California Shouldn't Let Its Water Crisis Go To Waste

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The Golden State's drought presents California's leaders with a distinct opportunity: to bring all the disparate water stakeholders together to enact long-term, structural reforms to the Golden State's water system. But Sacramento shouldn't procrastinate; public opinion on this issue - currently overwhelmingly in favor of action - could shift quickly and at that point, California's leaders will have let this crisis go to waste.

Last week the Hoover Institution released the September-October 2015 issue of Eureka featuring commentary on California's drought conundrum. Along with exploring the drought's effects on the Central Valley, water innovations California could explore, and how the OC has used advanced recycling to drought-proof the coastal county, this issue also analyzes the September 2015 Golden State Poll, which explored the views of adult Californians living in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California regarding topics related to the drought.

Over the past year-and-a-half, the Hoover Institution's Golden State Poll has asked Californians what issues they believe should be Sacramento's top priority*. California's likely voters and self-reported registered voters have shown that they are acutely aware of the state's growing water problems. To illustrate, let's go back to the January 2014 survey. At that point, only 28% of the state was classified as experiencing "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, impacting approximately 7 million Californians (about 18% of the state's population). When asked to determine the priority Sacramento should set on a number of issues, only 38% named "dealing with the state's water problems" as a top priority - 11th out of 21 issues. The fact that the drought hadn't impacted the lives of most in the state made this issue much less of a priority for Californians, regardless of the very real problems the drought was exposing.

Fast forward one year to January 2015 and when the question was presented to Californians again, something quite noteworthy occurred. 69% of Californians listed "dealing with the state's water problems" as a top priority on which Sacramento should focus, second only to "strengthening the state's economy (72%)." One rationale in the surge of interest could be more drought focus in the news. However, a simple Google Trends examination shows that coverage of the issue was more or less flat between January 2014 and January 2015. Another reason could be the drought's impact. As of the beginning of 2015, 78% of the state was experiencing "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions impacting 34.5 million people or about 89% of the state's population. In the course of one-year, the drought's impact (in terms of population) increased almost 400%. It shouldn't be a surprise that the issue became a top concern for Californians.

That brings us to September 2015. Currently, about 71% of the state and 31 million people are experiencing "extreme or exceptional" drought conditions, effectively no change from the beginning of the year. At 81% naming the issue as a top priority for Sacramento, no other issue comes within 25 points of California's water problems. Californians truly believe the state is in the midst of a water crisis and want Sacramento to deal with it; moreover, Californians seem inclined to demand action on the water crisis before any other issue.

But crisis-driven public opinion can be fickle. It is entirely possible that once Californians begin thinking the worst of the problems have subsided regardless of whether the crisis has actually passed - for instance, if the brewing El Niño brings rain, the state will be wet, but its depleted water reserves will not be replenished - dealing with the state's water problems will no longer be considered a top priority. Thus, Sacramento should adhere to Winston Churchill's advice and "never let a good crisis go to waste." California's leaders, while Californians are united in their call for action, must act now to bring all stakeholders to the table to enact meaningful, long-term, structural reforms to the state's clearly-deficient water system in order to prevent (or lesson) future water crises.

*Respondents are able to select multiple issues for each of the "top priority," "important but lower priority," "not too important," and "not important at all" responses. January 2014 survey is of Californian adults, January 2015 survey is of most likely Californian voters, and September 2015 survey is of most likely Californian voters residing in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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