Field Poll: Drought responses split California

04/16/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 12:01 AM

Californians agree their state is parched, but they diverge by region on how supplies dried up and what should be done about the drought.

“There’s clearly a consensus that the state has a serious water shortage,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said of a survey on the subject released Tuesday. “There, however, is no consensus to what got us into this situation.”

Most voters told the Field Poll the state is grappling with a serious water shortage, and nearly two-thirds described the shortfall as “extremely serious.” While recent rains have somewhat replenished snowpack and reservoirs, the current drought remains one of the state’s worst.

Assigning blame – beyond lack of rain – got more complicated. A substantial chunk of voters, about 37 percent, said the fault lies with inefficient water use. A quarter of voters, 27 percent, said the problem is a lack of water storage facilities, a designation that generally evokes surface storage projects like dams and reservoirs but can also include groundwater. Another quarter saw some combination of the two.

“There’s a lot of water we could use that goes uncaptured,” said Kevin Cave, a 31-year-old railroad employee in Sacramento. “It seems like a lot of water is going to waste.”

As the drought has dragged on, elected officials have called for relaxing environmental protections that limit water deliveries in order to ensure there is enough water for protected species to survive. It has not just been Republicans calling for more deliveries – Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, too, has advocated maximum pumping.

The question divides voters, the Field Poll found, though a slim majority, 49 percent to 44 percent, agreed the state should “bypass environmental regulations” to help alleviate “serious shortages” faced by residents or farmers. Support for easing environmental rules was strongest in the South Coast and the Central Valley.

Central Valley respondents also were far more likely to focus on a lack of adequate storage, underscoring how evaporating water supplies have affected the crop-reliant region.

“They want additional water supplies, that’s the message I get from Central Valley voters more than any other region,” DiCamillo said. “There’s just more thirst for water among Central Valley voters than in other regions.”

Given the primacy of California’s agricultural industry, poll respondent Pargan Hundal said, water planners should ensure farms receive the water they need to allow crops to thrive.

“You serve the whole country with food, with produce, and if California is not doing well with food, the food prices are going to go up,” said Hundal, a 34-year-old truck driver who lives in Merced. “I do give respect to each and every life but I think human beings come first before you try to save anything else.”

In the Bay Area, by contrast, voters rejected loosening environmental rules by a 22-point margin. DiCamillo attributed the marked difference to a desire to protect the San Francisco Bay (fish-nurturing water flows pass through the bay) and to the region’s liberal leanings.

“They’re probably more environmentally conscious and supportive of environmental protection than voters in other parts of the state,” DiCamillo said.

Human demand for water should not outweigh maintaining the health of ecosystems, said Holli Hume, 60, an insurance agent in Los Angeles.

“If we’re not doing our job, we can’t take it away from the animals,” Hume said. “I believe it is our problem as human beings wanting money and not caring enough about the environment.”

Not all issues were as divisive. People largely united against the idea of mandatory water rationing. Two-thirds of the state backed voluntary cutbacks in water use rather than letting the government and other water providers restrict water.

There was also broad agreement that agricultural users could drain less water. A clear majority of the state, 54 percent to 30 percent, said farms could conserve water “without creating real hardships” by switching to crops that require less water or using water more efficiently. Even Central Valley voters agreed, though the margin there was the slimmest at 7 percentage points.

“That, to me, is a very significant finding,” DiCamillo said.

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