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Conserving Water Resources: A Tough Sell for Michigan?

June 09, 2014

Environmental communication students tackle targeted messaging strategies for Great Lakes preservation.

Water resources across the world — even in Michigan — are being threatened. But how do you convince people in Michigan, where water is seemingly abundant, that they need to act now to protect it?

That’s the issue that Micheal Vickery’s environmental communication students tackled in their Spring Term class at Alma College.

Sleeping Bear DunesSleeping Bear Dunes

Jessica Isler, an environmental policy major, was one of 11 students who took the class.

“The environment is something I really care about,” says Isler, Grand Rapids sophomore. “I go hardcore when I talk about it, and my friends are like, ‘Can you just stop talking? We don’t really care all that much.’ So it’s a good way to figure out how I want to get my message out without confusing people.”

The class consulted with representatives at Circle of Blue, an international journalism program; the Michigan Land Use Institute; the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute; and the Watershed Center.

The students were tasked with analyzing the communications of For Love of Water, a Traverse City-based non-profit organization that works with decision-makers and community members. FLOW strives to help communities understand the Great Lakes as a commons and to encourage the use of public trust principles in decisions about hydraulic fracturing, invasive species, harmful algae blooms and other water-related issues.

The students made strategic messaging recommendations to FLOW for increasing public awareness of how these water-related issues are connected to Michigan’s heritage and its future. Specifically, the class was challenged to communicate FLOW’s core message to people their own age.

Reaching this demographic is a real challenge for non-profit environmental organizations, whose strongest supporters tends to be older, white, female and less involved with social media, says Vickery.

“So how do you elaborate that audience, given that the people who have the most at stake in the future are the young people who are beginning to become involved in the political commons?” he says.

Even though the students are part of that generation, it still was a challenge to come up with messages and methods of communication that would be effective, says Isler.

“When you know too much about a subject scientifically, it’s really hard trying to put it into words that would resonate with us,” she says.

One group of students planned a public event targeting younger generations with music, food and beverages. Others designed new posters and brochures, made suggestions for improving the design of FLOW’s website and for ways to enhance the integrated use of the group’s blog site and other social media.

Another team created an interactive map that included active fracking wells, lease sites for future fracturing operations, oil and gas transportation pipelines such as the 60-year-old Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, and the EPA’s list of major polluters.

Another group developed a plan to engage Michigan farmers in reducing the impact of phosphate runoff into the Great Lakes watershed to reduce harmful algae blooms in the Great Lakes.

Micheal VickoryMicheal Vickory

The students used the theory of the “tragedy of the commons” as the basis of their approach.

“The idea is that if you have a common resource that is available for everyone to use, that’s a good thing,” says Vickery. “The tragedy of that is that without any rules or regulations or way to control it, the commons can be used up or ruined for future users.”

FLOW works to help people understand water as a commons — something that belongs to the public rather than private interests, and therefore is the responsibility of the public to care for. They use the idea of water being a part of the “public trust” as a basis for their legal approach.

The challenge for the students was helping FLOW talk about water being a public trust outside of a political and legal context — and to talk about the issue in layman’s terms.

To help with this, the students met with Alma alumnus Michael Delp ’71, who has written poetry and narratives about water and environmental issues for years, including a series of poems written from the perspective of a “mad angler.”

“There are multiple voices in the public sphere, all wanting to be heard on the subject of ‘the environment,’ says Vickery. “We regularly hear political, economic and scientific voices, but there is also a poetic voice to be heard, a voice that tries to articulate a view of nature that is less about science and policy than it is about experience.”

Vickery was impressed by how well the students understood that their work wasn’t just a class exercise, but about providing feedback for a real-world organizations working to raise awareness about critical issues that affect everyone.

“There is a commons called Michigan, and we all have a stake in it,” he says.

Isler gets it; within a few years, she hopes to stake out which environmental issue she is most passionate about.

“I pretty much dabble in everything at this point,” she says. “That’s what I’m hoping to solidify within the next year or two, what I’m really interested in, whether it be water rights or oil or something else.”

She is considering a double-major in communication and plans to attend law school.

“That’s a great idea!” says Vickery. “You could go into environmental law.”