California Gov. Brown unveils $1 billion drought-relief plan

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, March 19, 2015 -- California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders in Sacramento today unveiled a $1 billion plan to help the state deal with a devastating drought now moving into its fourth year.

The package will speed up bond funding to make California - the biggest agriculture producing state - “more resilient to the disastrous effects of climate change” and help make sure all Golden State residents have access to local water supplies, Brown's office said in a press release.

"This unprecedented drought continues with no signs yet of letting up," Brown said. "The programs funded by the actions announced today will provide direct relief to workers and communities most impacted by these historic dry conditions."

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The plan accelerates $128 million in expenditures from the governor's budget to provide direct assistance to workers and communities affected by drought and to implement the water action plan Brown announced early last year. It also speeds up $660 million that had been earmarked for flood protection, and Includes $272 million in water bond funding for safe drinking water and water recycling.

Brown's announcement comes amid clear signs that one of the worst droughts in state history will continue. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which Californians rely on heavily during the dry summer months for their water needs, is at a near-record low. The March snowpack measurement came in at 0.9 inches of water content in the snow, just 5 percent of the March 3rd historical average for the measurement site. The overall water content for the Northern Sierra snowpack came in at 4.4 inches, just 16 percent of average for the date. Only in 1991 has the water content of the snow been lower.

Tom Nassif, the CEO of Western Growers, which represents fresh fruit and vegetable producers in California and Arizona, said the group appreciates the intentions behind the emergency legislation and appreciates the aid it might provide to some of the tens of thousands of people suffering in the drought. “But real relief can only come from an end to this drought and the regulatory policies that have exacerbated it,” he said. He referred to federal policies protecting threatened or endangered species in the Sacrament River Delta region.

“We urge members of both parties in Congress to recommit to the hard work of crafting legislation that would shield farmers, farm workers and cities in the San Joaquin Valley from this regulatory overreach without altering the Endangered Species Act.  It can be done, and nearly was done last year,” Nassif said.

So far, he said, farmers have been bearing the brunt of restrictions implemented to save water. He noted that last year, 500,000 acres of highly productive farmland was left unplanted, and that number is expected to grow by as much as 40 percent this year. Additionally, 17,000 farm jobs were lost last year due to water cuts and he said this year the number will be higher. 

Earlier this week, the State Water Resources Control Board on voted to expand and extend an emergency regulation to prohibit certain water use, such as washing down sidewalks, and to create a minimum standard for outdoor irrigation restrictions by urban water suppliers.

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Since last February, the state has pledged over $870 million to support drought relief, including money for food to workers directly impacted by the drought, funding to secure emergency drinking water supplies for drought impacted communities and bond funds for projects that will help local communities save water and make their water systems more resilient to drought. Last month, Brown met with U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to announce nearly $20 million in federal drought relief for California's Central Valley Project.

In January 2014, the Brown administration finalized a Water Action Plan that charts the course for California to better deal with droughts and floods and the governor declared a drought state of emergency. Brown has also called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent and prevent water waste.

(This story was updated at 9:50 p.m.)

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