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Drought and Water Supply Shortage Critical Public Issues
70% of Voters Support New Storage

The drought has the public’s attention. Water restrictions and parched crops have convinced Colorado voters that drought and water shortages are critical issues–and that Colorado is not prepared to deal with them.

In a new statewide Ciruli Associates poll, 80 percent of voters say dealing with drought is a “very important” issue. On a scale of 1 to 5, 80 percent of voters rate dealing with drought a “1,” or most important. However, voters overwhelmingly say Colorado is not adequately prepared to deal with drought. Eighty-one percent say the state is average or below average (3, 4 or 5) in its level of preparedness.

Question: On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is very important and 5 is not at all important, how important is it for the state of Colorado to deal with the drought?
Question: Using the same scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is very prepared and 5 is not at all prepared, how prepared do you think Coloo is to deal with a major drought?

The survey was sponsored by the Parker Water & Sanitation District public information and education project.

The survey was conducted July 8 to July 14, 2002, by Ciruli Associates, with 601 residents registered and likely to vote in the 2002 general election. The telephone survey has a statistical range of accuracy of ±4.0 percentage points. Ciruli Associates is a non-partisan research, communication and public policy firm providing consulting services to Colorado and national organizations since 1976.

Water Supply Problem Widespread

Residents view drought as both a statewide and a local problem. Voters around the state (63%) believe water in their county is likely to be in short supply over the next five years. North Front Range communities are the most concerned, but at least 60 percent of Eastern Plains and Western Slope voters also believe their supplies are inadequate.

Question: Do you believe the supply of water in your county will be adequate for the next five years or will there be a shortage of water?

In 2000, Parker Water asked Douglas County residents the above question; 52% of voters said they expected a shortage. Douglas County, the nation’s fastest growing county, depends primarily on ground water from deep wells that have been declining in recent years.

In the July 2002 poll, Coloradans were asked whether they believe their area needs additional water supply projects; 56 percent said yes. South Front Range (64%) and Eastern Plains (61%) voters are most likely to identify the need for local projects.

Water Supply Projects Needed Statewide

At the same time media images of drained reservoirs have dominated the news, Colorado voters say the state “needs to build additional storage projects to store runoff water for later use.” Seventy percent of residents say the state needs more storage.

Question: Do you believe the state of Colorado needs to build additional storage projects to store runoff water for later use or does it have sufficient storage?

Additional storage is supported by citizens from each of Colorado’s five geographic regions. The North Front Range (76%) and the Eastern Plains (75%) are most supportive, but no region is below 69 percent support. Republicans (70%) and unaffiliated (76%) voters most strongly support building storage projects. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats agree more storage is needed.

Question: See question above

Paying for Billion Dollar Projects

Cost estimates for building major water supply projects range from $1.5 billion to $10 billion. Voters were asked if they would support a user fee of $2 per month on their water bill to pay for $2 billion in new water project construction. They also were asked whether or not they would support a tenth of a cent sales tax increase similar to taxes that helped fund Coors Field and Invesco Field at Mile High.

User fees are substantially more popular than a sales tax; 69 percent of voters support a user fee vs. only 52 percent who support a sales tax. The highest level of support for user fees comes from the North Front Range (76%), and the lowest from the Western Slope (60%).

Question: To build water storage reservoirs, tunnels and pipelines, Colorado would have to issue construction bonds similar to the bonds issued for transportation projects. It is estimated that about $2 billion dollars in new construction is needed. One way bonds for water supply projects could be repaid would be a monthly fee on water usage. A fee of $2 per month per water bill has been proposed. Businesses and bigger water users would pay more. Would you support or oppose building new water storage, tunnels and pipelines funded by a $2 monthly user fee on water bills?

Question: Another approach to pay for the bonds to build water supply projects would be similar to the way the baseball and football stadiums were funded -- by a one-tenth of a cent sales tax. Would you support or oppose a one-tenth of a cent sales tax to build new water supply projects?

Keep Colorado’s Share of Colorado River Water

Colorado finds itself in the paradox of being home to the headwaters of several of the nation’s most significant rivers such as the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and Platte, but having limited rights to the water. In fact, Colorado currently is in some type of litigation on each of the rivers over how much water downstream users, including out-of-state farmers, cities, recreationalists and endangered fish and fowl, have a legal right to.

