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Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · April 30, 2003

Special Survey of the Central Valley: Air Pollution Angst Settles Over Central Valley

Growth-Related Worries the Focal Point When Residents Peer Into Future, But No Clear Vision About Solutions

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 30, 2003 — Is the Central Valley fighting L.A. County’s demons? The region exceeds Los Angeles for the first time in measures of public concern about air pollution, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Great Valley Center. This concern may reflect the fact than nearly 4 in 10 Central Valley residents today say they or family members suffer from respiratory problems. But even a host of growth-related worries and a gloomy economic outlook fail to dampen residents’ general contentment with their communities.

The large-scale public opinion survey of the 19-county Central Valley finds that growth-related issues top the list when residents are asked to name the most important issues facing the region. Air pollution and pollution in general (16%) are mentioned most often, followed by water quality and supply (14%), jobs and the economy (11%), population growth and development (8%), and crime and gangs (7%).

Overall, 75 percent of Central Valley residents say air pollution is a big problem (41%) or somewhat of a problem (34%) in their part of the region, up from 67 percent in 2002. In a March 2003 survey, 37 percent of Los Angeles County residents said air pollution was a big problem in their area. Consistent with air quality patterns, South San Joaquin residents (56%) are more likely than residents in other parts of the Valley to view air pollution as a big problem.

“The fact that Central Valley residents are more concerned about air pollution than people in L.A. County, the bad-air poster child for so many years, is pretty stunning,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “But this problem is hitting home very directly for many Valley residents.” Indeed, 63 percent say the health threat posed by air pollution is either very serious (26%) or somewhat serious (37%) in their part of the Valley. And 37 percent say that they (10%), someone in their immediate family (20%), or both (7%) suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems. For households with children under the age of 18, the number jumps to 41 percent.

Are residents willing to act on their concern about air quality? Half (51%) say they are willing to take public transit more frequently, even if it is less convenient than driving. In addition, 79 percent of residents — and 77 percent of SUV owners — say they are willing to drive a more fuel-efficient, lower-emission automobile, even if it is not their preferred type of vehicle. But while residents appear keen to make lifestyle changes that could help reduce air pollution, they are less supportive of government efforts that could have a greater effect. Although 59 percent say they favor tougher air pollution regulations for agricultural activities, support drops to 44 percent if those regulations would increase costs for Valley businesses. Similarly, strong support (66%) for federal air pollution regulations plummets (to 39%) if those regulations would hurt the local economy. Only 11 percent of Central Valley residents think the federal government should have primary responsibility for setting air quality standards in the region.

Weak Economy Can’t Dampen Community Spirit

The diminished support for air pollution regulations if they interfere with economic activity reflects a growing unease about economic conditions and opportunities in the Central Valley. Only 35 percent of residents rate the region’s economy as excellent or good — down from 45 percent in 2002. Although residents in all parts of the Valley perceive a worsening economy, the pessimism is most evident in the Sacramento Metro area, where the percentage of residents rating the economy as excellent or good has dipped 19 points (58% to 39%). Nearly half (44%) of Valley residents today believe their part of the region is in an economic recession, and more expect bad economic times (48%) than good times (41%) in the coming year. Forty-five percent also see the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs as a big problem in their part of the Valley today, up from 42 percent in 2002 and 35 percent in 2001.

Despite the economic gloom, more than half (58%) of all residents today say that the Central Valley is headed in the right direction, similar to ratings one year ago (55%). Why the positive attitude? Residents remain very happy with their own slice of the Valley: 77 percent rate their cities or communities as excellent or good places to live and continue to give positive ratings to most local services and amenities, including police (71%), parks and recreation facilities (71%), and public schools (56%).

Attitudes About Water Are Fluid

Similar to one year ago, half (54%) of all Central Valley residents today say water quality is at least somewhat of a problem. But concern about water supply has grown: 47 percent believe it as at least somewhat of a problem, up from 37 percent in 2002. Paradoxically, more residents today than one year ago (52% vs. 39%) also predict that the water supply in their part of the Central Valley will be adequate to meet their area’s needs over the next decade.

