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Water Polls

Public Support for Water Investment Depends How You Ask the Question

Americans are concerned about their infrastructure, including water, but recent public opinion research has revealed specific concerns and exposed which issues resonate most.

Written by Mitch Tobin Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Infrastructure drinking water2
Water bubbles through holes in a street following a water main break, July 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Recent polls have found the majority of Americans are not satisfied with their water infrastructure.AP/Charlie Neibergall

Many of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises have sparked controversy, but one of his proposals ­– spending $1 trillion to fix the nation’s decrepit infrastructure – has broad, bipartisan support, according to numerous public opinion surveys.

Water projects are only expected to be a small part of that potential infrastructure spending, but polling data suggests that the public is willing to pay for such improvements – up to a point.

Some of the most detailed looks at public opinion related to water infrastructure were conducted by organizations that have a vested interest in seeing more investment in those water works. A cynic might say it’s like asking a barber if they think you need a haircut, but these surveys were conducted by professional pollsters using accepted methodologies, so I think they provide useful data.

Below are five takeaways from recent research on public opinion related to water infrastructure.

  1. Americans aren’t happy with the state of the nation’s infrastructure.

A global survey conducted in 2016 by Ipsos sought to “obtain a pulse on satisfaction levels related to roads, rail, air networks, utilities and broadband communications.” In the United States, 63 percent of respondents said they weren’t satisfied with their infrastructure, and they ranked water and sewage systems as their top priorities.

“Americans prioritize water system, road and energy infrastructure as their preferred focus for development,” Ipsos reported. The poll also found that 76 percent of Americans believe investing in infrastructure is vital to future economic growth and 69 percent think community views on projects should be heard properly, even if it means delays.

A March 2017 Gallup poll also found that both Republicans and Democrats favor infrastructure spending, broadly defined. The graphic below shows that only family leave had more bipartisan support than the $1 trillion infrastructure program that Trump proposed in the campaign. Aside from infrastructure and family leave, Trump’s other proposals trigger big partisan divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

  1. Support for water infrastructure spending is strong and bipartisan.

A poll released in May by the Value of Water Campaign found “overwhelming support for increasing federal investment in water infrastructure, which cuts across party and demographic lines.” The graphic below from the survey, which was conducted by FM3 Research and Public Opinion Strategies, is one of the reasons why pollsters called support for water infrastructure spending “ubiquitous.”

“The public thinks we’re under-investing in infrastructure of all kinds right now and water infrastructure is no exception,” pollster Dave Metz said in an interview.

This is the second year in a row that the Value of Water Campaign, an initiative of the U.S. Water Alliance, has released results from a national poll on infrastructure. Once again, the telephone survey of registered voters found that Americans are considerably less worried about the fate of their own local water infrastructure than the nation’s overall waterworks. As shown in the graphic below, pollsters Metz and Lori Weigel think the overwhelming support for water infrastructure is striking given that Americans believe their own water infrastructure is in pretty good shape.

Another water infrastructure poll, released in 2016 and supported by MWH Global, a water resources engineering firm, painted the issue in somewhat darker terms. In that survey, conducted by Wakefield Research, 35 percent of Americans said their community’s current infrastructure wouldn’t last for more than five years, and 48 percent said not having easy-low-cost access to clean water was an issue faced by communities.

  1. When asked about infrastructure, people may not immediately think of waterworks.

The word “infrastructure” means different things to people, so when looking at polls on the issue, it’s important to understand what, exactly, pollsters are asking about. In the Ipsos survey, people were asked what infrastructure meant to them. The graphic below, a word cloud that sizes the terms according to how frequently they were offered, shows that water-related infrastructure didn’t exactly spring to mind for many people.

In his presentation on the survey, Ipsos pollster Cliff Young notes that roads, bridges and jobs may be the first ideas that people think of when asked about infrastructure, but people also express concern about water and energy systems when prompted by surveyors (as the Value of Water Campaign’s poll also demonstrates).

  1. Many people say they’re willing to pay to fix infrastructure.

Plenty of polls have found support for more spending on water infrastructure and other public works. But it’s one thing to say you favor a government- or utility-sponsored program, and another to say you favor higher water bills or taxes. As with most public opinion research, how questions are worded matters greatly.

That said, there does appear to be some public support for reasonable increases in their water costs to pay for infrastructure upgrades. A 2015 survey by MWH Global found that 61 percent of those surveyed “support higher utility rates for the development and enhancement of water infrastructure in their communities.”

The 2016 Value of Water Coalition poll, conducted by American Viewpoint and Hart Research, found that Americans are willing to pay higher water bills if they’re informed about infrastructure issues. When asked initially if they were willing to pay more, survey respondents were evenly split: 47 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. But after pollsters provided more information about water issues, support for higher bills increased to 60 percent.

“An overwhelming majority would be willing to consider an increase of at least 5 percent, with a quarter of respondents even willing to pay a 10 percent increase,” pollsters Linda DiVall and Geoffrey Garin note in their slide deck summarizing the 2016 results. “Somewhat curious is the pattern of groups willing to pay over 10 percent: Younger adults, minorities, and those with lower incomes.”

It’s worth remembering that many people cannot even tell you how much their water costs them. In its 2015 poll, the Value of Water Campaign found that 57 percent of those surveyed couldn’t state their yearly water bill, with the researchers noting that varied payment schedules make it hard for many consumers to quantify their costs.

  1. Messages should stress vulnerability and ties to economy.

Some polls on water infrastructure have tested messages and probed what issues resonate with the public. As with any funding issue, pollsters recommend talking about “investing” rather than “spending.” Ipsos’s Young argues that infrastructure advocates could help their cause by linking the issue to other higher-priority concerns, such as employment and economic security. As shown below, framing infrastructure spending as a way to create jobs and pave the way for higher growth can hitch the issue to even more popular ideas.

Last year’s Value of Water Campaign poll asked respondents to react to a series of messages related to rebuilding water infrastructure. As shown in the graphic below, people thought messages related to our dependence on water, threats to public health and the age of the infrastructure were most convincing.

Metz said the most compelling messages highlight the vulnerability of our water infrastructure. “Things may be working fine today, but we’re one earthquake or severe weather event away from that infrastructure failing – with devastating consequences,” he said. “Even raising the specter that you could be without water for three or four days while people work to repair or replace it – people can instantly understand how disruptive that could be.”

Beyond poll numbers, it also helps to have visuals that illustrate the dilapidated state of the infrastructure. “Being able to show them something that looks like it’s close to collapse – that can be worth more than any fact- or statistic-packed verbal message you might craft,” Metz said.

A version of this story first appeared on WaterPolls.org.

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