As California copes with a fourth straight year of drought, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders on Thursday proposed legislation to accelerate more than $1 billion in water spending and urged residents to do their part to conserve.
Winter is ending in California without enough snow and rain to replenish reservoirs, offering little relief from the worst drought in a generation.
The proposed legislation includes $128 million to ease dire water shortages in some communities; the financial struggles of unemployed farm workers in the Central Valley; and dry conditions that contribute to wildfires.
The rest of the funding comes from voter-approved bonds — including a $7.5 billion water measure passed in November — to speed up water projects that can help communities prepare for future dry years.
"We need to get the money out the door now for shovel-ready projects and existing water programs that only need funding to get started," Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said. "No delay. No red tape."
Nearly two-thirds of the funds in the package would go to improve flood control structures by using leftover money from a 2006 voter-approved bond measure.
Lawmakers said climate change is contributing to sudden floods — even in dry years — and flood protection protects drinking water supplies.
"We maximize the water we do have if we can direct the flood waters in a way that's safe for communities," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat who chairs a water committee.
More immediate funding includes $20 million for additional emergency drinking water for communities with dry wells; $24 million for food banks; and $13 million to help fish and animals threatened by vanishing streams and rivers.
Unemployment in the agricultural Central Valley has reached 14 percent and domestic wells are running dry in a handful of parched communities such as East Porterville, where the state has already spent $500,000 to provide bottled water for 290 families.
Brown said the drought has highlighted fundamental questions about how the state uses water and will require Californians to adopt innovative solutions.
"Growing a walnut or an almond takes water. Having a new house with a bunch of toilets and showers takes water," Brown said. "So how do we balance use and efficiency with the kind of life that people want in California?"
The measures are expected to come for a vote within a week and will need majority approval from the state Legislature which is controlled by Democrats.
Republican legislative leaders joined Brown at a news conference supporting the bills Thursday but were not involved in crafting the proposals.
Such spending is normally approved as part of budget negotiations that last through June, but lawmakers said their action will help kick-start the projects sooner.
The plan is labeled as emergency legislation, but much of the funding has been available to the state for years. It could take more than year for some of the projects to produce a noticeable increase in water supplies.
"This is a Band-Aid," said Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, a Modesto-area Republican. "This is a temporary small step toward fixing a monumental problem."
The water in the Sierra Nevada snowpack — California's largest water source — is far below normal. Some drought observers fear it may never return to normal, requiring a fundamental change to California water policy.
Continuing dry conditions drove state water regulators to ramp up mandatory water restrictions this week that prevent Californians from watering their lawns daily and require that customers ask for water at restaurants rather than having it automatically served.
Critics have questioned whether the measures go far enough given the severity of the drought.
Brown said he's prepared to ramp up action if the drought gets worse.
"Don't have any doubts. We are going to increasingly control the use of water to the point where you have to get a lot more efficient, it's going to be expensive and everyone has got to do their part, and they will," Brown said.
The water spending legislation came a year after Brown signed a $687 million drought-relief package, most of which went to accelerate water infrastructure projects. A third of that funding has still not been allocated and the Department of Water Resources has not yet recommended how the money should be spent.
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