Water shortages and drought are California’s most important environmental threat, new poll shows

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After the two driest consecutive years in much of California in nearly half a century, reservoir levels are dropping. Lawns are brown. Water restrictions are increasing. And Californians are getting worried.

Asked to name the environmental issue they are most concerned about, more California residents cited water shortages and drought than any other, according to a new poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, a non-partisan research organization in San Francisco.

Overall, 25% of California adults named water shortages and drought as the most important environmental issue currently facing the state. Not far behind, 17% named wildfires, followed by 13% who cited climate change and 6% who named air pollution. A year ago, just 10% named water and drought as the state’s top environmental challenge.

“The drought has come back with great force in California,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the PPIC Statewide Survey. “We’ve seen a big change in just one year in terms of how many people say it’s a big problem. There’s no escaping it wherever you live in California.”

A year ago in the same poll, just 38% of Californians said water shortages were “a big problem” in the part of the state where they live. Now, 65% say that, with some differences between north and south — 70% in the Bay Area vs. 60% in Los Angeles.

“Most people who live in big metropolitan areas, they aren’t in trouble yet,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “They are at the wake-up call level. Not the running-out-of-water level. But that could come next year if it doesn’t rain much this winter.”

The poll also showed broad support for expanding renewable energy.

A staggering 80% said they think that developing renewable energy sources — such as wind and solar energy — should be prioritized over expanding oil, coal and natural gas. By party, 93% of Democrats, 78% of independents, and 56% of Republicans favored renewable energy over fossil fuel development.

And while 64% of Californians favored banning hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial method of producing oil and gas by cracking underground rocks with pressurized water and chemicals, by 2024, Californians were evenly split 49-49% over whether they support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order last year to ban the sale of new gasoline-burning cars and passenger trucks by 2035.

“Relatively few people have made the transition to electric vehicles,” Baldassare said. “People are getting to know people who have, and what some of the options are. But there’s still a lot that people feel they have to learn.”

The growing drought affecting California and other Western states dominated the survey, which was conducted July 6 to 14 among 1,569 California adults in English and Spanish.

How bad is it?

In the Northern Sierra, California’s most important watershed because it normally fills the state’s major reservoirs, the past two years have been the second driest two-year period since records began in 1921, delivering only 52% of normal precipitation. The only time in the past 100 years when it was drier was during the famous drought of 1975-77.

Meanwhile, San Jose experienced its driest year in 128 years of record-keeping, receiving only 5.33 inches of rain from July 1 to June 30 — about the same amount of rain as Las Vegas or Palm Springs gets in a typical year.

Similarly, San Francisco saw its third-driest year since the Gold Rush in 1849. Southern California fared somewhat better: The past two years in Los Angeles brought 73% of normal rainfall. And San Diego saw 93% of its historic average over the last two years.

As a result, 85% of California now is in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NOAA and the University of Nebraska. Major reservoirs are at low levels. And fire danger is extremely high.

Scientists say although droughts and fires have been part of the state’s history for thousands of years, the warming climate is making them more intense. Last year, a record 4.3 million acres — one in every 24 acres of land in California — burned.

The poll found that 80% of Californians agree, saying climate change has contributed to the drought, with 78% saying it has worsened wildfires. That is shaping views of what should be allowed on the state’s famed coast. Overall, 72% said they oppose new offshore oil drilling, but 81% said they support building offshore wind turbines and 68% support ocean desalination projects.

“For Californians, climate change isn’t an abstract concept,” Baldassare said. “It’s real. It’s happening now.”

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