A First: Drought Tops List of Californians' Worries

(iStock/Getty Images)
(iStock/Getty Images)

The drought has moved to the top of Californians' worry list. And that's a first.

Asked to name the "most important issue" facing the state, 26 percent of respondents to a statewide survey earlier this month said "water" and "drought." That's a statistical tie with those who said "jobs" and "the economy" (29 percent), the first time that's happened since 1998, when the Public Policy Institute of California started asking the question.

"That's an incredible number," says Mark Baldassare, who directs the poll. And he says he thinks it's more than a fleeting response to the crisis of the moment.

"It's been the duration of this [three-year] drought and the fact that it's affected every corner of the state, that's made people realize that it's not a short-term issue; it's a long-term issue," he says. "I think there's a fundamental shift going on."

Baldassare says the water issue had been "nowhere" on residents' radar in most previous polls. Just 7 percent of respondents mentioned it as recently as January of this year, before creeping up to 24 percent in September.

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One reason the spike surprised Baldassare was that optimism about the economy hasn't improved that much.

"It's not as if people feel that one problem has been resolved and they've replaced it with something else," he observed.

Another bit of perspective: fully half of those polled say they're following news of the drought "very closely." Baldassare says that's far more than are closely tracking the upcoming election.

The heightened angst over the drought and water supplies is also likely driving support for Proposition 1, the $7 billion bond measure to fund water projects around the state. In the latest PPIC poll, 56 percent of likely voters said they were inclined to vote "yes" on the measure. Perhaps more significantly, only 32 percent said they would vote "no."

An "overwhelming majority" of 72 percent saw the state's  water supply as a "big problem." Both coastal and inland residents were equally concerned.

"It's a state issue, it's a regional issue, it's a local issue," says Baldasare." It's an in-your-house and in-your backyard issue for Californians, too."

The PPIC poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points, which makes it a statistical tie between "drought, water" and "jobs, economy" in the survey. Here's how the main question was posed and how the answers have changed in less than a year's time:

First, thinking about the state as a whole, what do you think is the most important issue facing people in California today?

October 2014
29% jobs, economy
26%  water, drought
6% education, schools, teachers
4% crime, gangs, drugs
4% health care, health reform, Obamacare
4% immigration, illegal immigration
4% state budget, deficit, taxes

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January 2014
26% jobs, economy
13% education, schools, teachers
10% state budget, deficit, taxes
9% immigration, illegal immigration
7% water, drought

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