Calif. lawmakers pass drought relief bill

Legislation would provide immediate relief to farmers and promote water conservation; Gov. Brown is expected to sign

A tractor plows a field on Feb. 25, 2014 in Firebaugh, California. Barry Baker of Baker Farming had 1,000 acres, 20 percent, of his almond trees removed because he doesn't have access to enough water to keep them watered.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $687 million plan to provide immediate relief to drought-stricken communities, a package that includes emergency money for communities running low on drinking water and farming communities where fallow fields are leading to  high unemployment.

The bill now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

Amid one of California's driest years on record, the Assembly and Senate voted to approve SB103 and SB104 and send the legislation to the governor. The legislative package moved quickly after it was announced last week by Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. It will take effect immediately if signed, as expected, by the governor.

The plan redirects money in the state budget and draws from two bonds previously approved by voters.

It includes $472 million in accelerated grant funding for water conservation and recycling projects. Another $15 million will go to communities running low on drinking water supplies while $47 million provides food and housing assistance for people in drought-stricken communities.

"This is a lot of money that will help thousands of California families dealing with the drought," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said.

The plan also increases penalties for illegally diverting water and expands the State Water Resources Control Board's authority during a state of emergency. One provision was amended Wednesday to limit the board's ability to issue fines, after Republicans raised concern about language infringing on existing water rights.

The bills passed with large bipartisan majorities, even though a handful of Republicans in each house voted against them.

Other spending contained in the legislation includes $77 million in bond money for flood protection, $40 million for water efficiency and water-saving irrigation projects, and $1 million for a conservation-awareness campaign.

Republicans questioned the tapping of $40 million from a fund meant for projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saying water projects are only tangentially related. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, countered that 20 percent of Californians' electricity consumption relates to water.

"If we reduce water use, we reduce some proportion of electricity and some proportion of methane," she said.

Lawmakers are continuing to negotiate changes to an $11.1 billion water bond scheduled to go before voters in November. The Legislature originally passed the bond measure in 2009, but has delayed its appearance on the ballot several times since.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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