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California Legislature sends drought relief package to Gov. Brown

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SACRAMENTO — A $687.4-million emergency drought relief package is on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk after easily clearing the Legislature on Thursday.

Brown and legislative leaders unveiled the proposal last week to free up the state's water supplies and aid residents who face hardship due to the drought.

"Today we provide significant relief," state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a floor speech. "This is a lot of money and will help thousands of California families dealing with the drought."

Although recent storms have offered slight relief, the state has been suffering from dramatically parched conditions. Last year was the driest calendar year on record in California.

The proposal would direct $15 million to address water scarcity. The state Department of Public Health last week identified 10 rural areas at risk of acute drinking water shortages due to the drought.

The two-bill package also would provide $25.3 million in food aid and $21 million in housing assistance for those affected by the lengthy dry spell. It would expedite funding for projects to improve conservation, clean up contaminated ground water, and make irrigation more efficient.

The plan also would stiffen penalties for those who illegally divert water.

The bulk of the package, $549 million, would be funded through borrowing already approved by voters. Forty million would come from fees the state collects on polluters and the remainder from the state's general fund.

The relief package follows $160 million in federal aid for farmers, cattle ranchers and others harmed by the drought that President Obama promised while touring the San Joaquin Valley this month.

Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, commended the package, saying it reflected "the desire of Californians to invest in measures to squeeze the most water out of the supplies we have on hand."

But Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said there's more to be done.

"Any assistance is appreciated, but it doesn't solve the long-term water supply challenges California faces," he said. "We just don't want the public to get the idea that this is fixing California's water situation."

Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals), who supported the plan, voiced similar concerns on the Assembly floor.

"We are proposing to spend a lot of money for a public relations campaign and some relief effort for those hit hardest," Bigelow said. "But we haven't produced any water."

Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) also voted for the bill but likened it to "a Band-Aid on a shark bite."

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) vowed that more action was coming.

"The package today is the first step," Skinner said. "It is not the only, and it is not the last. It is the first step to deal with an urgent crisis."

The legislation, SB 103 and SB 104, passed both houses by wide bipartisan margins. But other water battles, typically fought along geographical rather than partisan lines, loom.

Lawmakers have been trying to rework an $11-billion bond measure to address water infrastructure that is set to go before voters in November, for example. Some fear it carries too high a price tag and have introduced alternative measures.

Steinberg told reporters Thursday that he wanted to pare the measure to $7 billion to $9 billion, so it has a better chance of passing.

"Certainly the drought and water issues have the people's attention," he said. "We need the bond, and we ought to do everything we can reasonably do to amend the current bond and put it before the voters and pass it."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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