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Social Indicators

Social indicators are measures that describe the capacity, skills, awareness, knowledge, values, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals, households, organizations, and communities. Because nonpoint source water pollution ultimately comes from decisions people make about how they will use the landscape, effective management of nonpoint source water pollution requires addressing both environmental conditions and the choices people make that impact the environment. It can take years for water quality improvements to be made from the installation of best management practices (BMPs). But, if you can measure the willingness of people to install BMPs, you can have reasonable confidence that water quality will eventually improve. If your state environmental agency has asked you to use social indicators, your project is likely trying to improve water quality by changing people’s behavior.

To do this, your project may have to influence people’s awareness, skills, attitudes, capacity, or constraints related to water quality improvement. Monitoring social indicators, like monitoring environmental indicators, gives us valuable information about how well our management strategies are working. Using the system outlined in the Social Indicators Handbook [ZIP] entitled “The Social Indicator Planning and Evaluation System (SIPES) for Nonpoint Source Management” can help improve your project planning and evaluation.

Within the handbook are many references to additional social indicators material and information as well as the Social Indicator Data Management and Analysis (SIDMA) tool - a web-based project management aid that supports SIPES in U.S. EPA Region 5 states. SIDMA can be used to collect, organize, and use social indicators related to water quality improvements.

Social Indicators for Nonpoint Source Management Project

In an effort to improve evaluation of its 319 Program, U.S. EPA Region 5 and the Region 5 state water quality agencies are working together to develop and implement an evaluation framework for nonpoint source intended to more clearly link program activities to water quality outcomes. In addition to capturing traditional administrative measures (e.g., funds awarded and spent, workshops held, projects implemented) and environmental indicators (e.g., physical and biological measures of stream health), the nonpoint source evaluation framework for Region 5 includes social indicators of progress toward water quality goals.

Goals of the social indicators initiative include:

  • Developing a system for integrating social indicators into nonpoint source planning, implementation, and evaluation;
  • Providing this system to nonpoint source project managers so they may integrate social indicators into projects addressing nonpoint source issues;
  • Helping water quality managers target outreach activities where they will have the greatest environmental impact; and,
  • Helping water quality managers assess whether their outreach efforts are accomplishing changes to improve and protect water quality.

The Region 5 multi-state Social Indicator Team began in Spring 2005 with support from the region's state water quality agencies, U.S. EPA, and the Great Lakes Regional Water Program. The team developed and is testing a set of social indicators with pilot projects across the region using the Social Indicators for Planning and Evaluation System (SIPES).

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