Water experts agree that the only river with excess water the state could claim is the Colorado, which begins near the Continental Divide in north central Colorado and flows west through Grand Junction to the Utah state line. Between 450,000 and 1.5 million acre/ft of unclaimed, surplus water from the Colorado River flows downstream and is used by other states.

Question: See end note

Fifty-nine percent of Colorado voters say surplus Colorado River water should be kept in state and used here. Twenty eight percent say the water should be allowed to flow out of state. The highest level of support comes from the North Front Range (75%) and the lowest from the Western Slope (53%).

Question: See end note

Water law and water engineering are complex issues. The average citizen has limited knowledge concerning the sources of Colorado water and how it is developed. Also, water is a public policy area fraught with considerable controversy, regional rivalries and local political clashes. Respondents who support using surplus Colorado River water were asked whether or not they would support transferring some of the surplus water to the Front Range, and were told it could lead to disagreements with the Western Slope. Although a majority, 54 percent, of citizens support additional water for the Front Range, 28 percent oppose the transfer and 18 percent do not have an opinion.

The Big Straw: Pump Water Back Into Colorado/Utah State Line

To address concerns about diverting surplus water from the Western Slope, water experts have described a proposal that would allow water to flow down the Colorado and Gunnison rivers to the Utah state line, then be captured and pumped back for use in Colorado.

Question: One idea to protect the Western Slope economy and environment would be to let the water flow down the Colorado and Gunnison rivers to the Utah state line. The excess water would then be stored and pumped back for use in Colorado, including the Front Range area. Would you support or oppose consideration of a project that pumps back surplus water from the Colorado/Utah border?

Sixty percent of all Colorado voters support the concept, including 53 percent of Western Slope residents, 70 percent from the North Front Range, 59 percent from the Denver metro area and South Front Range, and 71 percent from the Eastern Plains.

Water Partnership With Agriculture

Since agriculture uses approximately 90 percent of the water used annually in Colorado, there is a growing view that it is essential to develop partnerships between agriculture and population centers for shared use of water.

Until recently, it has been assumed that if cities use agricultural water, farming would cease and the agricultural economy and the communities it supports would die. But new approaches to shared use of agricultural water are being developed, including water banking, lease arrangements, and capital investments in infrastructure to improve irrigation efficiency. Such approaches could allow agricultural water to be shared with municipalities.

Voters resist plans that might harm the states’ agriculture. Sixty-three percent oppose taking water from agriculture. But when asked if voters support cities, farms and ranches sharing water in a way that allows agriculture to stay in business, 86 percent say yes.

Question: Among the following two statements which comes closest to your views on the issue? Some water should be taken from agriculture for use by cities and towns, or, No water should be taken from agriculture for use by cities and towns.

Significant agricultural areas such as the North Front Range (Larimer and Weld counties) and the Eastern Plains are highly supportive of sharing water (82% and 75% approval, respectively).

Water Rationing: Tough Choices

Although voters believe all water users should make some reductions, they are reluctant to pick and choose which should be cut back most. When asked to select areas for water rationing, golf courses, lawns, and river rafting are the top targets. Small or no reductions are recommended for most other water users, including farming, in-home, and recreational use such as fishing.

Water Rationing
No, Small and Large Water Reduction
Farming/ranching 56% 40% 2% 1%
Restaurants 27% 65% 6% 0.3%
Fishing 24% 56% 15% 2%
Business/industry 18% 69% 8% 1%
In-home use 17% 68% 14% --
Cities and town services 16% 60% 15% 2%
Rafting 14% 44% 34% 5%
Lawns 4% 38% 48% 10%
Golf courses 3% 27% 49% 19%
Ciruli Associates N601, July 2002

Question: There are many users of Colorado water. If the drought becomes even more serious and continues for one or more years and water must be rationed, please tell me which items on the following list should have no reduction in water supplies, have only a small reduction, a large reduction or receive little or no water: water for Colorado agriculture and livestock; water for residents in-home use; water for services provided by cities and towns; water left in streams and rivers specifically for use in recreation activity such as rafting; water for drinking and food preparation in restaurants and fast food facilities; water to operate business and industry; water for lawns; water left in streams and rivers specifically for fishing; water for golf courses.

