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.