What do Americans think about their water?
Over the past few months, I’ve been poring over a variety of public opinion surveys that try to illuminate our attitudes toward water.
Recent events, such as the lead poisoning in Flint and an epic drought in California, have repeatedly thrust water into the news cycle. Long before those headlines, however, Americans were telling pollsters they were worried about their water. Climate change’s impact on the hydrological cycle has only amplified the concerns.
Every poll I’ve examined has its own focus and limitations (you can take a deeper dive into the data on WaterPolls.org). Looking across a variety of water-related surveys, I’ve distilled seven takeaways from the research:
1. Americans are concerned about their water
For decades, Gallup has asked Americans about a variety of environmental problems, and water always winds up as the most troubling issue. “Polluted drinking water and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs have consistently topped Americans’ concerns throughout Gallup’s 27-year trend measuring these environmental issues,” the organization reported in April 2016.
In its 2017 survey, Gallup found that 63 percent of Americans worry a “great deal” about pollution of drinking water, and another 22 percent worry a “fair amount,” as shown in the figure below. Those were the highest levels of worry recorded since 2001.
Gallup asks about water in a poll covering environmental problems, and that framing surely influences the responses. But at least in the realm of green issues, water has always been more worrisome to Americans than problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, as shown in the chart below. Like air pollution, water is far more proximate and real to people than invisible, odorless greenhouse gases or imperiled critters living in some faraway rainforest.
In the American West, where a limited and capricious water supply poses perennial challenges, concern about water is probably greater than in wetter parts of the country. In both 2016 and 2017, the Conservation in the West Poll from Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project has found that 51 percent of people in seven Mountain West states believe “low levels of water in rivers” is a very or extremely serious problem. In both years, voters rated depleted rivers as a more serious issue than unemployment. The graphic below, based on data from 2017, also shows that three-quarters of voters rated the “pollution of rivers, lakes and streams” as an extremely, very, or somewhat serious problem.
2. Weather plays major role in shaping public opinion on water
While worries over water are chronic, they do ebb and flow with the weather. In 2015, the brutal drought in California generated an unprecedented finding: For the first time since The Public Policy Institute of California started polling in 1998, water issues were the state’s top issue of concern, eclipsing the economy, jobs and other matters. As shown in the figure below, 39 percent of state residents cited water/drought as the most pressing issue in May 2015, ahead of jobs and the economy at 20 percent.
After the parched winter of 2014-2015, one of the driest in centuries, some wetter weather returned to California. By May 2016, 30 percent of Californians cited jobs and the economy as the top issue, while only 16 percent said water/drought. The graphic below from PPIC shows that as concern fell, so did water conservation.
Weather is something to watch out for when analyzing public opinion on water. During dry spells, pollsters tend to ask more questions about drought and the water supply. Spikes in concern can evaporate once the rain and snow returns. But in California and elsewhere, it appears that many Americans maintain a base level of worry about water regardless of recent precipitation trends.
3. Water-related problems top climate change concerns
Climate change is already manifesting through an amped-up hydrological cycle that is delivering deeper droughts and more extreme floods. In the United States and around the world, people are noticing. When the Pew Research Center asked citizens in 40 countries about their greatest worries related to climate change, drought and water shortages topped the list. The 2015 Pew poll also found high levels of concern over severe weather, such as floods and intense storms. But in all regions there was greater worry about the lack of freshwater, as shown in the figure below.
In the United States, there were some regional differences in concerns about climate change. Nationally, 50 percent of Americans said drought was their top worry. But that rate ranged from 63 percent in the drier West to 39 percent in the wetter East, as one might expect.
4. Water is less partisan than some other environmental issues
Most political issues exhibit partisan divisions in public opinion. Water is no exception, but the gap appears to be smaller than for other environmental issues, such as climate change. The figure below, based on 2016 data, shows water pollution is the top environmental concern among both Democrats and Republicans. The 23 percent partisan gap for “pollution of drinking water” is narrower than the 35 percent divide on climate change and comparable to the gap on air pollution.
