LOS ANGELES — California residents face stiff fines if they use too much water. Wells in some communities are running dry. Farmers are drilling deeper and deeper in search of what has become liquid gold.
Yet in a state that is suffering a drought of historic proportions, water is not playing a paramount role in next month’s midterm elections.
It’s not that Californians are unconcerned about water shortages. In a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey, 72 percent of likely voters said the water supply in their part of the state is a problem. “Water and the drought are definitely on people’s minds,” said Dean Bonner, an associate survey director for the institute, a nonpartisan research group. “We found that 29 percent of likely voters named drought or water as a top issue for the state [second only to jobs and the economy]. Last September it was 2 percent.”
So why is it that drought rarely comes up in candidate forums or campaign ads?
“I don’t know if it’s because Californians are accustomed to the drought or because there’s no easy solution to it,” said Roger Salazar, Democratic political consultant. “It’s very much at the top on the mind of voters, but there isn’t anybody to take it out on.”
It may simply be tough to hold politicians accountable for a natural disaster. Whether or not the drought is a result of global warming, human intervention cannot reverse this year’s crippling drought. As a result, there is not one villain to boot out of office, and there is not one solution to the problem. “We’re all in this drought together,” Salazar said. “Now, if we could say, ‘Such and such has the solution,’ but no, we’re all in the same dry-docked boat together.”
Hard-hit farmers in the Central Valley and water conservationists statewide complain about the state’s history of disastrous water policies, but that does little to solve the problem now. Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of environmental measures, and any link between drought and climate change could bolster their positions. More Republicans are skeptical about global warming, but the number of doubters is shrinking, according to Gallup polls.
Now 41 percent of Republicans accept the prevailing scientific view that greenhouse gas pollution is the cause of global warming, compared with 35 percent in 2010. But the majority of Republicans remain skeptical, and the party gap is widening: 79 percent of Democrats believe the rise in temperatures is due mainly to human activity, compared with 57 percent of all Americans who believe the same.
But climate change seems to be having little impact on voting intentions in the current races when it comes to this drought. “There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s decades and decades and decades of stupid water policy that can be blamed,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
What may be easing voters’ drought concerns for now is a water bond on the ballot this November. Proposition 1, on the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, is a $7.12 billion measure that addresses some drought issues. It would fund water infrastructure projects, including water storage; protect drinking water; invest in water recycling and other technology; and provide drought relief and emergency water supplies. It is getting mixed reviews from environmentalists but seems to satisfy voters.
“The water bond is leading … 2 to 1,” Bonner said.
Previous attempts to put an $11.14 billion water bond up for a vote failed because of harsh criticism. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown called it “a pork-laden water bond … with a price tag beyond what’s reasonable or affordable.” It was placed on the ballot twice since 2010 and removed both times.
“The fact that the governor and the legislature were able to put together a modest-size bond with not a lot of pork, with money to go to water treatment and recycling, says we’re acting on the drought, and that, maybe, gives everybody a sense of hope,” said environmental lobbyist V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
Sierra Club California, which opposed the previous water bond, is not taking a position on this one, even though it contains elements that it supports.
“About a third of this bond is going to go to water storage, and we think it would give undeserved preference to a dam project,” Phillips said. “That’s why we can’t support this. We’re actively speaking out on how much we hate that part of the bond.”
The governor signed a $687.4 million drought relief bill earlier this year that had had broad bipartisan support. It included money for housing and food for workers directly affected and more funding for state and local conservation.
The drought has pushed the state legislature to take “very responsible action on smart water policy this year — more than they have in 13 years,” Phillips said. “They voted for the water bond and wanted to signal the people they were responding to the crisis.”
But there are few races that are so close that water could make a difference either way. “Surprisingly not,” said Conner Everts, a co-facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus, a coalition of 40 environmental, community, tribal and fishery groups. “I don’t know where it’s come up as a political issue.”
The state has more than 600 water districts, and elections of board members may be affected by the drought, he said, but it’s doubtful because there is little turnover of office holders. “It’s rare that new people are running,” he said. “They die in office.”
So in California, where 82 percent of the state is classified as being in extreme or exceptional drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor, the drought may end up not having much effect at the polls.
“I’m not sure people think about local politicians as being able to address the drought,” Phillips said. “They have been turning in their neighbors [for using too much water]. I’m not sure they make a connection between who their mayor is and the drought.”