By Paul Rogers

progers@mercurynews.com

Nearly nine out of 10 Californians say the state is suffering from a “serious water shortage,” according to a new poll that confirms widespread concern over the lack of rain, diminished Sierra snowpack and low reservoir levels after three years of drought.

But deep, decades-old divisions remain across the state on how to solve the dilemma, the statewide Field Poll of 1,000 registered voters found — with the biggest differences being between the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

While Central Valley residents strongly support building new dams and waiving environmental rules to pump more water, Bay Area residents were the biggest backers of retaining environmental protections and least supportive of new dams.

Some of that is simple politics, experts said. The Central Valley has a greater percentage of people who vote Republican and identify as conservative than the Bay Area, which has more Democrats and people who identify as liberal.

The economy is also key: The Central Valley is the nation’s top farm-producing region, and an abundant water supply directly impacts jobs more than it does software, tourism or other economic engines in the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

“The Central Valley folks see the shortages much more directly this year,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.


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“Agriculture is all around them. It’s a very tight year, and there will be a lot of unemployment in some communities. But the Bay Area has pretty ample water supplies this year, and there is less agriculture.”

Overall, 2013 had the least rainfall of any year since California became a state in 1850.

Although some storms delivered rain in February and March, the state is still in a deep precipitation deficit, with the Sierra snowpack 26 percent of normal and many cities’ rainfall totals at half their historic average.

In the new poll, 88 percent of people surveyed said California has a serious water shortage, the highest since 1977, when the state was mired in its last severe drought.

Asked why, 37 percent of people said that it is because cities and farms haven’t used existing supplies efficiently enough, 27 percent said the reason is that California doesn’t have enough reservoirs and other storage, and 24 percent said both reasons were to blame, with 12 percent having no opinion.

“It’s surprising how many people never pay attention,’’ said Kathryne Edlin, of Walnut Creek, who participated in the poll. “It would be good if they spent more time on TV programs telling people suggestions on how to conserve.”

Only 20 percent of Bay Area residents said the problem was not enough storage, while 37 percent of Central Valley residents said that.

Asked about environmental regulations, such as rules that limit pumping from the Delta to protect salmon, smelt and other fish, 49 percent statewide said those rules should be waived in dry years, while 44 percent said they should not.

“I don’t care about the fish. We don’t need them. They aren’t as important as people. People should come before the fish,” said James Forsell, a stained glass window maker who lives in the hills above Palo Alto.

In the Central Valley, 62 percent said environmental rules should be waived, while only 36 percent of Bay Area residents and 49 percent of Los Angeles residents agreed.

Kathryn Phillips, state director of Sierra Club California, said that not only do commercial fishermen rely on salmon, but pumping too much fresh water from the Delta means the drinking water for millions of Bay Area residents is saltier, with diminished quality.

“This idea that it is just farmers or fish is oversimplified,” she said.

Farmers use 80 percent of the water that people in California consume.

Phillips said that she is heartened by a finding in the poll that by a 54-40 percent margin, Californians thought that farmers could do more to use water more efficiently, including using more drip irrigation, lining canals with clay to stop water seepage and similar measures.

But Mike Wade, with the California Farm Water Coalition, said farmers already have made great strides, cutting water use 14 percent since 1967 while doubling the amount of crops harvested.

“I think the assumption that farmers can reduce water use by changing crops or using water more efficiently is incorrect,” he said. “It probably comes from a lack of understanding.”

One thing all regions of the state did agree on is that by a 67-27 percent margin, Californians support a voluntary 20 percent water use cutback, as Gov. Jerry Brown requested in January, rather than mandatory water rationing. The fact that Californians are concerned about the drought and are thinking about water issues this year should be noted by political leaders, said Lund, of UC Davis.

“It should be much easier to get legislators to pass bills on proposals about water this year,” Lund said, “from a water bond to groundwater regulation.”

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.