Poll: Most Californians say drought is very serious

Most Californians agree the state’s drought situation is very serious, but only a minority of voters say they and their families are significantly affected by the current water shortage, according to a new poll.

The poll of more than 9,000 voters statewide found that 71% said the state’s water shortage was “extremely serious,” while 23% described it as fairly serious.

Far fewer of those voters said they felt the effects of the drought directly, according to the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Only 9% said they and their families were “strongly” affected by current water scarcity, 32% said they were somewhat affected, while 57% said they were “little” or not affected at all.

That’s a notable change from 2015, during California’s last major drought, when a similar survey found that 58% said they were at least somewhat affected by the water scarcity at the time, and 76% said the scarcity was extremely serious.

“What strikes me is that it doesn’t directly affect as many voters as you might think,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the IGS poll in Berkeley. During the current drought, he said, water scarcity “really hasn’t been felt that much by voters, at least not until now.”

The poll results don’t directly address why this might be the case. But months before that poll in October 2015, at the height of the 2012-2016 drought, was the then governor. Jerry Brown ordered cities and towns to reduce water use by 25% as part of mandatory statewide restrictions.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a different approach, calling on Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15% while giving local water utilities more leeway to implement protective measures.

Much of Los Angeles County has mandatory restrictions restricting outdoor watering. Many of the LA County voters who took the poll said they had no trouble complying, but a large majority said they were already doing everything they could to save.

When asked how easy or difficult it was to comply with water restrictions, 44% of LA County respondents said compliance was easy, 13% said it was difficult, and 43% said they didn’t know or didn’t have any Opinion. Tenants tended to have no opinion. 55% of homeowners said it was easy to comply with water restrictions. About 1 in 5 homeowners said compliance was difficult, but only 3% said it was “very difficult”.

The survey found some variation between regions and demographic groups, with older voters, homeowners, Latino voters who primarily speak Spanish, and voters in the Central Valley saying they are affected by water scarcity slightly more than other groups.

The proportion of voters who said they were at least somewhat affected ranged from a low of 27% in Orange County to a high of 52% in the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are dealing with major water supply cuts and drawing groundwater while leaving large swathes of farmland dry and unplanted. Hundreds of domestic wells have dried up in the region over the past year due to falling groundwater levels. The state has received reports of 966 dry wells across California so far this year, a 72% increase over the same period last year. Many of the wells that have dried up are located in agricultural areas, which primarily affect low-income residents.

Eighteen percent of San Joaquin Valley residents said they were “very badly” affected by water scarcity, more than any other region in the state.

In the north, in the Sacramento Valley, 42% said they were slightly or very badly affected. That equates to similar percentages in many other parts of the state. In Los Angeles County, 42% reported being affected and 9% reported being severely affected.

The results show that people in agricultural areas are feeling the effects of scarcity more than those in other parts of the state, said Faith Kearns, a research scientist at the California Institute for Water Resources.

“My sense is probably that although in some regions people have been urged to reduce their landscape water and things like that, people in urban areas are largely buffered,” Kearns said. “But I think most people still have water coming out when they turn on the faucet. And so unless you’re in an area where you see the effects of water scarcity every day, they aren’t affected as much.”

The survey found that Californians have some conflicting and unclear opinions about agricultural water use. Polled voters across the state were divided on whether they believe farmers “are doing their part to reduce their water use to help the state weather the drought.” 29% said yes and 28% no, while 43% said they didn’t know.

Voters were also divided when asked if the state’s private users are doing their part, with 32% saying they are doing it, 42% saying they aren’t and 26% saying they don’t know.

“Commercial and commercial water users” received a more negative note, with 48% saying they are not doing their part, compared to 13% who said they are and 39% who said they didn’t know.

The “no opinion” camp was larger (45%) when people were asked if they believed California’s drought rules and water restrictions were being “fairly enforced” for these three types of water users.

Kearns said she finds it striking that many people have no opinion on whether agricultural water users are doing enough to reduce water use.

According to state data, agriculture uses about 80% of the water that is diverted and pumped in California in an average year, and produces crops such as hay, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, grapes, rice, and many other fruits and vegetables.

Those survey responses, Kearns said, reflect “where water education and conservation campaigns have focused, namely on individuals at the household level.” And she said the findings point to a need to raise awareness of how water is used in California.

“The fact that so many people do not know what they think about water use in agriculture, and to a lesser extent commercial water use, means there is still work to be done to improve understanding of more systemic water use issues” , says Kearns said.

Californians, across all regions and across all demographics, agreed that the state’s current water shortages are extremely serious. Those of greatest concern included Democrats, voters age 65 and older, and those living in the Bay Area and Central Coast.

California’s extreme drought, now in its third year, is being exacerbated by rising temperatures with global warming. A new water supply plan released this month by Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a series of actions to prepare for an estimated 10% decline in California’s water supply by 2040 as climate change continues to bring hotter and drier conditions.

Many Californians seem to agree that it’s time to ditch thirsty weed and switch to drought-tolerant landscaping. Seventy-two percent said they think it’s important for homeowners to make permanent landscape changes by removing lawns and planting plants that don’t require much water.

On this and other water policy issues, there have been disagreements between Democrats and Republicans and between voters who identify themselves as liberals and conservatives. When asked about removing lawns, 85% of Democrats said they think such landscaping changes are important, while only 49% of Republicans agreed. Republicans were also more likely to say California’s water restrictions are being implemented unfairly.

DiCamillo said he thinks those differences mostly reflect how conservatives and Republicans are “less inclined to support those kinds of restrictions on what you can do with your own life and property.”

However, the partisan divide was narrower than on many other issues, and a majority across the political spectrum agreed on the seriousness of the water situation.

“It’s pretty difficult these days to find things that the majority of people agree with,” Kearns said. “People obviously really care about these water issues.”

In another question, voters in LA County were asked, “Do you think you and your household are already doing everything possible to conserve water?” 72% said yes, while 20% said no, and 8% said they didn’t know.

“If you feel like you’ve done everything you can to change your landscaping, take shorter showers and do all those things, but there’s still this water shortage, where do you stay?” said Kearns. “For me it’s more of these big issues like agricultural and commercial water use and feeling like people don’t really feel like they know if those sectors are taking enough action.”

“It supports this idea that we may need a little more systematic look at water use in California on a broad scale, and that residents are probably quite willing to gain a deeper understanding of water beyond their own homes in the state,” she said .

The poll was conducted online August 9-15 in English and Spanish and polled a random sample of 9,254 California-registered voters. It has an estimated margin of error of 2 percentage points in the statewide results and 2.5 percentage points in the LA County results.

Times Senior Editor David Lauter contributed to this report. Poll: Most Californians say drought is very serious

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