By Anthony York
California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders unveiled a proposed $687.4-million drought-relief package Wednesday to free up water supplies and aid Californians facing financial ruin because of the state's prolonged dry spell.
The proposal would provide millions of dollars to clean up drinking water, improve conservation and make irrigation systems more efficient. It would increase penalties for those who illegally divert water.
The plan also contains money for emergency food and housing for those out of work because of the drought, including farmworkers, and to provide emergency drinking water to communities in need. Under the legislation, which could be enacted within weeks, the State Water Resources Control Board would be directed to find ways to expand the use of recycled water and storm-water runoff.
Funds also would be available to replenish groundwater supplies, and for state and local agencies to clear brush in drought-stricken areas that pose a high fire risk.
Brown, appearing before reporters at the state's emergency operations center, said that unlike many problems in Sacramento, "this is not caused by partisan gridlock or ideology. It's caused by Mother Nature herself.
"We really don't know how bad the drought is going to be," Brown said.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the intent was to provide drought relief as quickly as possible and avoid "the ideological vortex" that has bedeviled California water policy for decades.
The new package sidesteps a controversial proposal to replumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and is silent on a multibillion-dollar water bond measure scheduled for the November ballot.
"The idea is to do all that we can with the resources we have," Steinberg said.
California's highly charged water issues have also attracted attention in Washington, where House Republicans want to dismantle federal environmental regulations that they say take precious water supplies from California farmers.
Such a move is opposed by Democrats, including President Obama. The president, during a tour of parched San Joaquin Valley croplands last week, raised the GOP's ire by tying California's drought to global warming.
He said that unless carbon pollution is curbed, such dry spells will grow more severe.
The president pledged $160 million in federal assistance to farmers, cattle ranchers and others hurt by dry conditions. No partisan divide is expected to impede the new drought legislation in Sacramento, where Democrats hold a supermajority in the Assembly and Senate and could approve the package without Republican support.
Still, passage is not assured: When it comes to water, Californians are split more by geography than by political allegiance.
The Democratic proposal announced Wednesday would pump money into long-term programs as well as provide immediate drought relief to growers and to communities at risk of running out of drinking supplies.
The strategy drew mixed reactions.
Tim Quinn, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies, called the legislation "a bold move by the governor" that would help protect the state against future droughts by funding local projects "that can make a difference soon."
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said it was "great" that the bill would help those most affected by the drought. But he lamented that it does not address the thornier issues of water storage and the delta.
"We have to come to grips with that or face that we're going to fallow a lot more farmland and put a lot of people out of work," Wade said.
Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals) issued a joint statement dismissing the proposal as a "drop in the bucket."
The lawmakers said they expect to announce their own plan this week to better address the needs of farmers, small businesses and families.
To pay for the Democrats' drought package, the governor and Democratic leaders want to tap $549 million in borrowing already approved by voters, as well as $40 million in money raised from fees on polluters.
The remainder will come from the state's general fund. No new taxes or fees are included in the proposal.
Though storms have brought some relief to the state this month, 2013 was California's driest calendar year on record, and rainfall and reservoir levels remain well below normal.
Brown declared a drought emergency last month, urging Californians to cut their water use by 20%, and said he would consider mandatory cutbacks if the dry conditions persist.
The governor also called on state agencies to enact conservation plans, reduce red tape for voluntary water transfers by those with water rights to those in need of supplies, and to ease environmental restrictions on reservoir releases.
Brown outlined similar proposals in his January budget.
But if they pass through the regular budget process, they could not go into effect until July.
If passed as the emergency legislation introduced Wednesday, the plans could help with drought relief within weeks.
(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times
Times staff writers Bettina Boxall in Los Angeles and Phil Willon in Sacramento contributed to this report.