Polling related to two recent state-based efforts show there is broad support for addressing our water woes with sustainable solutions. In July 2014, the Water Foundation asked a bipartisan team of pollsters to analyze Californians’ views on groundwater. Among both Republicans and Democrats, about 80 percent of those surveyed supported “giving local communities increased ability to manage their local groundwater.” Four-fifths of Republican and Democrats also agreed that allowing “anyone to take water from wells without considering impacts on others” was a cause of California’s declining groundwater levels.
Colorado also forged a recent bipartisan success in water. A 2014 survey supported by environmental nonprofits but run by a bipartisan polling team found that large majorities of voters in the swing state supported increasing water conservation in cities and modernizing the state’s water policies. When asked if they supported a statewide goal of reducing water use by 10 percent by 2020, 99 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of unaffiliated voters and 79 percent of Republicans said yes. Nine in 10 Coloradans think it’s extremely or very important to keep Colorado’s rivers and streams healthy and flowing.
5. Non-white and lower-income Americans are especially worried about water
Worries about water pollution are widespread in the United States, but surveys show that non-white and lower-income Americans are particularly concerned. The graphic below, based on Gallup’s March 2017 national poll, shows that 80 percent of non-whites express a great deal of worry about drinking water pollution, compared to 56 percent of whites. Three-quarters of Americans with annual incomes less than $30,000 say they worry a great deal about water pollution; for those making more than $75,000, the figure is 56 percent.
“The Flint crisis exemplifies the higher concern lower-income and nonwhite Americans feel about water pollution issues,” writes Gallup’s Justin McCarthy. But Flint is just one example of a lower-income, non-white community being hit by disastrous contamination. Researchers, journalists and environmental justice advocates can point to plenty of other examples of minorities and the disadvantaged bearing the brunt of water and other pollution, such as predominantly Latino farm communities in California not only facing tainted water supplies but also dry wells during the drought.
6. Many favor water conservation and see it as a civic duty
Becoming more efficient with our water use is one of the keys to achieving sustainability and greater resilience in the face of climate change. Ask Americans about water conservation, and you’re likely to get a thumbs up. According to the annual Conservation in the West Poll, the vast majority of Westerners surveyed are willing to take actions in their own lives to reduce their household’s water use by 20 percent. The 2016 poll also found that Westerners overwhelming prefer improving water efficiency over building new dams and diversions in order to meet increasing demands.
According to the San Diego County Water Authority’s polling, many residents see saving water as a civic duty. The chart below shows that in 2014 and 2015, more than four-fifths of respondents strongly or moderately agreed that “it is my civic responsibility to use water efficiently.”
It’s one thing to say you’ll conserve water, and another thing to actually change your lifestyle or landscaping to achieve those savings. But at least in principle, many Americans think it’s their duty to be water-wise, especially during a drought.
7. Americans say they’re willing to spend more to fix their waterworks
The American Water Works Association estimates the cost of repairing and expanding the nation’s drinking-water systems will exceed $1 trillion over the next quarter century. A majority of Americans worry about their water infrastructure and say they’re willing to pay more in order to upgrade waterworks, according to an April 2016 MWH Global survey. Compared to a similar 2015 survey, respondents expressed higher levels of concern and more willingness to pay for upgrades. When asked if their community should be spending more on water infrastructure, 68 percent of those surveyed in 2016 said yes. That’s up from 61 percent the year before.
A January 2016 Value of Water Coalition poll also found that Americans are willing to pay more on their water bills if they’re informed about infrastructure issues.
A wet winter in California and other parts of the West have led to a dramatic reduction in drought conditions, so as new polls are released, it’ll be interesting to see whether public opinion on water west of the 100th Meridian shifts in response. Less news coverage of water issues and fewer drought restrictions might reduce public concern and willingness to tackle problems, but given Westerners’ longstanding worries about water, I wouldn’t expect a sea change. Moreover, this wet winter could easily be followed by another dry spell that once again elevates water in the public’s consciousness.
Nationally, the Trump administration’s approach to environmental regulations, many of them connected to water, is already generating headlines. But whether those debates and policy changes will influence broader public attitudes toward water remains to be seen. In an era of political polarization, water is less partisan than some other natural resource issues, and there is broad-based support for infrastructure spending, so one could imagine progress on that front.
A version of this story first appeared on WaterPolls.org.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Water Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.