good” job, 35% said “fair,” and 9% “poor.” Only 2% described the job done by the federal government as “excellent,” 29% said “good,” 43% “fair,” and 21% “poor.” Wisconsin Republicans are significantly more likely to rate highly the job being done by the state government in protecting the water supply. Sixty-seven percent rate the state’s job as good or excellent, compared with just 44% of Democrats. Partisan differences in federal approval are less distinct, though Democrats are slightly more positive. These responses may be more indicative of attitudes toward the state and federal governments generally.
Despite many respondents expressing anxieties about water quality and regulatory effectiveness, few appear to have direct knowledge of problems with their own water supply. Only 14% of respondents knew of reports of contamination of the drinking water in their own county over the past two years. This is a slight increase from the last time we asked this question, in January 2016. In that month only 9% of registered voters were aware of contamination reports in their county. Either case likely underestimates the prevalence of contamination reports. In 2015 alone, the Wisconsin DNR recorded 434 Maximum Contaminant Level violations; although, only 33 of these occurred in municipal water services. More troubling, given the apparent low levels of awareness, is the DNR finding that 81 municipalities received Monitoring and Reporting violations, which occur “when a system fails to collect water samples and/or fails to report results.
Comparison to Previous Polling
Consistent with our more recent results, the January poll reveals widespread concerns over water quality and policy around the state—despite little knowledge of local contamination problems. Respondents were asked, “Should the primary objective of Great Lakes water management be economic development or environmental protection?” Seventy-seven percent agreed that environmental protection should be the primary objective. Only 12% supported economic development, and the remainder had no opinion. The majority in favor of an environmental objective included 90% of self-identified Democrats, 67% of Republicans, and 76% of Independents.
After being asked about the City of Waukesha’s bid to divert water from Lake Michigan, respondents were also asked, “Are water quality issues mainly a problem in isolated parts of the state, such as Waukesha, or should residents throughout the state be concerned about them?” Seventy-two percent of registered voters felt it was a concern throughout the state, compared with 22% who viewed water quality as an isolated issue. Statewide concern was highest among Democrats (83%) and those earning less than $40,000 (80%). It was lowest among Republicans (60%) and those earning at least $75,000 (64%). Geographic region and urbanicity had less substantial influences.
Overall, Wisconsin residents seem in line with national attitudes. In February 2016, a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found 47% of respondents to be very or somewhat concerned about the safety of water in their community, compared with 44% of Wisconsinites. Likewise, job ratings for state and federal governments taken in Kaiser’s April poll were similar to Wisconsin’s numbers. A difference does emerge in knowledge of the Flint, MI lead scandal. When asked in February—around the height of the scandal—62% of Kaiser’s national sample had heard at least some about the crisis. In August, months after media attention had abated, 78% of Wisconsin registered voters reported hearing at least some about Flint, including 50% who had heard “A lot.” This high level of awareness may reflect the concerns about water safety shared by all states with similarly aged infrastructure.
About the Marquette Law School Poll
The Marquette Law School Poll is the most extensive statewide polling project in Wisconsin history. The questions in this analysis are drawn from three surveys conducted in 2016. The most recent interviewed 803 registered Wisconsin voters by landline or cell phone from August 25‑28, 2016. The margin of error is +/- 4.5 percentage points for the full sample. Another poll interviewed 805 registered Wisconsin voters by landline or cell phone from August 4‑7, 2016. The margin of error is +/- 4.6 percentage points for the full sample. The earliest poll interviewed 806 registered Wisconsin voters, by both landline and cell phone, from January 21-24, 2016. The margin of error is +/- 4.0 percentage points for the full sample.
Topline results and crosstabs for the water-related poll questions are available here.
 See, e.g., Michael P. Vandenbergh, The Social Meaning of Environmental Command and Control, 20 Va. Envtl. L.J. 191, 197 (2001).
 Thomas R. Mounteer, The Inherent Worthiness of the Struggle: the Emergence of Mandatory Pollution Prevention Planning as an Environmental Regulatory Ethic, 19 Colum. J. Envtl. L. 251, 318 (1994).
 Donald T. Hornstein, Reclaiming Environmental Law: A Normative Critique of Comparative Risk Analysis, 92 Colum. L. Rev. 562, 564 (1992).
 John R. Brown, “Whisky’s Fer Drinkin’; Water’s Fer Fightin’!” Is It? Resolving a Collective Action Dilemma in New Mexico, 43 Nat. Resources J. 185, 192 (2003).
 Bridgit Bowden, “Lead Contamination Remains Major Issue in Wisconsin’s Drinking Water,” Wisconsin Public Radio, February 1, 2016.
 Ron Seely, “Safe, Clean Drinking Water Eludes Many Wisconsinites,” Wisconsin Watch, November 8, 2015. Andrew Hahn, “Water Woes Emerge as Major Issue in Wisconsin Elections,” Wisconsin Watch, August 7, 2016.
 Steven Verburg, “Senate Vote on Drinking Water Privatization Bill Scrapped,” Wisconsin State Journal, February 17, 2016.
 “Wells,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, accessed August 18, 2016.
 “2015 Annual Drinking Water Report Wisconsin’s Public Water Systems,” Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
 Bianca DiJulio, Jamie Firth, Ashley Kirzinger, and Mollyann Brodie, “Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: February 2016,” Kaiser Family Foundation, February 25, 2016.
 Jamie Firth, Ashley Kirzinger, and Mollyann Brodie, “Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: April 2016,” Kaiser Family Foundation, April 28, 2016.