Adena Rissman studies the ways human interaction with ecological systems can be harmonious or ruinous.

As part of a $4.9 million National Science Foundation project, the UW-Madison professor delved into people’s attitudes about government policies that rely on voluntary anti-pollution measures and those policies’ failure to rid lakes of unnatural bacteria, algae and weed growth.

In Wisconsin, clean-water advocates complain that laws offer financial incentives for voluntary anti-pollution efforts — but few meaningful penalties — for farmers whose land is the main source of water quality problems. But many farmers say they can’t afford to do more in a tough market where each year smaller farms disappear, while so-called mega-farms increase.

After detailing existing policies, Rissman and her colleagues surveyed 1,000 Dane County residents about local lakes. Urban and rural residents agreed water needed to be cleaned up, and they strongly supported both the financial incentives for voluntary efforts on farms and the notion of adding meaningful penalties.

People who trust government were more likely to support stricter regulations, while those with individualistic leanings more often favored incentives — leading Rissman to conclude that the best way to clean up lakes may be to strengthen both regulations and incentives, because the combination could win broad support from the public.

Rissman, 39, grew up in St. Louis, was an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin and trained at Berkeley in environmental science, policy and management.

She has worked on a community-based farm in Missouri and a dairy operation in Israel. In Madison, she has served as an Aldo Leopold Nature Center naturalist, a UW-Madison soil science technician and a state forest planner.

She lives near Lake Wingra with her wife, Toki Middle School science and math teacher Carey Callies, and their 5-year-old son, Zeke Rissman-Callies. Two years ago, they took a long vacation that included wetting their feet in each of the Great Lakes. Rissman is expecting their second child in September.

Why study people’s attitudes? Isn’t it enough for scientists to figure out how to clean up the water, send the scientific paper over to the policymakers, and then they just make it happen?

No (laughter), not really. There’s this longstanding metaphor about science and education that’s really been overturned — that the people’s minds are an empty bank account waiting for that big deposit to come from people with more knowledge. That’s really been replaced with a model that thinks about how even the questions we ask should be affected by what society needs and what is important to people’s values. ... Often that requires establishing, from the very beginning, relationships with the people who might be the recipients of the information.

And you did that in the study about water pollution in Dane County?

We asked about both carrot and stick policies — carrots being incentives and sticks being regulations — for reducing runoff from farms and from lawns. The majority supported all seven policies we proposed (with incentives and regulations) for improving water quality. We found the least support, at least in Dane County, was for (two options) relying only on voluntary actions.

After reviewing all the efforts by farmers and others to clean up lakes, what do you see as the strengths of current government policies?

One is the numeric criteria for water quality. Other states have less specific narrative standards. And (in Wisconsin) there is a requirement for farms not to have excessive phosphorus in their soil, although there is debate about whether the standard (is strict enough to be) effective.

And the weaknesses?

We spend money, and we don’t see improvement. ... One of the things that is difficult is seeing the proposed (federal) budget cuts (for clean water programs).

What is the answer?

We do have the basic structure in place. It’s just not operating at a level that has produced the reductions in runoff that are likely to be needed. ... We know overall we may need to run faster to stay in place because of factors like population growth, development, greater concentrations of livestock and larger storm events that are induced by climate change.

You’ve said there are legal obstacles to even obtaining a full understanding the problem. What’s an example? Private land owners have a lot of concerns about privacy. Government won’t let researchers access soil testing records (showing were the highest nutrient pollution concentrations are). It makes it very difficult to understand what sort of changes are happening.

— Interview by Steven Verburg

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.