There aren’t many issues these days that are bipartisan, but water is one of them. That’s one of the conclusions that Dave Metz, one of the nation’s top experts on public opinion related to water and other natural resources, has learned from years of polling. Metz, a partner at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates in California, has provided research and strategic guidance to hundreds of nonprofits, government agencies, businesses and political campaigns in all 50 states.
I spoke with him recently about polling on water issues and what the research says about how to communicate about water challenges and solutions.
Mitch Tobin: Compared to other issues you research, what’s most notable or interesting about polling related to water?
Dave Metz: Probably the most striking thing is that it’s a bipartisan issue. With so many issues, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, you see the world very differently. Water is one issue that really cuts across those lines. It has a remarkable degree of consistency between voters on the left and voters on the right, in terms of both how we view some of the challenges as well as potential policy solutions to address them.
Tobin: Why is it so bipartisan, given that so many issues today are the opposite?
Metz: It has to do with the fundamental importance that water has for everyone. We all need clean water to drink. It is vital, and equally so to all Americans, regardless of their partisan background. Many voters believe that the single most important thing that government does is ensure a reliable supply of safe drinking water.
Tobin: Many polls have shown Americans to be concerned about water. What in particular troubles the public? Pollution? Drought? Cost? Climate Change?
Metz: On a day-to-day basis, there isn’t a lot that really troubles them. Americans generally feel like their water quality is pretty good and their water supply is reliable. Bodies of water are perceived as relatively healthy in most cases. But what is urgent for them is making sure that it stays that way. The second there’s a hint of any real threat to water quality or the water supply, they tend to be very supportive of policies that do something about it.
Among the various things that may move people to be more concerned about water, it is water quality, first and foremost, and supply secondarily, that are the biggest areas of concern. Climate change is far below either or those – and frankly that is a place where there is partisan polarization. Democrats are vastly more likely to view climate change as a problem or something that requires action than Republicans.
Tobin: How well does the public understand water issues?
Metz: I think they understand it from the perspective of how it impacts their day-to-day life. They need water to drink and to serve their household needs. But they don’t really understand the process by which water gets to them, how it’s treated and where it comes from.
We did a national survey a couple of years ago where we asked people to identify the original source of the water they use in their home. We recorded what they told us verbatim and went back and looked up the correct answer. Nationally, about 25 percent of voters were able to correctly identify where their water came from, 50 percent told us they had no clue and roughly 25 percent identified a source that was incorrect. So, the public is not coming to this from a real solid base of knowledge about where water comes from and what it means for their community.
Tobin: Are there significant racial, gender or other demographic differences in how Americans think about water?
Metz: Not huge ones. I think the similarities are greater than the differences. On this, as on many other issues, women express higher levels of concern more often than men do. They tend to be more risk-sensitive and if there is a potential threat, they’re much more likely to want something done about it. Some communities of color are more likely to perceive that their water quality is worse than in neighboring communities that perhaps are whiter. But these are exceptions to the general rule that the demographic similarities are much greater than the differences.
Tobin: How big of an effect has the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, had on national public opinion related to water?
Metz: We did a survey in California a couple months ago and asked whether people had heard anything about Flint and how serious a problem it was. This is 2,000 miles away and two years after the fact, but almost everybody had heard something about it and viewed it as a serious problem. That’s pretty remarkable: the durability of concern about a localized problem like that over both time and distance. I’m not sure it has produced a dramatically different set of public positions on the issues, but it certainly has provided a focus for why it’s so important to make sure things don’t go wrong.
Tobin: What about the California drought – and the recent switch to wet weather?
Metz: It certainly had an effect on the urgency with which people view the issue. A year and a half ago, the drought was the number one concern on Californians’ minds by far. Now, water issues have fallen back to mid-tier. When we ask Californians whether the end of the drought means our water supplies are sufficient, or whether we still face an ongoing shortage that means we’re going to need to take steps to address our long-term water supply, they choose the latter. They’ve been in and out of enough droughts, if they’ve lived in California for any period of time. They know another drought will come along and that the population is not shrinking, but growing – and our infrastructure isn’t getting any stronger. So, all of that leads them to believe, at least in the abstract, that we can’t relax our vigilance and we still need to address the issue.
Tobin: Have the November election and the early days of the Trump administration changed public opinion related to water or environmental issues in any significant way?
Metz: No, not that I would point to. We do a lot of polling on environmental issues and just last week we were in Washington presenting findings from the State of the Rockies Poll we do in seven states in the interior West. We’ve done polling that has spanned the Obama administration and now the Trump administration. Essentially, there are no meaningful changes in the results over that period of time. I can’t think of an environmental issue where, independent of other events, I saw the level of concern or support for specific solutions change just based on who was in the White House.
Tobin: Whom do people trust on water issues? Farmers? Utilities? Government? Scientists? NGOs?
Metz: A little bit of all of the above. Probably the best messenger we’ve found over time is water quality scientists: people who have neutral expertise on the issue and are totally non-ideological in recommending a certain action.
Farmers are also very high on the list. I remember doing focus groups where people told us we can trust farmers, they would never waste a drop of water because it’s too vital to their way or life and livelihood – not recognizing that, as in most sectors, there can be an enormous waste of water in agriculture. But farmers are seen as very credible messengers on the issue. Native American tribes also sometimes score very high. Public agencies that are specifically tasked with managing water resources actually tend to poll very well.
This interview was edited lightly for clarity and brevity.