California lawmakers to unveil emergency drought legislation

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 19, 2014 2:11 PM

By Laila Kearney

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers were set to announce emergency legislation on Wednesday intended to provide relief to the drought-stricken state, where half a million acres of cropland could go idle in a record production loss.

Officials did not release details of the legislation ahead of an afternoon news conference, but the Sacramento Bee newspaper, citing sources familiar with the plans, reported that it called for $680 million in spending.

The Bee said the proposals would expand on a plan by Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg to expedite approval for water recycling and stormwater reuse projects and for food and housing assistance to out-of-work farm workers.

Steinberg was expected to join the governor, along with Assembly Speaker John Perez in presenting the legislation, according to a statement from Brown's office. Democrats control a majority in both chambers of the legislature, making it easier for Brown to enact his drought-fighting agenda.

Brown, Steinberg and Perez are all Democrats.

A draft of an emergency drought relief bill circulated by environmentalists earlier this month had called for fast-tracking shovel-ready water supply projects and speeding up funding for the expanded use of recycled water.

Coming off its driest year on record, California is gripped by a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in state history.

Drastic cutbacks in irrigation water could force farmers to idle hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland in a record production loss that industry officials say could cause billions of dollars in damages.

California grows half the nation's fruits and vegetables and is the top U.S. state by value of agricultural goods produced. Large-scale crop losses in the state could lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only there.

Brown has called on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent and state officials have launched a public awareness campaign, Save Our Water, using radio spots to encourage conservation.

Other measures officials have taken in the most populous U.S. state include hiring more firefighters in the face of heightened wildfire risks.

But 10 communities are at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days, with the small city of Willits in the northern part of the state facing the most drastic shortages, according to public health officials.

Rural communities where residents rely on wells are at particular risk because contaminants in groundwater become more concentrated when less water is available to dilute them, officials said.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced nearly $200 million in aid for the parched state, including $60 million for food banks to help workers in agriculture-related industries who have lost their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Matthew Lewis and Lisa Shumaker)