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In latest poll, Californians say drought is a crisis that has little effect on daily lives

California voters prefer addressing water problem with conservation efforts rather than taxpayer dollars

Merrill Balassoneby Merrill Balassone

Matt Rodriguez and Mike Madrid, co-directors of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, along with Bettina Boxall, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, discuss respondents’ views on the drought in California.

With California in the midst of one of its most severe droughts on record, nearly nine in 10 voters now consider it a “crisis or major problem” for the state. Yet only a small percentage say the drought has impacted their daily lives, according to results from the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Eighty-nine percent of voters called the drought a “crisis or major problem,” with just 10 percent saying it was “minor or not a problem,” according to the poll. That’s a sharp increase since September, when the poll showed 63 percent of voters thought the drought was a major problem or crisis.

But when asked whether the drought had impacted their daily lives, just 16 percent of voters said it had made a “major impact” on their families. Forty-eight percent said it had made only a “minor impact,” according to the poll.

“When you go to turn on the faucet, the water is still coming out, so while voters understand it as a concern, it’s not happening in a way that’s impacting them directly,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, part of the bipartisan team with Republican polling firm American Viewpoint that conducted the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Support evaporates entirely when you put a price tag on it.

David Lieberman

Lower-income voters reported feeling more stretched by the water crisis, according to the poll. Among those making less than $50,000 annually, 24 percent said that the drought had made a “major impact” on their families, as compared to just 11 percent of those making $50,000 per year or more.

“The way voters are really feeling it is through their water bills,” said David Kanevsky, research director of American Viewpoint.

Seeking solutions, but not at a cost

Voters were also less willing to spend taxpayer dollars on potential solutions to the water crisis.

Ninety-one percent of voters said they favored improving the state’s ability to capture storm water, but opinions changed once money came into the equation.

When asked to choose between two statements, just 36 percent of voters said the state should address water supply issues by improving storage and delivery systems, even if it costs taxpayer dollars. Compare that to 52 percent of voters who said the state should address problems without spending money by encouraging conservation.

“Support evaporates entirely when you put a price tag on it,” Lieberman said.

Voters were more closely split on whether they would be willing to pay more for their water. Forty-six percent said they would be willing to pay a higher water bill to ensure a reliable, long-term water supply, as compared to 42 percent who said their bill was high enough.

Forty-six percent of voters said Californians “need to protect the environment, even if it hurts the water supply.”

Voters were also unwilling to roll back environmental regulations to increase the water supply. Forty-six percent of voters said Californians “need to protect the environment, even if it hurts the water supply,” as compared to 36 percent who said officials should ensure the water supply even at a cost to the environment.

“Voters are not in favor of a short term fix that has long-term consequences,” Kanevsky said.

The policies favored by voters: recycling more water (92 percent); improving the capture of storm water (91 percent); storing more water in underground aquifers (83 percent); encouraging a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use (81 percent); desalinating ocean water (75 percent); building new dams and reservoirs (65 percent); and instituting financial penalties for using too much water (58 percent).

Voters were largely opposed to suspending environmental regulations that protect fish and wildlife (55 percent).

Water supply largely a bipartisan concern

The poll shows the state’s water crisis is largely a bipartisan issue — except on the issue of climate change.

Overall, 67 percent of voters thought climate change was “very or somewhat responsible” for the drought, with 28 percent saying it was just “a little or not at all responsible.”

Among Democrats, 78 percent thought climate change was “very or somewhat responsible” for the drought, as compared to just 44 percent of Republicans.

Among the water habits California voters reported changing to help conserve water: Eighty-seven percent reported taking shorter showers, turning the faucet off or flushing the toilet more sparingly; and 66 percent said they reduced the frequency or amount of water they used on their lawns. Just 24 percent had removed their lawns or replaced it with drought-tolerant plants.

The latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, the largest statewide survey of registered voters, was conducted May 21-28 and includes a significant oversample of Latino voters as well as one of the most robust cell phone samples in the state. The full sample of 1,511 registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.

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