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Water Communication: A New Field

Kajsa Dalrymple, right, leads “Team Water,” which is conducting research on how newspapers write about water-related subjects.

Kajsa Dalrymple, right, leads “Team Water,” which is conducting research on how newspapers write about water-related subjects.

One of Kajsa Dalrymple’s chores was to help wash the family’s fruits and vegetables with iodine-laced water every day — to an 8-year-old, it seemed like a boring, unnecessary job. Standing at the sink, she sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why do we have to do this?” she asked her mother.

Her mother, a civil engineer, explained why it was important to kill any contaminants on the food — people can get sick, or even die, from water-borne illnesses. Living in Africa, the family also had to boil their water for at least 20 minutes and then filter it before they could drink it. Frequent water shortages also meant they filled buckets and even the bathtub so they would have water to use for bathing and flushing the toilet.

Even at such a young age, Dalrymple began to see how important it is to have access to clean, safe, plentiful water.

Talking About Water

Today, Kajsa Dalrymple is an assistant research scientist at IIHR and a member of the Water Sustainability Initiative (WSI). Her work focuses on water communication — how we learn about water issues, and how information affects our behavior. It’s a new field of study, she says, but one of increasing importance.

Dalrymple, who is also an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, spent the first 10 years of her life in Africa (Rwanda, Mali, and Chad), where her father organized agricultural cooperatives, and her mother used remote-sensing to study agricultural water use. “It absolutely shaped my worldview,” Dalrymple says of her time in Africa. At an early age, she developed a deep love of travel and languages, while also recognizing that issues of water accessibility and quality were key to human survival in all parts of the world.

After moving back to the United States, the family settled in the small town of Lodi, Wis., where Dalrymple attended high school. After undergraduate study in political communication at Cornell University, she pursued a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dalrymple and Professor Bret Shaw worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to develop messages to help prevent the spread of invasive species in lakes and streams. They studied public attitudes and developed messages to change behavior of boaters and anglers.

One particularly fascinating discovery was the important role of opinion leaders. In this case, they found that bait vendors could influence others to prevent the spread of invasive species.

Murky Waters

When Dalrymple came to Iowa, she found a completely new environment. In Iowa, agriculture dominates the landscape, virtually border to border. The culture here is unique, Dalrymple says, and developing a thorough understanding of this Iowa ethos is an essential first step to her work. Iowa’s unique culture also requires new, innovative outreach approaches for groups and communities, such as large corporate farms, that might not have been considered before.

Researchers also need to understand the current flow of information and the attitudes that already exist. With this in mind, Dalrymple and her team of graduate students conducted a statewide public opinion survey in late 2013 to learn what Iowans think about water issues and what differences may exist among groups.

Dalrymple is also studying how water-related information is being disseminated to Iowans through the media — primarily newspapers. “Team Water,” as Dalrymple calls her research group, is collecting two years of water-related articles from 11 Iowa newspapers. They sorted and coded the articles by the type of information presented, how it was framed (politically? economically?), and any suggestions for behavior changes that were made.

With WSI colleague Adam Ward, Dalrymple recently applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to study water sustainability and climate change. She hopes the research will help identify Iowa opinion leaders who could affect behavior among land managers, in the same way that bait vendors influenced Wisconsin anglers. Water management authorities, or WMAs, could fulfill that role, Dalrymple suggests.

Reaching Out

Dalrymple hopes to turn her research into insights on how to communicate more effectively, while providing the information that the public wants and needs. A larger goal for the university as a whole is to enhance engagement with the public, and to improve outreach efforts. Researchers can do a better job of participating in the public conversation about water issues, Dalrymple says, by connecting with journalists and talking about research findings in accessible and useful ways.

She’s excited to be in Iowa, which she believes is well positioned for change. Iowa could take the lead in the efforts to create a more sustainable future with regard to water, Dalrymple says, and have a significant impact on water quality nationally. “I have a lot of pride, not only for this state,” Dalrymple says, “but also for this university.”

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Last modified on June 25th, 2015
Posted on June 4th, 2014

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