USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll: Calif. voters concerned about state water supply – until they see the cost

September 30, 2013

Contact: Suzanne Wu at or (213) 740-0252; Michelle Salzman Boston or (213) 821-9311; Merrill Balassone at or (213) 740-6156

September 30, 2013 — Voter support for a new water transportation system is washed away by the cost of proposed improvements, according to the latest results of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll. While a majority of California voters say the state’s water system is a major problem or crisis, support for specific water improvement projects falls dramatically when a price tag is attached.

Most Californians (51 percent) initially favor Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to change how water is transported throughout the state. Brown’s plan would build tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley and Southern California, and restore more than 100,000 acres of fragile wildlife habitat.

But when provided fiscal information about the plan in a follow-up question, Californians have sticker shock. In a 36-point swing, opposition to Brown’s water management proposal increases to 54 percent from 33 percent when voters are told about the estimated  $25 billion cost, funded through higher water bills and state and federal funds. Support falls to 36 percent.

“Whenever voters see dollar figures attached to a large-scale project like this one, you always see a drop off in support. But it’s rare to see this much of a drop,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “Voters have clear concerns about the state’s water challenges and want to see something done, but they are simply not willing to trust state government to spend money effectively.”

For a video of Schnur and Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall discussing respondents’ views on water in California, click here.

Sixty-three percent of Californians agree that the water situation in the state is a crisis or a major problem. An additional 21 percent believe California’s water system is a minor problem, and 10 percent say it is not a problem at all. Concerns are highest in rural areas, where 79 percent of voters say the state’s water system is in dire straits, compared to 64 percent of voters in metropolitan areas and 56 percent of suburban voters who see water as a crisis or major problem.

These attitudes are reflected in personal behavior, with most Californians saying they have made lifestyle changes in the last few years to conserve water. More than 80 percent of voters have changed personal habits such as turning the faucet off while brushing teeth or taking shorter showers. Sixty-three percent of voters say they have reduced the water they use on their lawns, and 23 percent have replaced those lawns with drought-tolerant plantings.

But reluctance to fund water projects may stem from a seeming lack of urgency, experts say, noting that just 17 percent of voters indicate that their community is under restrictions on water use.

“Because voters are satisfied with the availability and cleanliness of water, they don’t see a need to spend money on building a new tunnel for a problem they don’t perceive exists,” said David Kanevsky, research director for Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the poll with Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of USC and the Los Angeles Times.

Voters also appear to be less concerned about out-of-pocket water costs than about the statewide tab for new water projects. Forty-five percent of voters say they are satisfied with their water bill, compared to 40 percent who are dissatisfied. Eighty-six percent say they are satisfied with the amount of clean water they have at home, and 12 percent are dissatisfied.

Forty-two percent of voters said ensuring the long-term reliability of the water supply should be the most important goal when addressing California’s water system. This was more than twice as popular as any other goal: 20 percent said conservation was the most important goal, 18 percent said the state should focus on keeping down costs, and 11 percent supported increasing the state’s water supply.

Voters also initially supported a proposal to use bonds to pay for water improvement projects, such as cleaning up groundwater and repairing levees. Sixty-percent of voters supporting the state issuing bonds, and 31 percent opposed it.

This support flips when voters are told that the state would borrow between $5 and $6 billion dollars, eventually to be repaid out of the state budget. With additional fiscal information, 54 percent of voters say the water improvements are not worth borrowing money, and 36 percent say they are still worth it — a reversal of 47 percentage points from the more general bond proposal.

“Californians have been living with the threat of a water shortage for a long time, yet most remain satisfied with the quality and availability of their water. This contributes to making it more an ethereal problem than an immediate problem,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “As a result, people have little appetite for spending money to address it now, and the shift away from the proposals once we added in the cost component was, frankly, enormous.”

Fifty-one percent of voters agreed with the statement that California has more important priorities right now than “more wasteful government spending,” and that the bond proposal was “just another pork project for Sacramento politicians.” Thirty-six agreed with a competing statement, that the current water system is inadequate and “this plan would upgrade out water system and secure a reliable, long-term water supply that is vital to California’s economy.”

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted September 18-24, 2013. The full sample of 1,500 registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available here.

TWITTER: @usclatpoll

About the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll: The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is a series of statewide public opinion polls in California, designed to survey voter attitudes on a wide range of political, policy, social and cultural issues.

Conducted at regular intervals throughout the year, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is one of the largest polls of registered voters in the state and has been widely cited, helping to inform the public and to encourage discourse on key political and policy issues.

About USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is the heart of the university. The largest, oldest and most diverse of USC’s 19 schools, USC Dornsife is composed of more than 30 academic departments and dozens of research centers and institutes. USC Dornsife is home to approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and more than 750 faculty members with expertise across the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

About the Los Angeles Times: The Los Angeles Times is the largest metropolitan daily newspaper in the country, with a daily readership of 2 million and 3 million on Sunday, and a combined print and interactive local weekly audience of 4.5 million. The fast-growing draws over 10 million unique visitors monthly.