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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Lawmakers Pass $1 Billion Drought Package for Bone-Dry California

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Lawmakers from both the California Senate and Assembly have signed off on a $1 billion drought package, though Republicans say one of the bills expands government and lacks transparency.

Acknowledging the growing human impact across the state from its historic drought, the Assembly voted 74-0 on AB 91 and 50-27 on AB 92 - following the Senate's lead Wednesday to fast-track drought relief. The bills will head to Gov. Jerry Brown for final approval.

The Senate approved both bills by wide margins late Wednesday, despite Republican criticism that Democrats are using the drought as an excuse to expand government reach.

"Every time we do one of these emergency bills what we really do is expand the authority of the government," Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, said after the Senate vote.

In the Assembly, Republicans opposed AB 92 citing a lack of transparency. They also said it takes enforcement authority for water diversions from the State Resources Water Board and gives it to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is not an expert on diverting water.

"The problem with granting Fish and Wildlife these powers is that they're not going to use them just against marijuana growers, they're also going to use them against people who have water rights and people who have existing rights to divert water," said Rep. James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus.

But Democrats defended AB 92, saying the DFW is being given limited powers that are necessary to fight illegal marijuana grows and water diversions.

"DFW are the boots on the ground to try and stop these (grows)," said Rep. Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg. "The water taken for illegal marijuana diversions happens at the worst time of the year when water flow is the least."

AB 91 focuses on water infrastructure. It earmarks $267 million for water recycling projects and improving drinking water in small, rural communities.

"Communities are running out of water, conservation is now essential. This is a water crisis and we are called upon to act," said Rep. Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, ahead of the Assembly vote. "Scientists at NASA believe we are headed toward a mega drought, similar to what Australia is currently experiencing."

As the fourth year of California's drought endures, the weather records continue to pile up. California saw its driest January on record and February's average temperature topped all previous Februaries by eight degrees. The National Weather Service is predicting record temperatures across the entire state this weekend, with temperatures in the 90s in some areas.

The latest measurements of the Sierra Nevada snowpack revealed the base is just 9 percent of its historical average and March is tracking to be the driest on record.

Gov. Brown and lawmakers say more legislation is coming and last week State Water Board imposed mandatory restrictions on all water districts in the state.

The Assembly heard about the dire and drastic situation people are facing from the historic drought, including thousands of dried drinking wells and growing food bank lines in the Central Valley. Rep. Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, said that residents in East Porterville are without water for showering.

"We need to take care of these families," Mathis said. "When parents have to look their children in the eye and say sorry you can't take a bath, you can't flush the toilet because we don't have water. What kind of country do we live in?"

Brown and members of both parties introduced the $1 billion emergency drought plan last week.

The Legislature was forced to fast-track the package due to the severity of the drought and lack of help from Washington, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon said

"We definitely cannot wait for Washington to help. Congress hasn't pitched in a penny so far," De Leon said. "There's no greater crisis facing our state today than its lack of water."

The Public Policy Institute of California released a survey Wednesday that showed that 66 percent of adults feel the dwindling water supply is a major problem. The same percentage feel the Golden State is not doing enough to conserve water.

While lack of water is on the minds of millions of Californians, ironically most of the $1 billion package will be dedicated to controlling and preventing floods. It earmarks $660 million for flood control and prevention, with most of the money coming from bonds approved in 2006.

In introducing the drought package, Brown was asked about dedicating such a large amount toward flood prevention. The governor said the historic drought is likely to be followed by extreme rain.

"With climate change and global warming, there will be more extreme weather events," Brown said. "All of a sudden when you're all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through channels and overflow and cause havoc."

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