Polling Shows Rural Voters Want Stronger Clean Water Protections

Voters reveal they are more likely to vote for a candidate that supported clean water protection


Joan Mulhern, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

Results of polling in rural voting districts show that voters overwhelmingly support protecting streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes and other waters from pollution and degradation. Rural voters also said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who voted to have the federal Clean Water Act protect all bodies of water from pollution. Between a quarter and a fifth of those polled are farmers who hold similar beliefs that safeguarding our waters is an important and often underserved government responsibility.

The majority (55 percent) of voters polled also agreed that the government has not gone far enough to protect the environment and keep our water free from pollution, rejecting claims by big polluters that environmental regulation protecting so-called “isolated” wetlands or other non-navigable waters would be onerous for property owners, businesses or developers. The consistent findings in each rural, agricultural district polled in Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee, create a likelihood that voters in other districts across the country would hold similar attitudes.

“Given the consistency of these findings in these three separate districts, there is a strong likelihood that rural voters would have similar attitudes in similar districts,” said Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research & Consulting.

Results from the survey of 300 randomly selected rural voters in each of three congressional districts in Illinois (15th), Ohio (18th) and Tennessee (4th), polled in mid-December, show that more than three-fourths of those polled indicated they were very concerned about pollution of lakes, rivers and streams. Conducted by Bellwether Research & Consulting, those polled were selected in each congressional district from a universe of households defined as “rural” based on the Census Tract of that address. Each survey has a + 5.6% margin of error. Earthjustice conducted the poll in rural, predominantly agricultural districts to counter arguments from opponents of the federal Clean Water Act who say rural voters don’t want Congress to legislate protection for all waters of the United States.

“The notion that farmers might view environmental regulations as excessive was absolutely not in evidence here,” Matthews added.”

The poll results, which can be found in their entirety at www.earthjustice.org/cleanwaterpoll, offered remarkably consistent support for Congressional action that guarantees clean water protections for all America’s waterways. Depending on the district, between one-fifth or one-fourth of those interviewed owned or worked on a farm, and were as likely as their non-farming neighbors to agree that government had not gone far enough to protect waters from pollution. This comes at an ideal time as Congress is now considering important legislation, the Clean Water Restoration Act (H.R. 2421 & S.1870)

“Americans want and deserve clean water,” said Joan Mulhern, Senior Legislative Counsel with Earthjustice, which funded the survey. “Rural voters are sending Congress a clear message that protecting these waters is important to them. They want their Senators and Representatives to support the Clean Water Act’s broad protections for all of the nation’s wetlands, streams, rivers, lakes and other waters.  It is clear that a majority of rural voters believe that Washington isn’t going far enough to reach this goal.”

The bill simply removes the word “navigable” from the Clean Water Act and guarantees protections for all waters of the United States. Muddied legal decisions by the Supreme Court on what waters should be covered by the Clean Water Act, along with ambiguous policy guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have put more than 20 million acres of wetlands and approximately 60 percent of America’s streams at risk of losing federal protection from pollution. Industrial polluters and developers have mounted an attack campaign on Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The Clean Water Restoration Act clarifies that when Congress passed the Clean Water Act 35 years ago, it intended that all waters of the United States be protected.

“What we’re seeing with this poll is that protecting all of America’s waters and keeping them clean is important to young and old rural voters, farmers, hunters, anglers and others,” Mulhern added.

The polls revealed that:

  • In Ohio’s 18th congressional district, just east of Columbus, which includes Zanesville, Dover, Newark, Coshocton County, Harrison County and Ross County, 90 percent of rural voters were either concerned or somewhat concerned about pollution of lakes, rivers & streams;
  • In Illinois’ 15th congressional district, including Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington and Vermilion County, Clark County, and Coles County, 64 percent of rural voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who voted to have the Clean Water Act protect all bodies of water from pollution;
  • In Tennessee’s 4th congressional district, including Manchester, McMinnville, Jamestown and Cumberland County, Grundy County and Giles County, 61 percent of rural voters agreed that the original intent of the Clean Water Act was to protect all bodies of water from pollution, not just those defined as navigable.

The bipartisan Clean Water Restoration Act, introduced last May by Reps. James Oberstar (D-8th MN), John Dingell (D-15th MI) and Vernon Ehlers (R-3rd MI) in the House of Representatives, has 170 additional co-sponsors. The Senate version of the bill, introduced last June by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) has 20 additional cosponsors.

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