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Drought now Californians' top concern, poll finds

Concern over California’s drought is “extremely high and intensifying,” as a majority of state residents now believe global warming has contributed to the crisis, according to polling data released this week.

As residents struggle to meet mandated cuts in urban water use and state agriculture braces for up to $2.2 billion in losses this year, voter concern over the drought has now eclipsed worry over jobs, the economy and eduction, according to researchers.

As a result, poll sponsors say Californians are now more open than ever to long-term changes in the way the state manages its water resources and say they would willingly pay “a few more dollars a month” to improve state water infrastructure.

“The public wants more to be done to address this issue,” said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation. “They don’t think this is temporary. … They really see it as a long-term problem.”

The nonprofit water foundation, which supports water sustainability programs, hired the bipartisan public opinion research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, or FM3, to conduct the poll. The researchers telephoned 1,000 randomly selected California voters and surveyed them between July 6 and July 13. The results were released Wednesday.

Among other findings, researchers said that 62% of poll subjects said they would be very willing or somewhat willing to pay $4 more a month for water if the funds were used to improve water supply reliability. Such an increase, if applied to the entire state, would generate about a billion dollars, according to poll sponsors.

Voters were asked to rate their level of drought concern on a scale of zero to 100, where zero meant “not concerned at all” and 100 meant “extremely concerned.” Half of the respondents rated their concern at 90 or higher, while 23% rated it at 100.

Another telephone survey of 1,702 adult California residents was conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California and released Wednesday night. That survey, conducted between July 12 and July 21, found that 62% of participants believed global warming has contributed to the state’s current drought.

Whether climate change has played a role in the drought remains a matter of scientific debate. Some researchers attribute California’s four-year dry period to natural variability, while others argue that rising temperatures have intensified dryness.

In the PPIC survey, opinions about the role of climate change in California’s current crisis split sharply along political lines: 78% of Democrats said global warming has contributed to drought, while 62% of Republicans said it has not.

When researchers inquired about a list of other issues facing the state, voters repeatedly put drought at the top.

While 86% of respondents said they were either “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the drought, only 65% said the same about the quality of public education, and just 55% said the same for jobs and the economy, Snow said.

“This is probably the first time we’ve seen that kind of high margin for concern about the drought,” he said.

Since Gov. Jerry Brown imposed a mandatory 25% reduction in urban water use on April 1, there has been friction between urban water users, agricultural users and environmentalists.

However, the water foundation poll suggested that these divisions were not as deep as they might appear. While 85% of voters said the drought’s impact on the environment has been “extremely” or “very” serious, 81% said the same for the drought’s impact on agriculture.

“That was encouraging,” Snow said. “It helps to break down the finger-pointing.”

The PPIC survey found that while 46% of respondents believed the mandated cuts in urban water use were appropriate, 64% of those surveyed did not know their district’s target reduction rate. (Although the state seeks to cut urban water use by 25% overall, different areas have higher or lower goals based on their past conservation efforts.)

“Among those who say they do know, 52% say the target amount is right, 23% say it is not enough and 20% say it is too much,” researchers wrote.

“Taken together, these survey results suggest that California voters are ready and willing to support major and permanent changes in how the sate manages water,” researchers wrote. “Along with the finding that few voters are satisfied with the state’s response to the drought, this indicates that legislators who support reform are likely to find that voters support their actions.”

Researchers also noted slight variations in attitude among different regions of the state.

While 65% of respondents statewide said they believed California was facing a serious long-term water shortage that will continue to be a problem even after we have more rain and snow, 73% of voters in the Bay Area and 70% of voters in Southern California said this was the case.

Twitter: @montemorin

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

9:03 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a Public Policy Institute of California phone survey.

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