By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO (CN) — California voters are anxious about the intensifying drought and dwindling water supply and nearly 80% believe climate change is fueling the fast start to the wildfire season, according to a statewide poll released Wednesday.
Of the major environmental issues facing the nation’s most populous state, the Public Policy Institute of California found likely voters are zeroing in on water shortages and wildfires as they slog through another hot and smoky summer.
The survey by the nonpartisan institute comes as every county in the state is experiencing some form of drought and while one of the largest blazes in state history continues to spread in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“Water and the drought has jumped to the top of the list when Californians are asked to name the most important environmental issue facing the state today,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.
A quarter of likely voters chose water supply and drought as the most important environmental challenge, followed by wildfires (17%), climate change (16%) and air pollution and vehicle emissions (5%). Respondents in a similar PPIC survey taken in July 2020 said climate change was the most important with 11% selecting water supply and drought.
The survey of over 1,500 California adults found strong majorities in each part of the state are on edge about their region’s water supply as the state sinks further into drought.
Concern is highest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where 70% said water supply is a big problem. Likely voters in the Central Valley (67%), Los Angeles (60%), Inland Empire (59%) and San Diego/Orange (57%) also touted water supply as a major concern. Compared to last year, the total number of people citing water supply as a big problem spiked from 38% to 63%.
Reservoirs are approaching record lows and drought regulators are poised to cut off famers and cities from the massive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for the first time in history, but so far Governor Gavin Newsom hasn’t issued mandatory statewide water restrictions. Instead, the governor has declared individual drought emergencies in dozens of dry counties and asked Californians to voluntarily slash use by 15%.
Wednesday’s poll indicates a statewide mandate or stricter local orders could be popular with voters.
Asked whether they think Californians are pitching in to save water, 65% said residents are not doing enough, while another 65% blamed state and local governments for not doing enough to fight the drought. Just over 40% said their families were doing a lot to cut water use and 20% acknowledged they’ve taken no water-saving action.
With California facing a severe drought for the second time in less than a decade and another robust wildfire season underway, Californians overwhelmingly believe the state is witnessing the effects of climate change.
Nearly 80% said climate change is contributing to the state’s recent wildfires and 70% believe the effects of climate change have already started. The views on climate change varied among party-preference, with 82% of Democrats saying the effects have begun compared 68% of independents and 44% of GOP voters.
“Most Californians believe that the effects of climate change have already begun and that it is contributing to the current drought and wildfires,” Baldassare said. “Six in ten are very concerned about more severe droughts and wildfires as a result of climate change.”
Despite the pile of challenges facing the state, nearly 60% of respondents approve of the Democratic governor’s handling of environmental issues. In addition, 61% of likely voters support President Joe Biden’s performance on the environment.
The poll, which carries a 3.4% margin of error, also probed voters about the state’s energy supply. As with previous snapshots taken while President Donald Trump was in office, Californians said they were eager to ditch fossil fuels.
Over 70% of respondents said they oppose the drilling of new offshore oil wells and 63% were against new hydraulic fracturing — fracking — wells.
This year, Newsom ordered state regulators to stop issuing new fracking permits and directed them to compile plans to completely phase out oil extraction within the state by 2045.
The poll uncovered other good news for Newsom — who faces a recall election — as 57% approve of how he’s handling job creation and the economy. In the most recent PPIC survey, respondents named jobs and the economy as the state’s top issues.
As for the recall election scheduled for Sept. 14, nearly 70% of likely voters said it is a waste of money. Newsom’s financial advisers and the Legislature have said the special election will cost taxpayers an estimated $215 million.
The poll doesn’t gauge support for Newsom or the recall candidates, but it did ask voters about California’s recall process in general.
Statewide voters will be tasked with answering two questions: “Should Newsom be removed from office?” and “If yes, who should take his place?” If over 50% of voters answer yes to the first question, the candidate who receives the most votes in the second question would replace Newsom.
Over 85% said it’s a good thing the state constitution allows voters to recall elected officials but 66% said they would support minor or major changes to the process.
Under current law, elected officials can be recalled without reason if backers meet the state’s signature requirement. Currently, recall proponents must collect at least 12% of the total votes cast in the previous election for that office.
According to the PPIC’s findings, 55% said they would support raising the signature threshold to 25%. Another 60% said they would be OK with changing the process so that an official could only be recalled if they committed an unethical or illegal act.
Respondents were also overwhelmingly in favor of reforming the process to create a top-two runoff between replacement candidates if nobody receives 50% of the initial vote. This change would have mandated a runoff in the state’s 2003 recall, as Arnold Schwarzenegger won with just 49%.
Baldassare says the question of whether California voters will turn out in September is the “political wildcard” of the pending recall.
“Negative views of the recall process and the perception that the recall is a waste of money could also depress turnout — and a low turnout could undermine the election’s legitimacy no matter who wins. Let’s hope that Californians will rise to the occasion and cast their ballots in a critical year for the future of democracy,” he concluded.