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Most People in California are Clueless on the Delta

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 04 February 2012

Well, I'm stuck on a 7 hour layover at the Houston airport, en route back to California after giving talks on water governance at both Duke and University of Michigan. Both of these were very fun visits. So, after reviewing an interesting paper on IRWM in Southern California, I was browsing Aquafornia and came upon a story for this really interesting survey conducted by Probolsky Associates, I think paid for by the Southern California Water Committee.

Anyway, several intriguing findings in this survey. First,when asked if they knew anything about the Delta, 86% of Southern California and 69% of the rest of the state's citizens don't know what it is. Wow. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised but it is always shocking to see these types of numbers. Even in my water policy class, when I ask UC Davis undergraduate students where the water in Davis comes from (groundwater now, possibly Sac river surface water in the future), I would say only about 50% have a clue. I consider it a successful class when 90% know by the end of the quarter, and 75% remember it after the quarter ends! By cynicism aside, these types of numbers just reinforce how the average citizen relates to water--it comes from their tap, they pay a bill for it, if they don't like how it tastes or looks they buy bottled water, they probably throw away drinking water quality reports that are mailed to them, and they think very little about how their individual actions might affect water supply and water quality. This lack of connection to water management puts a lot of power in the hands of the water experts in agencies and NGOs who are continually fighting (and sometimes cooperating) about water resources. I generally believe that further education about water resources would be a good thing, although sometimes I worry what would happen if EVERY Californian decided they had to fight over water!

Second,another interesting finding was voting preferences for the $11 billion dollar water bond, which was removed from the ballot during the last election cycle due to fear it would not pass. I've been walking around the last few weeks assuming the voting had probably not changed, since the economy has improved only a little. But surprisingly about 60% of Californians are at least leaning towards voting yes (35% definitely will vote yes) on the water bond, and there is only a very small difference between NorCal and SoCal, predictably with SoCal slightly more in favor. Support is signficantly greater among Democrats, women, and younger voters. This is actually a possible interesting departure from the past politics of voting on California water issues, where geography really trumped partisanship. But the link between partisanhip and government spending is very strong in today's political rhetoric, and it appears that partisanship is trumping geography on California water. Although I would have to do more research to support this claim, I think this might be one of the first times in the history of California water where partisanship matter more (anybody have data to help test that idea?).

This might be pretty good news for the water bond, and it will be interesting to see how the political calculus plays out in Sacramento on this issue. Will they have the guts to put it on the 2012 ballot, or will the fear of failure still be there? Of course the political calculators should recognize that while a vast majority of the California population has no idea what the Delta is, only 6% did not answer the question about the Water Bond. Hmm....well the survey did give a brief description of the Water Bond for respondents to think about, so that is the most likely explanation of the low number of refusals. I believe that if you just asked about people's opinions about the water bond without a description, lots of them would say "don't know". If that is true, it increases the overall uncertainty about the results (remember the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" Chicago Tribune headline?); more polls are needed to confirm. I will be very interested to see more survey results like these.