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Political leanings shape city water laws as much as climate

A city’s water ordinances can be as much related to whether it leans left or right politically as they are to whether the climate is wet or dry, according to a new report.

Researchers found Los Angeles ranks No. 1 for number and strength of policies, followed by six other left-leaning California cities along with Austin, Texas.

“We had expected that water conservation would be a more neutral issue and less polarizing…”

It takes until San Antonio, Texas, at No. 8 to find a right-leaning city with strong water conservation policies—probably because the amount of water it can withdraw from the Edwards Aquifer is strictly limited, says the study’s lead author, Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University.

“We were surprised by this finding. We had expected that water conservation would be a more neutral issue and less polarizing,” says Gilligan, who is also an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “As populations continues to grow and demands on water supplies increase, this information will be important for planning.”

For instance, less prosperous or more conservative cities may consider rebates to entice homeowners to install low-flow toilets and shower heads instead of requiring them, the team found.

“There’s plenty of water if we don’t waste it, and building aqueducts, pumps, desalination systems—all of those are huge, expensive, energy-intensive things,” Gilligan says. “Water conservation is one of the best ways to make use of limited water supplies.”

The team examined city water policies over the course of four years to create a database of water conservation policies. They also developed an associated index of the number of different categories of policies each city adopted and gathered data on the climate, water sources, population, economy, and political leanings of each city and its surrounding metropolitan statistical area—as reflected in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

The researchers created an interactive map where users can check to see where their own cities rank.

Here are the top 20 listed by number of water policies. Only three lean Republican, indicated in parentheses:

1. Los Angeles, CA
2. San Diego, CA
3. Santa Rosa, CA
4. Oxnard, CA
5. San Jose, CA
5. Santa Cruz, CA
7. Austin, TX
8. San Antonio, TX (R)
9. Albuquerque, NM
9. Riverside, CA (R)
11. Fresno, CA (R)
12. Denver, CO
13. San Francisco, CA
14. Las Vegas, NV
14. Salinas, CA
16. El Paso, TX
16. Miami, FL
18. Fort Collins, CO
18. Stockton, CA
20. New York, NY
20. Salt Lake City, UT
20. Tampa, FL
20. Vallejo, CA

They also compiled a list of cities whose conservation policies were much stronger or weaker than anticipated based on a statistical analysis of their politics, climate, and economy.

The table below ranks cities based on how far they were from expectations and then lists in parentheses whether they lean more Democratic or Republican than the national average, their rank for number of water conservation policies and their expected rank.)

1. San Antonio, TX (R, No. 8, expected No. 32)
2. McAllen, TX (D, No. 90, expected No. 29)
3. Oxnard, CA (D, No. 4, expected No. 18)
4. Austin, TX (D, No. 7, expected No. 23)
5. Santa Maria, CA (D, No. 49, expected No. 14)
6. San Diego, CA (D, No. 2, expected No. 7)
7. Santa Rosa, CA (D, No. 3, expected No. 10)
8. College Station, TX (R, No. 29, expected No. 76)
9. Phoenix, AZ (R, No. 57, expected No. 24)
10. Houston, TX (R, No. 71, expected No. 31)

The research appears in the journal Earth’s Future. The National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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