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Environment & Science

SPECIAL REPORT: Environmental survey finds shrinking open space a dominant concern

PA_Lehigh River_Tom Storm Photography.jpg
Thomas J. Storm
Tom Storm Photography
The Lehigh River, a 109-mile-long tributary of the Delaware River that flows through most of the Lehigh Valley, was included for the first time in American Rivers’ annual list of the country's most endangered rivers.

  • More Lehigh Valley residents are concerned with loss of open space than air or water quality, a recent survey shows
  • The results do not reflect recent flooding issues and Canadian wildfire smoke blowing into the region
  • Local watershed advocates say more education is needed so residents can better understand how their air, water and open spaces are managed

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It isn’t surprising that Lehigh Valley residents are worried about losing open spaces, says Bob Schmidt.

After all, it's right in front of them.

“Warehouses [are] visible along the roads and in the news,” said Schmidt, president of the Fry's Run Watershed Association in Williams Township. “(They're) not so concerned about air and water quality because they don't see it or hear about it much.

"Same situation with local officials. They hear from people every meeting about warehouses but almost never about air and water quality.”

While a majority of Lehigh and Northampton counties' residents are concerned with the loss of open spaces, only a third are worried about the region’s air and drinking water quality. That was one of the major findings of a survey by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion released today by LehighValleyNews.com.

The independent, nonprofit news outlet commissioned the survey in partnership with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. and the Lehigh Valley Partnership.

Although, like Schmidt, local environmentalists said they weren’t surprised with the results, they also pointed to gaps in understanding and underscored the need for more education.

“The air quality and water quality in the Lehigh Valley are overall excellent,” said Rebecca Hayden, president of the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley. “There are obviously some exceptions, but for an area this urbanized and developed overall, our water quality in particular is surprisingly good. Again, there are obviously localized areas of concern.”

In March, LehighValleyNews.com published "Life in the Lehigh Valley," a series that coincided with release of a quality-of-life survey conducted by Muhlenberg's Institute of Public Opinion. The environmental survey is an offshoot of that.

Find the full Life in the Lehigh Valley series and quality-of-life survey here.

Since the survey was completed earlier this year, environmental stories and issues have taken center stage. Consider:

‘It's where you live and what you experience’

The environmental survey is impactful, said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College who directs the institute, in showing overall attitudes that individuals have in the Lehigh Valley toward environmental matters.

“It was great to get more granular, Lehigh Valley-level information on this,” said Borick. “And, also, a lot of the things that we look at the relationship between the factors of where you live in the Valley and what you're concerned about, and who you are and how you view other issues, I think is one of the big takeaways that I saw in the report.”

The report found that while three out of four Lehigh and Northampton county residents are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned with loss of open space, about a third expressed concerns about the quality of air and drinking water quality in the region.

However, where residents live, as well as their race and gender, makes a difference.

Residents who live in urban areas are more likely to be concerned with air and water quality, while those who live in suburban/rural areas are more likely to be concerned about the loss of open space, according to the findings.

White residents expressed more concern about the loss of open space than people of color, while people of color showed more concern about air quality and water quality.

Women were more likely to have concerns about air quality, water quality and the loss of open space than men, according to the report.

“It's where you live and what you experience,” Borick said. “Your priorities are different and we do see that in our analysis.”

Valuable feedback

Kathy Altmann, president of the Bushkill Stream Conservancy, said the survey is notable, as it gives a view that covers many demographics.

“Reports like this one can provide valuable feedback to local officials,” Altmann said. “The BSC has found in our dealings with members of the public that the concern over loss of open space is in the forefront of most people's minds when they approach us for feedback.”

From looking at the results, residents seem to be becoming more aware of the environmental impacts of losing open space across the region, Altmann said. But, the report isn’t showing an increased awareness that she is seeing after recent flooding and smoky days.

“We did the survey last fall, so it was pre-wildfires,” Borick said. “And, therefore [we] couldn't capture any of the challenges that we've seen this summer. So, the caveat there, if we went back in the field now, I'm sure we would probably see those numbers shift a little bit.”

Bradley J. Kunsman Jr., a water resources extension educator and master watershed steward coordinator in the Lehigh and Northampton counties’ Penn State Extension offices, said the results seem to follow trends that he sees in some land grant research.

“In my opinion, there isn’t a lot of variation here based on residency, race and income when it comes to perception,” he said. “Regardless of these demographics, people want a place to enjoy the outdoors, and this is becoming more of a hot topic as most people cannot afford properties with acreage.

“These results seem to trend toward concern and that is probably due to the amount of development people are seeing in contrast to the amount of preserved spaces as our open spaces continue to [be] filled with housing, businesses and warehousing.”

It was likely only people who care about environmental topics in the Lehigh Valley took the survey, he said, which, to him, would slightly skew results.

Air and water quality might be less of a concern because “the resources are taken for granted,” he said.

“If they’re breathing and drinking without complications, they don’t see it as an issue,” Kunsman said. “AND they think they are protected due to regulation.”

‘We can't always blame the government’

The report shows a clear gap in understanding how water quality is measured, as well as who is responsible for setting and maintaining standards, said the Watershed Coalition's Hayden.

“Cities that are located in geographic valleys have air quality issues, but it isn't because of something horrible going on that is being neglected and governments aren't doing their work,” she said. “It just has a lot to do with geography.”

Among the report’s findings included that those who have negative views of local government in the Valley are more likely to have increased concerns about air quality and the loss of open space.

“Our local governments here, the individual municipalities and the county governments, have zero, absolutely zero causal linkage to [public] drinking water quality – none,” Hayden said. “The authorities do, the drinking water systems do, but most of those are independent authorities … [are] regulated by the [state Department of Environmental Protection].

“So drinking water quality is linked to state government, not to local government.”

Residents want someone to blame when it comes to loss of open space, as well as water and air quality issues, said Stefanie Green, president of the Bertsch-Hokendauqua-Catasauqua Watershed Association.

“And that blame is going to lie on the local governments, who they automatically assume were people who let the warehouses come in,” she said, citing zoning policies. “There's only so much they can do before they start getting sued … We can't always blame the government is what it comes down to.”

There are few public education classes explaining how zoning and other local regulations work, she noted.

It can be tricky, said Nate Prichard, vice president of the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley, to get a handle on these issues for an entire region, describing it as byzantine, or excessively complicated.

“It's more complex than people think, because there's not a very clear single point of information and that's something that you know, anybody that is in local government or local regulation deals with all the time,” said Prichard. “That you call one person and you have a very high chance of them passing you on to somebody else because they just simply have different programs, and what the person is concerned about may cover two, three, four different programs.

“It's a struggle that way in getting the public to be informed as far as how they can best advocate or express what their concern is and help to come up with a solution if there is one.”

But that doesn’t mean the Valley’s residents should skip local officials in their search for answers or solutions.

“You don't want people to stop working at a local level,” said Green. “I think it's still very important for them to be in contact with their local government and to make sure that they are on the same understanding, what the regulations at that level are and then moving onward.”

Bridging gaps

To bridge those gaps in understanding, advocates said residents should reach out to their local watershed association, or directly to the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley. There, members can help connect residents to information about water and air quality, as well as those working locally to protect open spaces.

“It's a public realm, and finding the people who are going to inform you is definitely a good start for anybody no matter where they live,” Green said.