Building In Fire Danger Areas

Despite widespread fires and high fire danger, the public still supports allowing new home building in identified fire danger areas. The expense of firefighting, loss of property and, in some cases, loss of life associated with forest fires has not deterred Coloradans from continuing to favor a right to build new homes in the mountains. Only 35 percent of voters support a building halt, whereas 57 percent believe people should be allowed to build. The North Front Range and Eastern Plains offer the least support for continued building.

Question: There have been many forest fires in recent years that have threatened or damaged homes in mountain communities built in forested areas. Do you believe people should be allowed to build new homes in fire danger areas or not be allowed to build new homes in fire danger areas?

Observations and Conclusions

The survey provides evidence to support the following conclusions concerning Colorado voter public opinion.

  • The drought has created a new issue of top public concern. Pictures of threatening fires, the smell of smoke in metro areas, drained reservoirs and water restrictions have captured voter attention.

  • Public concern is both on a statewide and a local level. Statewide, voters believe Colorado is unprepared for the drought and new storage is needed. Locally, voters believe their cities and towns lack adequate water supply.

  • Two-thirds of voters in every area of the state support additional water storage projects.

  • Voters prefer user fees over sales taxes to fund water projects, but at this point both financing approaches have majority support.

  • Coloradans are eager to claim their share of surplus Colorado River water flowing to downstream states. A majority of those who support claiming Colorado’s excess water also support diverting some of the water to the Front Range.

  • Voters believe farming and ranching should be protected from water appropriation by cities and towns, but voters support water partnerships between agriculture and population centers if the approach does not harm farming and ranching communities.

  • Except for golf courses, lawns and river rafting, Colorado voters are reluctant to require large reductions in water use. The public does not support large water reductions for agriculture, business, fishing, food preparation, municipalities or in-home use.

  • Voters support continued building of new homes in mountain fire danger areas.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

End Note: Questions Concerning Colorado Surplus Water

Historically the state’s populated areas have received their main supply of water from rivers on the Western Slope such as the Colorado River. In recent years, there has been much discussion about the need for additional water supplies for the areas of the state facing water shortages.

After I read the following statements about current water issues, please tell me which opinion comes closest to your views on this issue. [READ IN ORDER LISTED]

  1. In most Colorado river basins all the water has been put to legal use. But it is estimated that approximately 450,000 acre-feet a year of the state’s Colorado river water is not legally allocated for use. The surplus Colorado River water flows west out of the state and is used by residents, businesses and farms in Arizona, California and Nevada. Colorado should keep its share of surplus water and use it here.

  2. In order to keep the 450,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, the state would have to build storage and diversion facilities such as dams, reservoirs, tunnels and pipe lines. Colorado should not build any new reservoirs or water diversions. It should continue to allow water from Western Slope rivers to leave the state.

    Statement A 59%
    Statement B 28%
    Don’t know/refused 13%

    Ask voter who picked statement A: Some of the water saved for use in Colorado would be diverted to residents living in Front Range cities and towns of Colorado. Transferring water from the Western Slope to the Front Range could lead to legal and political arguments with Western Slope leaders and environmental groups. In light of that possibility, do you believe the state should transfer water to the Front Range or not transfer water to the Front Range?

    Transfer water 54%
    Not transfer water 28%
    Don’t know/refused 18%
    Responses 357

  • Telephone survey conducted by Ciruli Associates from July 8 to July 14, 2002.

  • Telephone survey of 601 Colorado adult registered voters likely to vote in the November 2002 general election. Selection from a random sample of statewide registered voters who voted in the 2000 presidential election or are newly registered since November 2000. Respondents were screened to identify likely registered voters in this November election.

  • Statistical range of accuracy in 19 out of 20 cases is ±4.0 percentage points for a sample size of 601. Sample tolerances for subgroups are larger. For example, the confidence interval for a subgroup of 300 respondents is ±5.6 percentage points.

  • Due to rounding, not all totals equal 100 percent. Survey results can be affected by other factors such as question wording and order.

  • Ciruli Associates is a non-partisan research, communication and public policy firm providing consulting services to Colorado and national organizations since 1976.


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