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Millions in federal dollars aim to improve long-term water conservation

California is getting $33 million for water-saving programs, but it won't be a quick drought fix

California is getting about $33 million in federal money for water recycling, irrigation improvements and other conservation projects in a new round of funding for water and energy efficiency projects in Western states.

Few of the California projects, which are spread across the state, would provide immediate relief from the lingering drought. They are instead designed to boost local water supplies in the long-term and reduce farm irrigation losses.

In total, 12 states are getting nearly $50 million, distributed through ongoing programs in the federal budget.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who announced the grants Wednesday in Los Angeles, said the amount is relatively small compared with the need. Still, the money represents an increase of more than $10 million in congressional funding compared with the last fiscal year.

The biggest piece of California funding consists of Title XVI grants that will help pay for local water recycling and reuse projects. In Southern California, the grants include $5.25 million to expand a plant that treats brackish groundwater in the San Diego area, $5 million to the Inland Empire Utilities Agency to upgrade groundwater treatment and $4 million for a new sewage treatment plant in the Yucca Valley that will provide recycled water for local groundwater replenishment.

Grants under the WaterSMART program include $1 million to the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District to retrofit irrigation systems for large landscapes and $1 million to the Western Municipal Water District in Riverside County for a stormwater capture project. A few agencies, including the West Basin Municipal Water District in Carson, are getting money to supplement local cash-for-grass programs.

A number of grants in other states will help pay for canal linings and other improvements to reduce water seepage from irrigation systems.

The programs chips away at water losses, in effect creating new supplies, said Jewell, who Wednesday morning took a helicopter tour of Los Angeles' sprawling water distribution system. She was accompanied by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan Lopez and Marty Adams, senior assistant general manager of the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

On the hour-long ride, Adams focused on the various ways L.A. is developing more local supplies and cutting its dependence on increasingly expensive and variable imported water deliveries. As the department helicopter flew over the San Fernando Valley, he spoke of the importance of cleaning up the groundwater basin so it can be replenished with treated wastewater and captured stormwater.

“Boy, Castaic is really low,” he noted, looking down at Castaic Lake, a State Water Project reservoir that holds supplies from Northern California that have been slashed by the drought.

In a brief interview, Jewell said there was no single answer to California’s long-term water supply problems. Improving conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, new storage, recycling and recharging groundwater basins are all necessary, she said.

Jewell argued that proposed federal drought legislation that House Republicans have espoused for the last several years would not ameliorate drought conditions. The proposals, the latest versions of which are being drafted, would weaken endangered species protections that have cut delta deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agriculture and Southern California.

“There is a drought. There isn’t the water. That is the issue,” Jewell said. “You’d be amazed at how many people blame the environment, the delta smelt, the ESA.”

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