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 last week unveiled the proposal, which would free up the state's water supplies and provide assistance to residents who face economic 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."
Republican Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) voted for the bill despite saying it is "putting a Band-Aid on a shark bite."
The drought, Berryhill said, "is going to devastate car dealers, tractor dealers, restaurants" in the Central Valley. "That whole region is going to be devastated," he said.
The two-bill package includes $549 million in accelerated use of bonds already approved by voters to provide grants for local and regional projects planned or underway to improve capturing of storm water, expanding the use and distribution of recycled water, enhancing the management and recharging of groundwater storage and strengthening water conservation.
Other funds would be made available for grants to state and local agencies to improve water-use efficiency, help disadvantaged communities with groundwater contamination, improve irrigation systems and address emergency water shortages caused by the drought.
The measures also provide $25.3 million for food assistance for those affected by the drought and $21 million for housing-related assistance for individuals hit by the drought.
The bills passed both houses by wide margins, but the state's thorny water politics haven't yet left the Capitol. Several lawmakers speaking on the drought relief plan Thursday alluded to the coming debate over an $11-billion bond addressing the state's water infrastructure, which was approved by the Legislature in 2009 and is set to be put before the voters in November.
Some legislators fear the current bond carries too high a price tag, and several alternative water bond proposals have been introduced this session.
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals) supported the drought relief plan but reminded his colleagues that "this does not fix the long-term water woes."
"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."
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