In another shift, more residents today favor encouraging conservation (57% vs. 46% in 2002) rather than building new dams and reservoirs (34% vs. 41%). In fact, 55 percent support installing water meters on residences and commercial buildings as a way to promote conservation. Overall, residents believe farms and agriculture (39%) should receive greater priority in water planning efforts than homes and residents (29%) or environmental protection (22%).

2025: Growing Pains, Darkening Vision

While 31 percent of Central Valley residents view population growth and development as a big problem today, these issues dominate their vision of the future. Indeed, more residents (22%) say population growth and development will be the most important issue facing the Central Valley in 2025, followed by the related concerns of pollution (16%) and water (12%). Residents are not equivocal about the effects of population growth over the next two decades: 57 percent say it will be a bad thing for them and their families. And so they are uncertain of what the future holds, with similar numbers expecting the Valley to be a better (38%) and a worse (38%) place to live in 2025, and 19 percent anticipating no change. This ambiguity also reveals itself to some extent in the future development priorities of Valley residents:

  • Infrastructure: School facilities (48%) are residents’ top priority for public funds, followed by water systems (19%) and surface transportation (14%). Most residents view UC Merced (79%) and a proposed high-speed rail system (69%) as important for the economic vitality of the Central Valley.
  • Housing: Valley residents prefer to see new housing built in already developed (68%) rather than undeveloped (26%) areas. But despite their consternation about growth, many residents (57%) say new development should focus on building neighborhoods with single-family detached housing, as opposed to building attached housing that would conserve land and preserve open space (35%).
  • Commuting: Many Central Valley residents say new housing should be built near public transportation (63%) and existing job centers (59%).

“People in the Valley are very community-oriented, but there is a growing awareness of the regional challenges that require us to build consensus across neighborhoods, cities, and counties,” says Carol Whiteside, President of the Great Valley Center. “If we do this right, the future will look much brighter.” Despite the fact that 71 percent of Central Valley residents identify themselves as living in a city rather than a county (7%) or region (13%), 84 percent also believe local governments should work together to develop a common regional plan. However, they still prefer some control at the ballot box: 73 percent say local voters, rather than local elected officials (24%), should make important policy decisions.

Other Key Findings

  • State Budget Crisis — Page 7
    Most Central Valley residents (87%) are very concerned (59%) or somewhat concerned (28%) that the state budget deficit will lead to reductions in local public services. When asked to prioritize state spending, residents choose K-12 education (56%) and public health and social services (21%).
  • Raising Local Taxes — Page 8
    Despite their strong support for education, 53 percent of residents say they would oppose raising local taxes to fund their local school district. However, 55 percent would support a one-cent increase in the local sales tax for city-level services, including police, parks, and libraries; 66 percent would raise the local sales tax by one-half cent for transportation projects, including public transit.
  • Transportation and Commuting — Page 5
    While Central Valley residents express serious concern about roads and traffic generally — 41 percent consider traffic congestion on major roads and freeways a big problem in their area — most employed residents drive alone to work (72%) and say they are satisfied with their commutes (85%). Despite their reliance on cars, residents are equally likely to identify public bus systems and freeways (18% each) as top priorities for transportation funds.
  • Local Government Ratings — Page 18
    More Central Valley residents say their city government is doing a better job (excellent or good) than their county government in solving local problems (44% to 39%). A majority of residents (55%) think local government officials pay at least some attention to what the public thinks when making policy decisions, but only 13 percent believe they pay a lot of attention.

About the Survey

The Central Valley Survey — an ongoing collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center — is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. The purpose of this survey is to provide a comprehensive, advocacy-free study of the political, social, and economic attitudes and public policy preferences of Central Valley residents. Previous PPIC surveys of the Central Valley were conducted in 1999, 2001, and 2002. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,000 adult residents in the 19-county Central Valley region, interviewed from April 10 to April 21, 2003. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey. His most recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at www.ppic.org.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. The Great Valley Center is a private, nonprofit organization promoting the economic, social, and environmental well-being of California’s Central Valley.