Californians want water issues fixed but not enough to pay for it


Californians say the state’s water supply system has serious problems that require improvement, but they are unwilling to spend billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer funds on the task, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

The results suggest an uphill fight for proponents of a state water bond and for a proposal to replumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the transfer point for Northern California supplies delivered to the San Joaquin Valley and urban Southern California.

Reluctance to pay for big public works projects was reflected throughout the survey, which also questioned voters on the California prison system and the high-speed rail project.


“On all three of these issues voters have very clear concerns and want to see something done — until they see the price tag,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

In initial questioning, 60% of those polled said they would favor a bond to finance statewide water improvements such as levee repair and groundwater cleanup. But when told the bond would require the state to borrow $5 billion to $6 billion, support plunged to 36%.

Slightly more than half, 51%, of those surveyed said they favored the delta proposal — until they learned it would cost $25 billion in ratepayer and government funds. Then only 36% said they would support it.

Pollsters said the flip in support demonstrated two things: Voters continue to have serious pocketbook concerns as the state crawls out of recession, and most Californians don’t think the state’s water problems are urgent.

“You turn on your faucet and the water comes out. They don’t see an immediate problem,” said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of a bipartisan pair of polling firms that conducted the survey for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times.

A statewide vote on the water bond, which was originally set at $11 billion, has been postponed several times as legislators whittle down the amount and wait for the economy to improve. They are still drafting the latest version, which is scheduled to go on the ballot next year and is expected to be about half its initial size.


The delta proposal, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, is for a smaller, subterranean version of the peripheral canal that voters quashed in 1982. It calls for the long-term restoration of more than 100,000 acres of delta habitat and construction of a new, north delta diversion point on the Sacramento River that would feed two 30-mile tunnels carrying water to existing export facilities in the south delta.

San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California say the project is necessary to halt cuts in water deliveries that have been imposed to protect imperiled native fish in the delta.

The poll found that support for the project was strongest in Los Angeles County. But the survey findings did not strictly hew to the north-south lines that typically divide California on water issues.

More than half of those surveyed in the San Francisco Bay region also favored the delta proposal before they were told the cost. (In both areas, support dropped to well below half when cost was included in the question.)

Opposition was greatest in the north half of the state outside of the Bay Area. It was also strong in the San Joaquin Valley — even though valley agricultural interests have been some of the tunnel proposal’s biggest proponents.

“I think there is an ideologic and partisan component to this,” said Drew Lieberman of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. He noted that Republicans were more opposed to the bond borrowing and tunnel project than Democrats.


Mark Kettlewell, who lives in the San Diego suburb of Santee, was against both the delta plan and the water bond. “It’s just giving them money which we’ll be paying off and my children will be paying off forever,” said Kettlewell, 57.

He was among the 42% of respondents who characterized the state’s water situation as a major problem. An additional 21% said it was a crisis.

He was also among the 81% who said they have changed their household habits to reduce water use. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said they were watering their lawns less, and nearly a quarter said they had removed lawns and replaced them with drought tolerant plants.

“I’ve done everything I can,” said Kettlewell, who got rid of his grass because his water bill keeps going up.

On a regional level, Central Coast residents were the most likely to have removed their lawns, and those living in the Central Valley were the least likely.

The poll findings are based on a random telephone survey of 1,500 registered California voters. The survey was conducted from Sept. 18 to 24 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.


Respondents’ top water priority was ensuring a long-term, reliable supply, followed by keeping water costs down, and conserving fish and wildlife habitat. Increasing the state’s water supply ranked lowest, with only 9% naming that as the most important.

Tommy Sober, 32, who lives in the Sacramento County town of Orangevale and described himself as an avid fisherman, picked habitat conservation as his top goal. “I’m not like an environmentalist. I just think it’s getting out of hand with diverting water all over the place,” he said. “There’s just got to be a better way of managing water.”

Most of those surveyed were satisfied with the cleanliness and availability of water in their homes. And that, pollsters said, is why voters are reluctant to spend billions on water projects.

“People understand it’s a problem,” Lieberman said. “But they’re not feeling it in their day-to-day lives.”