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Assessing the Effects of Water Levels and Water Quality on Water-Based Outdoor Recreationists in Pennsylvania

The overarching goal of the study was to evaluate attitudes, perceptions, and responses towards environmental conditions (e.g., water levels and water quality) among the water-based outdoor recreation stakeholders who use the Pennsylvania coastal section of Lake Erie. For a guiding framework, this study utilized an exploratory mixed methodology with two connected phases which resulted in 566 completed questionnaires from water-based outdoor recreationists and approximately 30 hours of stakeholder interviews. Readers are encouraged to review these findings as reflective of water-based outdoor recreationists within the Pennsylvania shoreline of Lake Erie, and not representative of all Lake Erie recreationists. Study results and analyses are further detailed throughout the various sections of this report.

Key observations and findings indicate:

  • The primarily localized, experienced, older, attached, and environmentally conscious visitor sample demonstrated they were very cognizant of the water level and water quality conditions encountered on Lake Erie.
  • Visitors predominantly recognized and were aware of water level and water quality conditions, but did not perceive them to be a problem or impact their recreation activities.
  • Visitors were more aware of and more likely to be impacted by water quality conditions as opposed to water level conditions.
  • Visitors were able to correctly assess the actual environmental conditions encountered during the time of the study.
  • Visitors were more likely to employ cognitive coping strategies as opposed to behavioral coping strategies when confronted with water level or water quality conditions.
  • Visitors indicated that rationalization was by far their most frequently applied coping strategy when confronted with either water level or water quality conditions.
  • While less frequently employed, visitors also found the need to apply behavioral coping strategies such as direct action, resource substitution, and temporal substitution when confronted with water level or water quality conditions.
  • Visitors rarely found the need to employ the behavioral coping strategies of activity substitution or displacement in response to water level or water quality conditions.
  • Stakeholders largely agreed that Lake Erie is in good condition and that they value the resource for various reasons such as the prolific and biodiverse waterways, geographic convenience, and the geological protection that the Presque Isle peninsula provides.
  • However, stakeholders also noted numerous environmental and recreation concerns such as aquatic invasive species, poor water quality, low water levels, increasing recreational usage, and decreasing public access.
  • Stakeholders agreed that low water level conditions presented the greatest threat to outdoor recreation and the most commonly referenced water level concerns were boats striking the lake bottom, navigational obstructions, and infrastructure problems.
  • Stakeholders also agreed that water quality issues such as harmful algal blooms, E. coli, pollution, and water runoff also threatened outdoor recreation.
  • The general stakeholder consensus was that a 1-2 foot drop in water levels and any further increase in harmful algal bloom severity or E. coli levels would severely alter the recreational usage of Lake Erie.

 Publications: Ferguson, M. D., Mueller, J. T., Mowen, A. J., and Graefe, A. R. 2018. Coping with Climate Change- A Study of Great Lakes Water-Based Outdoor Recreationists. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 36: 52-74.

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