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Legislators OK $1-billion relief measure for future droughts

Gov. Brown gets a $1-billion relief plan for future droughts that won't help state in its current predicament

State lawmakers Thursday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a $1-billion plan that would restock food pantries in parched Central Valley communities and rush bottled water to Californians whose taps are nearly dry.

But the legislation, which has been billed as emergency relief, will not rescue California from the drought that is now entering its fourth year.

Rather, it would help officials prepare for the next one. Most of the funds would be directed to long-term efforts such as strengthening flood controls, improving water recycling and building desalination plants to produce clean water from the ocean.

"When your house is burning, there's only so much you can do to fireproof it," said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports research and other projects. "We need to do everything we can to soften the impact of the drought. But then we really need to have laser focus" on the future.

The legislation, passed by the Assembly on Thursday and the state Senate on Wednesday, includes $127.8 million for food and water supplies and immediate measures to protect the environment from the effects of the drought. An additional $272.7 million would pay for initiatives such as recycling sewage water and improving treatment facilities.

About $660 million would be allocated to flood-control projects that some experts said could help replenish depleted groundwater reserves once normal rainfall returns

The package is similar to a $687-million measure enacted last year and mostly geared toward projects such as capturing and recycling storm water. Only a third of that money has been spent.

Sacramento's approach has frustrated some advocates who see missed opportunities to conserve the water California has now. They say money could be better spent replacing appliances with more efficient models, or replicating around the state a Los Angeles program that pays residents to rip out water-guzzling lawns.

Others said lawmakers should act faster to preserve and track groundwater, the underground reserves that farmers have increasingly relied on as other sources have dried up.

"Like any other essential commodity, you have to know how much you have and how much you're using in order to make wise investment decisions," said Jonas Minton, a water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, an advocacy organization.

State Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) acknowledged that much of lawmakers' work won't bear fruit for years while the drought continues to plague crops, close ski resorts and drain reservoirs.

"It takes a long time," she said. "Water projects don't happen overnight."

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) warned that dry conditions could become a lasting reality.

"If this is the new normal, we need to consistently be addressing this issue," she said. "This is not just a measure for today."

California's rainy season is ending without much rainfall. Officials are bracing for what could be another ominous measurement of snow levels next week, indicating that little water will flow from the Sierra Nevada mountains this year.

Conservation activists want the state to ration water use, saying that it's one of the few immediate ways to address the drought. Brown last year asked Californians to reduce their water use by 20%, but consumption had fallen by just 8.8% in January of this year.

"Until we have statewide mandatory restrictions . . ., we're not going to see the kind of cutbacks the governor has called for," said Conner Everts of the Environmental Water Caucus, a coalition that promotes sustainable water management.

Snow said statewide restrictions could be difficult to implement because water conditions differ around the state. However, he said, the conversation could change if rain totals don't return to normal soon.

"As the drought deepens, there will be more of a call to do that — that we're all in this together," said Snow, a former state secretary for natural resources.

Such restrictions could come from the State Water Resources Control Board or from the governor, Snow said.

The board recently urged urban water agencies to limit what residents use for their yards, a step that most large Southern California cities have already taken. However, state regulators aren't sure how well such measures are being enforced.

The board could take more steps, such as requiring districts to search for leaking pipes, this spring.

The governor, for his part, has been hesitant to promote rationing.

"This thing has to be developed very carefully," Brown said in a recent appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We're watching it on a weekly, even a daily, basis."

In the Capitol, where lawmakers will be on spring recess until April 6, the celebration that typically accompanies the passage of major legislation was absent Thursday.

"You won't see any of us on this floor hanging 'Mission Accomplished' banners," said Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica). "We all recognize that we have much more work to do."

Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto), noting that some of the money in the new legislation was approved in a bond measure a decade ago, said the government should be working harder to accelerate funding for water projects.

"We have to do it now," Olsen said. "Californians are relying on us."

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Twitter: @chrismegerian

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

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