California Lawmakers Offer $687 Million Drought Relief Bill

Dry California fields as seen from Marine One en route to Firebaugh, California., Feb. 14, 2014. (Photo by Pete Souza courtesy The White House)


SACRAMENTO, California, February 20, 2014 (ENS) – With California suffering its worst water shortage crisis in modern history, state elected officials Wednesday announced new legislation that would provide $687.4 million to help communities deal with the devastating dry conditions and fund increases to local water supplies.

California Governor Jerry Brown joined Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Pérez to make the announcement.

Steinberg, Brown Perez
California officials announce drought relief bill. From left: Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker John Pérez, Feb. 19,. 2014 (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

“This is a call to action. We must all do our part to conserve in this drought,” said Governor Brown. “The state is doing its part by providing immediate funding for drinking water, food, housing and assistance for water-conserving technologies.”

About $549 million to fund the legislation would come from the accelerated expenditure of voter-approved bonds in the form of infrastructure grants for local and regional projects that are already planned or partly completed to recapture more stormwater, expand the use and distribution of recycled water, enhance the management and recharging of groundwater storage and strengthen water conservation.

In addition, $40 million would be transferred out of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. The rest would come from the General Fund.

The measure is certain to be approved by the California State Legislature, which currently has a Democratic supermajority, and signed by Governor Brown, a Democrat.

The drought, which could be worse than the historic dry conditions of 1976-77, already threatens California’s $44.7 billion agriculture sector. Safe drinking water is in danger of running out in at least 10 California communities.

The legislation would fund emergency drinking water supplies for drought-stricken communities. It would increase funding for state and local conservation corps to assist communities with efficiency upgrades and reduce fire fuels in fire risk areas.

“Without enough rain and snow this winter, we need to capture as much water as we can through any means possible,” said Steinberg. “Water agencies around the state have projects ready to go to capture and distribute more of the water that’s now lost to evaporation or simply flowing out to the ocean. They simply need money to get those projects done.”

After two dry years, storage in key reservoirs is lower than at this time in 1977, one of the driest years on record. And 2014 is shaping up as the driest year in state history, with the water content of the statewide snowpack just 12 percent of normal for this time of year.

“We don’t have to ignore environmental protections, raise fees or get bogged down in political arguments over projects that will take many years to produce a single drop of water,” Steinberg said. “It’s time to focus on what we can do right now.”

Dry California fields as seen from Marine One en route to Firebaugh, California., Feb. 14, 2014. (Photo by Pete Souza courtesy The White House)

“By making smart use of these funds, we can alleviate and prevent some of the worst impacts of the drought and, at the same time, make badly needed improvements to our water system that will benefit California for years to come,” Pérez said. “These targeted responses will have tangible results, but the solution requires more than legislation and investment. Every Californian needs to be a part of the solution, and we strongly urge every person in our state to take action to conserve water.”

The proposed measure includes $1 million for the Save Our Water public awareness campaign to inform Californians how they can conserve water. Governor Brown has called on all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent, and the Save Our Water campaign launched four public service announcements encouraging residents to conserve.

The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day, but due to the drought, some Californians could be allowed just 50 gallons a day. The State Water Resources Control Board said Tuesday it is considering how much water must be provided to meet a person’s basic health and safety needs.

Rural areas where residents rely on wells are at greatest risk, as groundwater contaminants become more concentrated with less water to dilute them.

In addition to the funding provided by the legislation, the proposed bill calls for the California Department of Public Health to adopt new groundwater replenishment regulations by July 1, 2014, and for the State Water Resources Control Board and the DPH to work on additional measures to allow for the use of recycled water and storm water capture for increasing water supply availability.

The bill also makes statutory changes to ensure existing water rights laws are followed, including streamlined authority to enforce water rights laws and increased penalties for illegally diverting water during drought conditions. The bill also provides the California Department of Housing and Community Development with the greatest flexibility to maximize migrant housing units. Several of the legislative proposals were in Governor Brown’s January budget, but would be expedited.

Visiting dry California fields, officials announce relief measures. From left: U.S. Senator from California Diane Feinstein, Governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, President Barack Obama. Feb. 14, 2014 (Framegrab from video courtesy The White House)

On Friday, President Barack Obama visited drought-stricken areas of California with Governor Brown, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Senator from California Diane Feinstein, to announce federal government assistance.

President Obama linked the drought in California to climate change. “Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get worse. And the hard truth is even if we do take action on climate change, carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades. The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come.”

“So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of,” the President said.

The budget President Obama will send to Congress next month will include $1 billion in new funding for new technologies to help communities prepare for a changing climate, and set up incentives to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure.

For immediate drought relief, President Obama is expediting $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for California producers approved under the 2014 Farm Bill he signed earlier this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making this aid a top priority and plans to have the programs available for sign up in 60 days.

The federal government will also extend $5 million to California in targeted conservation assistance for the driest areas and another $5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection Program assistance to hardest-hit areas of California to protect vulnerable soils by stabilizing stream banks and replanting upland sites stripped of vegetation.

The USDA also will award $3 million in Emergency Water Assistance Grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages and $60 million to California food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Last week, U.S. senators from California and Oregon introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, a bill to help California and Oregon farmers, businesses and communities suffering from historic drought conditions.

Senator Feinstein said, “This drought has the potential to devastate Western states, especially California, and Congress and the president must take swift action. This bill provides operational flexibility to increase water supplies and primes federal agencies to make the best use of any additional rain. With so little water available, we must focus on streamlining federal programs and provide what assistance we can to those farmers and communities being hit the hardest.”

Senator Barbara Boxer said, “Our bill will require all agencies to use their existing authority to help provide relief to communities hardest hit by this unprecedented drought and make investments to move and conserve water to help our entire state. The goal of this bill is to bring us together to address this crisis, rather than divide us.”

While California is the only state that has declared a statewide drought emergency, other states could benefit from this legislation, the senators said. All 17 Western states covered by the Bureau of Reclamation could qualify for Department of the Interior water grants.

In addition, states that have declared local drought emergencies could qualify for USDA emergency funding, including: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2014. All rights reserved.


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