With towns running out of water, farmers forced to let land turn fallow and animals dying, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $687 million emergency drought plan to help the state’s hardest-hit residents get through one of the region's driest periods in the past 100 years.
The plan, presented Wednesday, still needs to pass the state’s legislature. But even if it does, farmers, environmentalists and water experts all warn of a behemoth task ahead. They say the plan is the first step toward solving California’s water crisis but worry that there might not be enough political will to ensure more permanent solutions to the drought, which could last for years.
“I think it’s a good first start,” said Doug Parker, the director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. “But I don’t think this will be the end of it.”
Gov. Brown’s proposal doesn’t provide funding for long-term solutions to California’s water problems, but it could provide much-needed immediate assistance to many of the driest communities.
The biggest chunk of money — $549 million — comes from already-allocated state funds that the bill would allow to be spent sooner than planned on local and regional infrastructure projects that help conserve or recycle water.
“You can’t manufacture water,” Brown said, speaking about the bill on Wednesday. “You can desalinate it. You can capture it. You can store it. You can move it. But within those constraints, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Other money would come from the state’s general fund and greenhouse reduction fund. That money would be spent on a wide range of initiatives, including groundwater management and emergency aid for communities with dangerously low water supplies.
However, the proposal is not universally supported, and has been attacked by some California Republican legislators. Several even released statements saying that the governor should ease environmental restrictions on water sources so the state can more easily tap its reserves.
But environmental groups say those attacks aim at the wrong target.
“It’s not environmental restrictions that are preventing water distribution, it’s that there’s no water,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Water Project.
Obegi and others praised Brown’s proposal for looking beyond the immediate crisis, toward medium-term water reclamation and conservation efforts.
But many are worried that the emergency bill will be the end of political action on California’s crisis, even as experts warn that the drought could last years or even decades.
“Our memories can’t be short-lived,” said Fresno County Farm Bureau’s executive director Ryan Jacobsen. "This type of investment needs to take place when it’s wet just as much as when it’s dry. A lot of these measures taken as emergency action now, should’ve been done years ago as proper planning."
But even when it’s dry, the political will can seem lacking: Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House of Representatives are currently at an impasse over how to help California. Both bodies passed their own versions of water bills this month. The bills vary widely in scope and funding, seemingly guaranteeing that action at a federal level will take a while to work out.
At least at the state level, some are seeing a silver lining in the dire circumstances: Water projects that have been stalled for years are finally getting off the ground, and they hope that as people begin to realize the consequences of living in a state with little water, and inadequate ways to capture it, that expedience will last.
“If you’re rooting for policy change, then you like drought,” said Doug Parker. "If it lasts, then there will be political will. But if it starts raining again, maybe this is all we’ll have done."