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Field Poll: Californians split on drought measures

Millerton Lake in Fresno County formed by the Friant Dam. Photo: K.J. Kolb

Nearly all California voters (88%) believe the state is undergoing a serious water shortage. However, there is no clear consensus about whether the situation is due more to a lack of water
storage and supply facilities in the state, or users not using existing supplies efficiently enough. Statewide, 27% cite the former, 37% the latter and another 24% say both are equally responsible.

The results and methodology of the Field Poll can be seen here.

By a 54% to 30% margin most Californians believe agricultural users, who currently consume about three-quarters of the state’s fresh water supply, can reduce its water use without creating real hardships by changing crops and using water more efficiently. The average (median) amount that voters feel agricultural users could save by taking these measures is 10%.

Voters are divided when asked whether the state should be allowed to bypass existing environmental regulations protecting fish and the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta region if residents or farmers face serious shortages during dry years. Currently 49% agree that the state should be allowed to bypass these regulations at such times, while 44% disagree.

Voters currently favor asking users to voluntarily cut back their water use by 20% over imposing mandatory water rationing greater than two to one (67% to 27%) as a way to reduce water use. These are the main findings from the latest statewide Field Poll dealing with the state’s water situation, completed in early April among 1,000 registered voters throughout California.

Nearly all voters describe the state’s current water shortage as serious

About nine in ten voters (88%) believe the state is undergoing a serious water shortage. This includes 60% who term the situation extremely serious and 28% who feel it is somewhat serious. Another 10% do not believe the water situation is serious.

Voters’ current high level of concern is similar to what was observed by The Field Poll in 1977 when the state was in the midst of an earlier drought. At that time 87% of voters described the state’s water situation as serious, although a slightly smaller proportion (51%) than today felt it was extremely serious.

No consensus about whether the current situation is due more to a lack of storage and supply facilities or the inefficient use of existing water supplies

There is no clear consensus among California voters about whether the state’s current situation is due more to not having enough water storage and supply facilities or users not using existing supplies efficiently. A plurality of voters (37%) believes the situation is due more to users not using existing supplies efficiently. This compares to 27% who think it is because the state does not have enough storage and supply facilities. Another one in four (24%) volunteer that both factors are equally responsible.

There are pronounced regional differences of opinion about this. Voters in the Central Valley are more likely than voters elsewhere to blame a lack of adequate water storage and supply facilities in the state. In most other parts of the state pluralities of voters think the inefficient use of water is more responsible for the current situation.

Most think agricultural users can reduce their water use by changing crops and using water more efficiently

By a 54% to 30% margin most voters believe the state’s agricultural users, who presently consume about three-quarters of the state’s fresh water supply, can reduce their water use without creating
real hardships by changing crops and using water more efficiently.

This view is held by majorities in Los Angeles County (57%), the San Francisco Bay Area (55%), the South Coast (51%) and across other parts of Southern California (61%). Pluralities of voters in the Central Valley (45%) and in other parts of Northern California (43%) also feel this way.

The average (median) amount that voters feel agricultural users could save by changing crops and using existing supplies more efficiently is 10%.

Divided views about whether the state should be allowed to bypass existing environmental regulations during dry years

The current poll included a question posed by The Field Poll during an earlier water shortage in 1987. It asked voters whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “In dry years the state should be allowed to bypass environmental regulations protecting fish and the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta region if residents or farmers face serious shortages.”

Then as now voters are divided about whether the state should be allowed to implement this policy change. In the current survey, 49% agree the state should be given the authority to bypass environmental regulations at such times, but 44% disagree. In 1987 voter opinions about this were divided 47% to 47%.

Voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area are more likely than voters elsewhere to object to allowing the state to bypass environmental regulations in dry years (58% disagree vs. 36% agree). By contrast, voters in the Central Valley agree nearly two-to-one that the state should be given this authority (62% agree to 32% disagree).

Voluntary cutbacks favored over mandatory water rationing more than two to one

When voters are asked whether the state and other major water providers should impose mandatory water rationing or ask users to voluntarily cut back on their water use by 20%, voluntary cutbacks are endorsed more than two to one (67% to 27%).

This view does not vary much among voters in different regions of the state.

Ed’s Note:  The findings in this report are based on a Field Poll completed March 18-April 5, 2014 among a random sample of 1,000 registered voters in California. Interviewing was conducted by telephone using live interviewers working from Field Research Corporation’s central location telephone interviewing facilities in San Diego.


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