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California voters concerned about state water supply — until they see the cost

Wu_Suzanneby Suzanne Wu
More than 80 percent of voters have changed personal habits, such as turning the faucet off while brushing teeth or taking shorter showers. (Photo/Steve A. Johnson, Flickr)
More than 80 percent of voters have changed personal habits, such as turning the faucet off while brushing teeth or taking shorter showers. (Photo/Steve A. Johnson, Flickr)

Voter support for a new water transportation system is washed away by the cost of proposed improvements, according to the results of the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll. While a majority of California voters say the state’s water system is a major problem or crisis, support for specific water improvement projects falls dramatically when a price tag is attached.

Conducted Sept. 18-24, the poll found most Californians (51 percent) initially favored Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to change how water is transported throughout the state. Brown’s plan would build tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley and Southern California, and restore more than 100,000 acres of fragile wildlife habitat.

But when provided fiscal information about the plan in a follow-up question, Californians had sticker shock. In a 36-point swing, opposition to Brown’s water management proposal increased to 54 percent from 33 percent when voters were told about the estimated $25 billion cost, funded through higher water bills and state and federal funds. Support fell to 36 percent.

“Whenever voters see dollar figures attached to a large-scale project like this one, you always see a drop off in support. But it’s rare to see this much of a drop,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “Voters have clear concerns about the state’s water challenges and want to see something done, but they are simply not willing to trust state government to spend money effectively.”

Sixty-three percent of Californians agreed that the water situation in the state is a crisis or a major problem. An additional 21 percent believed California’s water system is a minor problem, and 10 percent said it is not a problem at all. Concerns were highest in rural areas, where 79 percent of voters said the state’s water system is in dire straits, compared to 64 percent of voters in metropolitan areas and 56 percent of suburban voters who said they see water as a crisis or major problem.

These attitudes are reflected in personal behavior, with most Californians saying they have made lifestyle changes in the last few years to conserve water. More than 80 percent of voters have changed personal habits, such as turning the faucet off while brushing teeth or taking shorter showers. Sixty-three percent of voters said they have reduced the water they use on their lawns, and 23 percent have replaced those lawns with drought-tolerant plantings.

But reluctance to fund water projects may stem from a seeming lack of urgency, experts said, noting that just 17 percent of voters indicate that their community is under restrictions on water use.

“Because voters are satisfied with the availability and cleanliness of water, they don’t see a need to spend money on building a new tunnel for a problem they don’t perceive exists,” said David Kanevsky, research director for Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the poll with Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of USC and the Times.

Voters also appeared to be less concerned about out-of-pocket water costs than about the statewide tab for new water projects. Forty-five percent of voters said they are satisfied with their water bill, compared to 40 percent who are dissatisfied. Eighty-six percent said they are satisfied with the amount of clean water they have at home, and 12 percent are dissatisfied.

Forty-two percent of voters said ensuring the long-term reliability of the water supply should be the most important goal when addressing California’s water system. This was more than twice as popular as any other goal: 20 percent said conservation was the most important goal, 18 percent said the state should focus on keeping down costs and 11 percent supported increasing the state’s water supply.

Voters also initially supported a proposal to use bonds to pay for water improvement projects, such as cleaning up groundwater and repairing levees. Sixty percent of voters supported the state issuing bonds, and 31 percent opposed it.

This support flips when voters are told that the state would borrow between $5 billion and $6 billion, eventually to be repaid out of the state budget. With additional fiscal information, 54 percent of voters said the water improvements are not worth borrowing money, and 36 percent said they are still worth it — a reversal of 47 percentage points from the more general bond proposal.

“Californians have been living with the threat of a water shortage for a long time, yet most remain satisfied with the quality and availability of their water. This contributes to making it more an ethereal problem than an immediate problem,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “As a result, people have little appetite for spending money to address it now, and the shift away from the proposals once we added in the cost component was, frankly, enormous.”

Fifty-one percent of voters agreed with the statement that California has more important priorities right now than “more wasteful government spending” and that the bond proposal was “just another pork project for Sacramento politicians.” Thirty-six agreed with a competing statement, that the current water system is inadequate and “this plan would upgrade out water system and secure a reliable, long-term water supply that is vital to California’s economy.”

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