MATHER -- Describing the drought as a "call to action," Gov. Jerry Brown joined Democratic legislative leaders Wednesday to unveil a $687.4 million package aimed at helping California get through its water crisis and better prepare for the next one.

The legislation calls for speeding up approval of water conservation and clean drinking-water projects and offers relief to out-of-work farmers struggling to pay mortgages and grocery bills. Towns and cities that are running out of water would get $15 million in emergency funds.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, stressed that no new taxes or fees for water use will be imposed to fund the plan. Instead, most of the money, about $550 million, will come from water and disaster-preparation bonds approved by voters in 2006.

"We must all do our part to conserve in this drought," Brown said at a news conference a state Office of Emergency Services building in Mather, near Sacramento. "The state is doing its part."

The legislation does not include funding to build new water storage facilities--a detail that drew the ire of some Republican legislative leaders, who criticized the plan for failing to address California's long-term water needs.

Residents in other parts of the country being pounded with snow and rain may be jealous of California's warm, sunny winter weather, but Steinberg said this time the envy goes both ways.


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"The best way to make our communities more resilient to drought is to invest in projects that help us get the most out of every drop of water," said Steinberg, who will carry the legislation. "We're not waiving environmental laws. We're not hiking taxes or fees. We're using money we have available now to save time, save water and help Californians hardest hit by the drought."

Some interest groups in recent years had pressured the state to speed up its use of the bond funds. But Jay Lund, a civil and environmental engineering professor who directs the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, said Californians should be thankful that the money is still around.

"A drought is a good time to have it," he said.

The proposal also calls for spending $46.3 million from the state's general fund on food and housing assistance for families affected by the drought and using $40 million in cap-and-trade fees collected from businesses that pollute the air to give grants to local agencies to increase the efficiency of their water use.

Assembly Speaker Perez said the size of the package matches the scale of crisis California faces as the unprecedented drought drags on. He added that Democratic leaders of the Legislature are continuing their efforts to craft a "fiscally responsible" water bond that he hopes will make it on the November ballot.

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League praised the proposed legislation, calling it a "comprehensive" set of short- and long-term solutions that will help California get through the driest year on record.

"California's political leadership is recognizing that Mother Nature is an important determinant in how much water is available to cities, farms and businesses," said Jonas Minton, water policy adviser to the Planning and Conservation League. "More importantly, they are looking to next year and possibly after to prepare us for the possibility of a longer-term drought."

But the plan doesn't go nearly far enough, said Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who bemoaned the proposal's lack of funding for construction of new reservoirs and other water storage facilities--the type of long-term solution he said will prevent the state from missing any more chances to collect water when the skies send it our way.

"We need a plan that increases storage for a growing state," Huff said.

Others criticized the drought relief package for failing to include a moratorium on oil and gas fracking or a forced halt to irrigation of otherwise unsustainable land on the San Joaquin Valley's west side. Last week, Brown joined President Barack Obama for a tour of scorched, dusty farmland in Firebaugh and Los Banos, two towns in that region of the valley.

It's a "double standard" for the governor to ask average citizens to conserve water while giving oil companies and farmers a break, said Adam Scow, campaign director for the nonprofit group Food & Water Watch.

Not only does fracking use a tremendous amount of water, he said, but the fossil fuels it frees will contribute to climate change that's likely to produce more frequent and severe droughts, he added.

"He offered common-sense, little measures," Scow said, "but he continues to ignore the big problems with wasteful use of California's water."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

DROUGHT RELIEF PACKAGE
The emergency drought legislation unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders aims to ease the effects of the drought with $687.4 million in funding:
  • $549 million from the accelerated expenditure of voter-approved bonds for grants to local governments for water conservation projects.
  • $40 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund -- created by the state's cap-and-trade law -- for grants to local agencies to improve water-use efficiency, irrigation and pumping system efficiency and commercial water-use efficiency
  • $25.3 million from the general fund for food assistance to those impacted by the drought, and $21 million from the general fund for housing related assistance.
  • $15 million from the general fund for the Emergency Drinking Water Fund to address emergency water shortages due to the drought.