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Calif. Lawmakers Urged to Plan for More Droughts

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - With California mired in a relentless drought, the state's legislative analyst encouraged lawmakers Friday to increase drought-relief spending and adopt a scientific approach to future droughts fueled by climate change.

The nonpartisan report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office,"The State's Drought Response," recommended California lawmakers to pass the majority of Gov. Jerry Brown's $323 million drought package included in his January budget proposal. Lawmakers were also advised by the report to quickly begin planning for the state's next drought by seeking more scientific data and holding more oversight hearings.

"We recommend the Legislature spend the coming months and years vetting various drought-related budget policy proposals for their potential benefits and trade-offs, and enacting changes around which there is widespread and or scientific consensus," the 32-page report states.

The study detailed the damaging impacts of the state's historic four-year dry period on cities and wildlife, which are increasingly dependent on a shrinking natural water supply. Consecutive years of warm temperatures and below-average precipitation have contributed to massive salmon die-offs, millions of fallowed acres and mega-wildfires.

The last four years were the driest stretch in the Golden State since hydrologic records began in 1896 and - despite the promise of a monster El Nino - as of February 1, more than 95 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions. Along with historic drought, 2014 and 2015 were the two hottest years on record, 5 percent above the annual statewide average.

Desperate for water, many California farmers have resorted to pumping the state's shrinking groundwater supplies and produced record revenues of over $50 billion the last two years. But this is causing the ground in the Central Valley to shrink at a record rate and officials are worried that the accelerated land subsidence could damage pipelines and the California Aqueduct which funnels water to Southern California.

In his budget proposal, Brown included millions in emergency funding for cities facing drinking-water shortages as well as money for wildlife studies and firefighting efforts.

"The severity of enduring drought conditions supports the continued need for these response activities," the report states.

The analyst's office didn't endorse Brown's entire drought plan, however, and advised the Legislature to delay approving the governor's proposal to use greenhouse gas tax credits on water- and energy-saving programs.

The state's cap-and-trade program has ballooned recently due to transportation taxes being included in the program, and Brown's office has proposed using more than $1.5 billion on programs such as rebates for electric vehicle and fighting short-lived climate pollutants.

Clarity is needed on the proposals and the Legislature should hold off on the environmental plans until Brown provides more information "to justify the request," the report states. The analyst office is currently studying each of Brown's cap-and-trade proposals and the findings could be released this spring.

The study agreed with spending $3.5 million on increased monitoring of the state's endangered fish species, including Sacramento River salmon and the delta smelt.

On Monday, federal officials announced that just 3 percent of the latest winter-run Chinook salmon survived warm water temperatures in the Sacramento River. In 2014, warm temperatures contributed to a 5 percent survival rate and because the salmon have a three-year spawning cycle, another year of high-mortality rates could wipe out the legendary fish.

Over the last two years, state and federal officials were unable to provide enough cold water from Shasta Lake into the Sacramento River and acknowledged the warm temperatures were caused in part by mismanagement. Environmentalists have been pleading the California State Water Resources Board to allow more fresh water to flow through the river and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 2016 to protect the salmon and to reduce water deliveries to farmers.

Once the state begins to recover from the epic drought, the report suggests the governor's office conduct a comprehensive report on the state's handling of the disaster. The analysis should include the number and location of dry wells, data regarding water diversions from farmers and the areas where wildlife was most severely impacted.

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