San Luis Reservoir, near the city of Los Banos in Merced County  Dan Brekke/KQED
San Luis Reservoir, near the city of Los Banos in Merced County  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Something Californians Can Agree On: The Drought's Serious

Something Californians Can Agree On: The Drought's Serious

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The Field Poll has been surveying Californians in good times and bad for decades, and rarely does it find respondents unanimous -- or virtually unanimous -- on anything.

In the weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the poll found 83 percent support for military action against whoever was responsible. Summary: Five of six say, "Bomb 'em."

In September 2010, Field recorded its record low rating for the California Legislature, with 80 percent disapproving of how lawmakers were doing their job (and just 10 percent approving). Summary: Four of five tell solons, "You stink."

Those are pretty big numbers. But now the poll is out with an even bigger one that suggests drought and water worries have brought Californians together in a way that not even Osama bin Laden and legislative incompetence could.

A new Field Poll finds that 94 percent of Californians view the drought, now in its fourth year, as either extremely (68 percent) or somewhat (26 percent) serious. Just 5 percent said the drought, which has resulted in deep cuts to surface water shipments to many Central Valley farmers and has led to a dramatic increase in groundwater pumping, is not serious. One percent of the 1,241 registered voters surveyed said they had no opinion.


Summary: 19 of 20 Californians say, "It's too dry."

"To give you some context, back in 1977, in the midst of what was then the most serious drought in modern history, a similar Field Poll question found only 51 percent saying the drought situation was extremely serious," said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo.

The poll also found:

  • A continuing lack of enthusiasm for mandatory water rationing. Thirty-four percent of respondents said they'd back mandatory limits, up from 27 percent last spring. But 61 percent said they want to continue the current regime of voluntary consumption cuts.
  • A continuing split on whether environmental safeguards for fish, wildlife and their habitats ought to be waived to guarantee water for farms and cities. Fifty percent said they'd support suspending protections, while 46 would not.
  • Increasing concern about the state's long-term water supply. Forty-three percent said the state's existing storage and supply facilities were inadequate, a sharp increase from polling in the 1980s. On the other hand, 10 percent of the new poll's respondents said water storage and supply facilites are more than adequate and 38 percent said existing facilities are "barely adequate."

DiCamillo said that the new survey, conducted from late January through mid-February, showed less of a divide among regions on most drought-related issues:

In past droughts, there has been maybe more regionality in public opinion. That is, Northern Californians may have felt one way about things and the Southern Californians view it somewhat differently. In this series of polls, regionality is there to some extent, but it's nowhere near the extent we saw in previous history. For example, if you go all the way back to the Peripheral Canal, which was a very hot topic in the early '80s, Northern Californians felt one way -- I think it was nine out of 10 voters voted no on the Peripheral Canal -- whereas Southern Californians were supportive, two to one.

The issue that proved an exception to that rule involves the question of "bypassing" environmental regulations that protect threatened species and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta habitat in dry years.

Only respondents in the Bay Area opposed that idea -- and by a large margin, 64 to 33 percent. Every other region of the state supported that suggestion. Those in the Central Valley, a region whose farm economy is largely dependent on water pumped from the Delta, supported suspension of protections by 61 percent to 38 percent.