Legislature to act on emergency drought package


Issue Date: March 25, 2015
By Dave Kranz

By the end of this week, the state Legislature is likely to pass a package of emergency drought legislation intended to provide partial relief to a state feeling the impacts of a fourth consecutive dry year. The package includes more than $1 billion for local drought relief and water infrastructure projects, through a combination of accelerated spending from the governor's budget and money approved by voters in two bond measures.

In introducing the drought legislation last week, Gov. Brown and legislative leaders from both parties emphasized the need to act immediately, as a dry winter transitions into spring. Brown said the legislation would provide "direct relief to workers and communities most impacted by these historic dry conditions."

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger thanked Brown and legislative leaders for their attention to the crisis and urged the state to move quickly to provide aid to rural residents whose livelihoods have been harmed by water shortages.

"Many California farmers face water cutbacks of 80 to 100 percent, and water shortages will force hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmland to be idled," Wenger said. "Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost on farms and in packinghouses and other rural businesses. People who work in those jobs form the backbone of our state's rural economies, and we appreciate the state's efforts to help them through this difficult time."

The drought legislation includes, for example, $17 million in additional funding to support emergency food aid to communities harmed by the drought, $4 million for emergency drinking water in disadvantaged communities and a separate $5 million outlay to provide emergency drinking water support for small communities, including help with private wells.

In addition, the drought legislation includes $10 million for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to be dedicated to its State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program. SWEEP provides grants to agricultural operations to help them implement water conservation measures designed to increase water efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Under the legislation, CDFA would also receive $200,000 to study the impacts of the drought on agriculture and agricultural communities.

CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley noted that the drought legislation will not make additional water available. But in the meantime, he said, "we have to find ways to reoperate the existing system to allow more flexibility to respond to drought."

The drought legislation includes $2.8 million for what sponsors called "additional modeling support and species tracking" in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Central Valley, to support efficient management of the water system.

Based on passage of previous emergency legislation a year ago, Merkley said, quick action by the Legislature and governor would make money available beginning later this spring and summer.

While tackling the short-term crisis, CFBF President Wenger said, the state should also adapt the water system to meet future needs.

"Many people who study the climate say we may have more years such as this, with California receiving a few heavy rainstorms and not much snow," he said. "We need to have the reservoirs in place to capture more of those heavy rain flows, especially if we can't count on the Sierra snowpack. This winter, millions of acre-feet of water flowed to the ocean that might have been captured for later use."

He encouraged the state to move as quickly as possible to approve and build new storage, noting that California voters made it clear they want the state to build new surface storage through their passage of the Proposition 1 water bond last year.

"That bond money needs to be put to work as quickly as possible," Wenger said. "Several projects have been identified that would allow California to capture runoff from strong storms like those we've had this winter, which would make future droughts less punishing. It's time to stop studying and start building."

In announcing her support for the emergency drought legislation, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen expressed similar frustration.

"Projects to increase water supply have been hung up in government red tape for decades," Olsen said, adding that she hopes the state would "take real actions on long-term projects so emergency actions are no longer needed."

The drought legislation would accelerate $267 million from the Proposition 1 bond for safe drinking water and water recycling projects. It would also accelerate $660 million in money from an earlier water bond, Proposition 1E, for flood protection projects intended to make water infrastructure "more resilient," in order to capture high flows from intense rainstorms that can occur even during dry years, sponsors said.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.