What do Westerners think about water issues? What worries them? What policies do they support? Where is there consensus and division?
To answer these questions, the Water Foundation recently commissioned a wide-ranging public opinion survey of voters in 12 Western states. The poll covered diverse topics, including general awareness of water issues, opinions on policy measures, perceptions about the value of water, and beliefs about both weather and climate change.
To learn more about the poll’s motivation, findings and implications, I recently interviewed Water Foundation chief executive Wade Crowfoot.
Mitch Tobin: What were the key takeaways from the poll? What was most striking or surprising?
Wade Crowfoot: Based on conventional wisdom about Western water involving a lot of conflict, I thought that there would be sharp disagreements about water issues in the poll. So I was really surprised that across 12 states and different demographic groups, a lot of similarity exists in perceptions of water issues.
The poll showed that across the region, Westerners believe that water supplies are becoming less predictable each year. But these folks also believe there is enough water for all users: cities, farms, recreation and the environment. Westerners are also strong on the need to modernize infrastructure, and actually willing to pay higher water bills for infrastructure investment. Strong majorities across the West support the idea of paying more on their water bill if it can deliver infrastructure that will secure reliable supplies of clean water in the future.
Tobin: What demographic patterns did the poll reveal?
Crowfoot: Our pollsters identified three sub-geographies of the West based on perceptions of water issues: the Pacific Coast (California, Oregon and Washington), the Southwest (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Texas) and the Intermountain West (Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming). The states within those three geographies lump together in terms of many of their perceptions.
Voters in the Southwest tend to be more sensitive to water scarcity – not surprising since they’re in the most arid part of the West and they’re at the end of the line for the water supplies from some major Western rivers. Those in the Intermountain West are a little less concerned about water scarcity and weather unpredictability, but they have higher levels of concern about water being exported from their states to other parts of the region. Voters on the Pacific Coast draw a stronger connection between climate change and water.
There were some other interesting differences across the states. California was the state where voters were most worried about the threat of drought, which is not surprising given we just went through this epic drought. States like Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are less concerned about water quantity. The highest concern of voters in those states is water quality.
Interestingly, political partisanship does not show up in the poll as a driver of opinions on water. In such a polarized time, this is pretty remarkable. And promising – it seems like a lot of water solutions enjoy support across party lines. There are some notable distinctions, though. It’s very clear that on climate change, there’s a deep partisan divide: 4 of 5 Democrats indicated that climate change is impacting water in the West, but only 1 in 5 Republicans suggested it was. There are some other differences too. Republicans, for example, tended to be more sympathetic to rural issues than Democrats, although that could be related to the correlation between rural areas having many Republicans voters.
Tobin: What do Westerners see as the key water challenges facing the region?
Crowfoot: Not surprisingly, scarcity is a concern for Westerners. That very much fits with the image of the West being a dry place with not a whole lot of water. What’s interesting is that water quality also emerged as a major issue for Western voters. This is a topic that is not terribly well covered in the West. But it should be. In California, there has been this big focus on the drought over the last several years, but we also we have a major drinking water crisis in the state, particularly in poor, rural, isolated places.
There are significant differences between states in the threats they perceive. Residents of Arizona, for example, say the biggest challenge is that there is not enough water and that there is overuse. That’s not surprising, given Arizona’s geography, its climate and its place toward the bottom of the Colorado River. In Montana, where water is more abundant, the biggest concerns were poor water quality and chemicals in the water, as well as water rights, including the privatization of water.
Certain states had significantly higher concern on the question of poorly planned growth and development. Almost 70 percent of Coloradans consider poorly planned growth and development a major threat regarding water. Similarly, in California and Nevada, about two-thirds of voters consider poorly planned growth and development a major threat. Those opinions are clearly driven by the urbanization and suburbanization of those three states and what it means for water supplies.
Interestingly, there’s less concern about topics such as overpumping from groundwater wells, waste of water by farms and ranches and export of water to other places. These are lower concern threats, but still perceived as a threat by around two-thirds of voters in the West.
Tobin: What does the public think about the price of water and the value they receive? Are Westerners willing to pay more to ensure a sustainable water future?
Crowfoot: Well over half of respondents feel like their water bill is reasonable, and only 28 percent felt they paid an unreasonable amount for water. This is interesting given the general cynicism in our society about the bills and the taxes people have to pay. We also asked if people supported a proposal to assess a fee of an additional dollar on their monthly water bill both to ensure that everyone in their state has clean and safe drinking water and, in a split sample, to rebuild infrastructure to ensure delivery of clean water for decades to come. On both questions, over two-thirds said they were willing to pay that increased fee.
I think this suggests there’s a recognition that maintaining a reliable clean water supply requires investment and that they’re willing to step up on those investments. Voters across the political spectrum really connect with the notion of investing in infrastructure.
These findings don’t mean that water affordability is a non-issue. Concerns about the affordability of water and the portion of someone’s household income that’s spent on water – these are reasonable concerns and an emerging topic that needs to be addressed.
Tobin: Westerners seem to think we can have it all: enough water for people, farms, recreation and wildlife. Are people being overly optimistic or is this realistic?
Crowfoot: In the poll, 69 percent of voters think there’s enough water to meet the needs of cities, farms, recreation and the environment, while only 1 in 5 think we need to make a choice between uses.
And while it’s true that a lot of river systems are overallocated, it’s our strong belief at the Water Foundation that with the right investments, policies and approaches, we actually have enough water in the West so that both communities and nature can thrive.
That’s the key to building a durable future for the West. For me, the fact that 7 in 10 voters actually believe in this possibility is really important. I think that sentiment reflects an optimism ingrained in the American West – what Wallace Stegner called a “geography of hope.”
To me, the poll shows that Westerners agree that our future is not assured and there are a number of things we need to do. If you take that finding and combine it with the strong show of support for specific water solutions and willingness to pay for these solutions, I think there’s great cause to be optimistic. And that energizes me for the work ahead of us.