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UF study: Those who feel ‘one with water’ are more apt to conserve the precious commodity

Much of our society has become so urbanized that the closest some people feel to water is their neighborhood stormwater pond, a University of Florida researcher says.

People need to feel a deeper connection to water before they’ll be likely to preserve it, say John Diaz and Laura Warner.

Diaz and Warner are two authors of a new UF/IFAS Extension document in which they report on a concept they developed called “connectedness to water.” People who frequently commune with nature – go on hikes, canoe, swim, fish and more — often wind up feeling “one with water,” says Warner, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences associate professor of agricultural education and communication.

“When you look at water and you see it as an extension of yourself, you may feel ‘one with water,’” said Warner.

Americans are tapping so much water out of the system that some data show we’re running short on the precious commodity. For example, 75% of U.S. residential water use is used outdoors, with more than half of it going to landscape irrigation – roughly 9 billion gallons per day.

Knowing the urgent need to protect our limited water supply, Warner and Diaz developed the psychological concept of people’s “connectedness to water,” adapted from a well-established paradigm known as “Connectedness to Nature.”

UF/IFAS researchers have discovered that a person’s sense of being connected to water can help scholars predict people’s outdoor water conservation intentions.

In a study published in 2020, Warner, Diaz and others surveyed 3,596 Florida residents online. Researchers gave participants a series of statements. Respondents marked each one along a Likert scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Statements included:

  • I often feel a sense of oneness with the water around me.
  • I appreciate the plants and animals that live in the water around me.
  • I often feel part of the water cycle
  • Like a drop of water can be part of the ocean, I am connected to the water around me.

The more participants agreed with the statements, the more “connected” to water researchers deemed them to be. For instance, if they’re “one with water,” they’re more likely to check out nearby lakes and rivers. In turn, they’ll appreciate water and want to preserve it, Warner said.

Researchers found that people who were “connected to water” were more likely to preserve it than viewing water conservation through the prism of social norms. That’s because deep emotional connections serve as a better predictor than norm-based perceptions. That gives social scientists a leg up as they try to get residents to save water.

“We have spent so much time becoming more civilized and urbanized, but that has caused people to become disconnected from the natural world around them,” said Diaz, an assistant professor of agricultural education and communication and state Extension specialist who works at the UF/IFAS Plant City campus. “This is especially the case for water resources, as many of us only have bodies of water like stormwater ponds to engage with on a daily basis.”

“Our work is attempting to foster a culture of water stewardship where the public feels more like they are part of the natural world around them, so then they are more inclined to protect it,” he said.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS