Public concern about climate change and challenges involving water quantity and quality have increased sharply during the past decade, with more than 70% of Coloradans now viewing drought, inadequate water supplies and low levels in rivers and streams as a serious issue, according to new results from a long-term poll run by Colorado College.
“We definitely see some extreme concerns about water,” pollster Lori Weigel of New Bridge Strategy said. “We’re consistently seeing now folks really concerned about droughts and reduced snowpack.”
The telephone and online interview polled 3,440 residents of eight Mountain West states. Weigel led the study with pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates for Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, which aims to enhance the public’s understanding of socioeconomic challenges in the Rocky Mountain West.
In particular, concern over inadequate water supplies is up 30 percentage points since the poll was first conducted in 2011. Alarm about climate change is up 25 percentage points compared to responses from 12 years ago. “We called it global warming in the very first survey,” Weigel said. “This has really inched up quite dramatically over the years.”
During its first few iterations, the poll sampled residents in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Montana. The poll has since expanded to include Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. “This is a tool for policymakers and the public to gauge citizen attitudes,” said Katrina Miller-Stevens, director of the State of the Rockies Project.
Heading into an election year, there’s greater attention on policy, and Metz said high numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents indicated that a public official’s stance on conservation issues will be an important factor in determining who they vote for. “What really stands out is the degree to which, despite all the change in the world, the levels of support we’re seeing for most of these ideas has remained very steady, Metz said.
This year, for example, 86% of respondents said a politician’s stance on the environment was either “important” or “very important,” with 41% making up the latter category. In 2016, only 31% of respondents identified this issue as “very important.”
A possible explanation, Metz said, is that a significant number of people indicated that they changed where and when they recreate outdoors due to crowding or the impacts of climate change. Those numbers were highest in Colorado, where 58% of respondents said they made adjustments because of crowding and 31% shifted because of climate change factors.
One question that was new to this year’s survey, and also received high levels of concern, was about the rising cost of living, which more than 70% of respondents deemed either “extremely” serious or “very” serious in every state except Nevada. In Colorado, that figure hit 73%; both Idaho and Montana topped 80% on this question.
“Younger people and more Republican voters register that as a more serious problem,” Weigel said. “It’s definitely a top-tier concern.”
Not surprisingly, given that the poll was conducted in the days after the Marshall fire, Coloradans also indicated a high level of concern about wildfires. In Colorado, 76% of respondents said they were either “extremely” concerned or “very” concerned about “uncontrollable wildfires that threaten homes and property.” Montana was the only other state in which the concern registered that high, also at 76%.
On the question of how to address water quantity challenges, respondents overwhelmingly favored using water more wisely (81%) as opposed to diverting water from rivers in less populated areas toward more densely populated communities (14%).
“There’s a very clear mandate across the Mountain West that they want to focus on conservation,” Weigel said.
Among Coloradans, 86% supported “creating new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges and tribal protected areas to protect historic sites or areas for outdoor recreation. And 83% of Coloradans supported a national goal of “conserving 30% of land and inland waters in America, and 30% of its ocean areas by 2030.”