By Kurtis Alexander
As California faces one of its worst droughts in decades, residents remain split on the question of whether environmental protections should be eased to free up water for cities and farms.
A new Field Poll indicates that 49 percent of state voters support rolling back regulations that protect fish in order to pad human needs. Conversely, 44 percent think this is a bad idea.
The poll — and the division it reveals — comes as the state wrestles with just about half its average rainfall this winter while state and federal policymakers struggle to ensure enough water to make it through what amounts to a third dry year.
Already, many of the growers in the agriculturally rich Central Valley have been told they will receive no water from state and federal water projects, forcing them to plant fewer crops. Water supplies are instead being directed to higher-priority farms, urban areas and waterways that support endangered fish, including the San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the San Joaquin River.
“The bottom line is that this year we’re not going to have a lot of water to make everyone happy,” said Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, who has been monitoring the drought situation. “The idea that you can offer someone more water by taking it away from someone else only works to a degree.”
Still, Congress is embroiled in a bitter debate that could carve out winners and losers.
This month, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a revised drought bill that sought to woo Republicans by supporting more pumping for farmers. The proposal, though, was panned by environmentalists who said it threatened salmon and delta smelt as well as the health of the San Joaquin River and the broader bay-delta ecosystem.
“It’s still a very divisive issue, and it pits one region against another,” said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo of state water policy.
As might be expected, Bay Area residents oppose the easing of environmental rules much more so than their counterparts elsewhere in the state, particularly the Central Valley. The poll indicates that 36 percent in the Bay Area support relaxed regulations while 62 percent in the valley are supportive.
Other water issues prove to be less divisive.
Nearly 9 of 10 people believe the state is experiencing a serious water shortage, according to the poll. The high level of concern is on par with the sentiment felt during the state’s historic dry winter of 1976-77, DiCamillo said.
“It seems like the intensity may be even a little greater now,” he remarked.
California residents also agree that voluntary water conservation is preferable to mandatory cutbacks — 67 percent to 27 percent, according to the poll.
In addition, 54 percent of Californians belive farmers, who use about three-quarters of the state’s water, could reduce their consumption without real hardship, compared with 30 percent who believe farmers can’t afford to make any reductions.
Finally, residents are again divided on whether the drought is a matter of insufficient water supplies or inefficient water use. Statewide, 27 percent believe there is not enough storage, 37 percent believe water could be consumed more wisely, and 24 percent say both are to blame.
The Field Poll surveyed 1,000 registered voters and claims a 3.2 percent margin of error.
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander