Geography Graduate Makes Good with Study of Water Attitudes in Texas

Texans know drought. Every year, summer brings intense heat and rain becomes increasingly rare. We struggle to keep our lawns green, watch as our rivers and lakes recede, and wait for a storm to break the cycle. In many Texas counties, water use restrictions—either mandatory or encouraged—are an ongoing reality.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, Texas began experiencing exceptional drought in 2006—the most severe ranking on the drought monitor. Drought conditions peaked in 2011, and the state experienced its driest year on record. Uncertainties exist about the severity of future drought in Texas, but one thing is certain: Texas will continue to experience periods of intense drought. To meet future water demand, the 2017 State Water Plan calls for water conservation efforts in both drought and non-drought periods.

As Texans, what can we do to help mitigate these problems? If my neighbor’s yard is green from frequent watering, do drought tolerant plants in my yard make a difference? How much water do I save by turning off the faucet while washing my hands? In the grand scheme of things, do my day-to-day behaviors matter? These are the attitudes Dr. Erin Dascher examined while completing her master’s degree in sustainability studies at Texas State University.

Dr. Dascher is an assistant professor of geography and anthropology at Eastern Washington University. An alumnus of Texas State’s Department of Geography, Dascher graduated in 2017 with her Ph.D. in environmental geography. But it was her work as a master’s student in sustainability studies that set the precedent for her career as a researcher.

Housed in the Department of Sociology, sustainability studies is an interdisciplinary program that exposes students to the complexity of human-environment systems. Students select from courses that range from sociology to technology and philosophy to biology. The core curriculum reinforces humanities and social science research as essential to understanding human behavior and our interactions with our environment. Through its interdisciplinary approach, the discipline of sustainability studies introduces students to the diverse methods required to solve significant, real-world problems.

Dascher’s early work reflects the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability studies. Her thesis committee was led by Dr. Gwendolyn Hustvedt from the School of Family and Consumer Sciences and included faculty from the Biology Department and Geography Department. Dascher’s thesis examined the public perception of Texans to drought severity as well as their attitudes on environmental issues more generally. She sought to identify drivers for water conservation—factors that make a person willing to engage in conservation behaviors. In particular, Dascher examined perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE). PCE is the belief that a person’s day-to-day actions can impact environmental problems and solutions.

Dascher found that PCE is a significant indicator for conservation behavior. That is, the more a person believes their behaviors affect change, the more likely they are to engage in these behaviors. The study found that strategies for influencing conservation behavior must include mandatory water restrictions and educational campaigns. To be truly effective, educational campaigns must focus on how to reduce water consumption and how conservation behaviors impact the problem. Essentially, the public must know that minor behavioral changes, such as turning the water off while washing your hands, really do make a difference. These findings can help policy makers, environmental agencies, advocacy groups—anyone who seeks to encourage water conservation behaviors in the state of Texas.

Dascher submitted her thesis to the Graduate College in May 2013, but this was not the end of its journey. Dascher credits her advisor for encouraging her to publish. “I was just happy to be working on a project I cared about,” she says. “My advisor, Dr. Hustvedt, was the more strategic one. She knew that the article would find an audience…and that it would be useful for informing future research.” Dr. Hustvedt helped Dascher identify a journal and asked another faculty member to join the team. Together, they revised and submitted the article to the International Journal of Consumer Studies. The article was accepted for publication with Dascher as lead author. According to Google Scholar, the article has been cited 31 times. It is her most cited article to date.

After graduating with her master’s degree in sustainability studies, Dascher entered Texas State’s doctoral program in environmental geography. When asked what led her to geography, her answer was simple. “The faculty, courses, and students are all great, but the field trips are what get you hooked.” When it was time to choose a Ph.D. program, she knew where she belonged. “Now,” she says, “I cannot imagine that I was ever not an environmental geographer.”

As a doctoral student, Dascher’s research took a new direction. “Studying human behavior is not for the faint of heart,” she says. “While I wound up moving away from that type of research for my Ph.D., my thesis work definitely motivated my desire to pursue research that helps inform resource management decision making.”

Her dissertation focused on dam removal for freshwater mussel conservation. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, freshwater mussels are critical to the ecosystem because they filter algae and small particles from our water sources. If freshwater mussels are threatened, so is the quality of water. At first glance, moving from human behavior to freshwater mussels seems like a leap. But, in fact, a similar course runs through Dascher’s work—preserving the availability and quality of our water resources.

While Dascher no longer studies perceived consumer effectiveness (PCE), the concept still comes up in her teaching. When talking to her students about resource conservation and sustainability, Dascher plays the devil’s advocate. “I ask students things like whether they think one plastic bottle matters in the grand scheme of things. I want students to think about how they view their own agency in environmental problems and solutions.”

When asked if she has advice for graduate students, Dascher recommends, “Find an advisor who is interested in publishing with you. Let your advisor know you want to publish and make it a goal from the start.” Her final piece of advice? “Go on one of the Geography Department’s field trips. You’ll be glad you did.”