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Colorado College poll finds many in west worry more about water than economy

January 11, 2016 Updated: January 11, 2016 at 5:20 pm
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For many westerners, concerns over the future of water are as important as the economy and unemployment, according to results from Colorado College's 2016 Conservation in the West poll.

The sixth annual State of the Rockies Project poll of thousands of residents in seven western states shows many people fear for the future of water in the West. The sentiment might come from a change in national economics and a rash of news about drought, said Eric Perramond, the director of CC's State of the Rockies.

"I would say that the concerns for water use now equal and just barely exceed concern about unemployment. And that's not unexpected given the economic recovery," Perramond said. "(And) like most Americans, we tend to pay more attention when something is in our face."

Conducted through phone calls to 2,800 people, the poll also gauged public opinion on federal public lands, another hot topic in the West where a Sagebrush-style rebellion in Oregon broke out in protest of federal ownership. The poll indicated public opinion seems to favor certain public lands remaining under federal oversight.

The State of the Rockies poll tends to cut through the political rhetoric, said Brendan Boepple, the project's assistant director. When it comes to public lands and resources, people seem to be more willing to cooperate than political agendas would lead them to believe, he said.

"I think our polling shows that a lot of people want to come together on these issues," Boepple said.

More than 80 percent - and in some cases 90 percent - of those polled in southwest states rated low river level as having high importance.

While concerns from Colorado residents weren't as high as those of New Mexicans, Colorado recently completed its first statewide water plan, an answer to concerns that Colorado is unprepared to meet a future with more people and less water. Coloradans are also more willing to reduce water consumption than residents of other states, the poll found.

The Colorado water plan, released in December, offered many solutions to state water shortages - among them building more storage, taking water from agriculture and conservation. But if anything, the poll suggests that the days of public support for dams are over. Those polled staunchly favored conservation as the best way to handle shortage, and were opposed to diversions and reservoirs.

"That should be encouraging, at least to state water planners," Perramond said. "In some ways it echoes what we have seen in the past 30 to 40 years. Any new facilities are hugely controversial and really difficult to get any support for."

This year the poll expanded its scope. It added Nevada and new questions, including those about federal ownership of public lands. Republican pollster Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic pollster Dave Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates conducted the poll. The poll typically costs $150,000 to $200,000 to conduct, Boepple said.

The years of poll data will provide fodder for undergraduate researchers at CC, Perramond said.

"It's a great set of data for anybody out there who wants to actually understand how westerners think about public lands and natural resources," he said.

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