Gov. Jerry Brown's California drought relief: Will it really help? (+video)

Some provisions of Gov. Jerry Brown’s $687 million drought relief package could have immediate impact. Others could take much longer as the historic debate over water in the West continues.

By , Staff writer

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    Mark Ghilarducci (second from left), director of California Emergency Services, gives Gov. Jerry Brown a tour of the agency's operations center in Mather, Calif. Governor Brown announced a $687 million drought relief package to help residents, farmworkers, and local communities cope with a water shortage that he called the worst in the state's modern history.
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Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the California Legislature have unveiled a $687 million drought relief package that provides funds to clean up drinking water, improve conservation, and make irrigation systems more efficient. It provides money for public education campaigns and includes penalties for those who illegally divert water.

The list goes on: providing emergency drinking water for communities hit worst; finding ways to expand the use of recycled water (treated waste water) for nondrinking needs such as irrigation and the washing of cars; and focusing on storm-water runoff.

"There's many ways we can better use the water we have," Governor Brown said during a news conference Wednesday at a state office near Sacramento. "You can't manufacture water."

Recommended: How much do you know about California? Take our quiz.

But apart from the positive headlines being generated across the state, the key question remains: Can this work in time to really help people now? The answer depends on whom you ask.

“Some of these ideas can work very soon and are ready to go, and some are not designed to work for a while,” says Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Noting that some of the ideas have been controversial for a long time – such as recycling water and recapturing storm water – Mr. Quinn says, “The important take-away for the public is that this is extremely serious and we need to think outside the box.”

Most regions of the state are under extreme drought conditions after three winters with below-normal rain and snowfall. At least 17 communities are at risk of running out of drinking water in the months ahead, and farmers throughout the state have been fallowing fields and tearing up orchards.

For the first time in its 54-year history, the State Water Project, which supplies water to 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of farmland, will deliver no additional water to its customers later this year. That could change if precipitation picks up in the weeks ahead.

At a water forum last week in Tulare, farmers, city officials, and federal and state agency heads told their stories and discussed ideas.

Farmers spoke of human needs being trumped by those of fish in a Democratic-backed US Senate bill, while others noted that the Endangered Species Act was being trampled in a GOP House bill. A former judge who presided at one discussion noted that lawsuits from all sides have been under way for years, some still outstanding.

“There is no more complex issue in California than water, and it has been that way for decades,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

She notes that it pits north versus south, urban versus rural, environmentalists versus farmers – all in a state that provides half the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. And both political parties and individual politicians, she reminds observers, are jockeying to make it appear they are doing something meaningful.

“Republicans are seizing the moment as an opportunity to attack Democrats on something besides Obamacare,” she says.

One positive outcome, she and others say, is that this has become a teachable moment for everyone to deeply examine and refine their water use.

Meanwhile, other efforts are under way to deal with drought here: competing bills in Washington (one skewed more to farmers, one to environmentalists), a state bill that sets a July deadline to approve key water projects, local actions by mayors to conserve water, and a $1 billion “climate resilience fund” announced by President Obama last Friday, which is designed to help communities deal with the effects of climate change.

State Republicans have come out against Brown’s idea, saying it is too little too late.

Bob Huff, the Republican leader of the state Senate, said the proposal’s idea of using bond funds makes sense, but he criticized the lack of action in the past.

“Hopefully this drought is a lesson to us that we need more water storage and a better water system to effectively manage the water we have,” Senator Huff said in a statement.

Two Republicans in the Assembly – minority leader Connie Conway and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow – called the Democrats’ plan a “drop in the bucket.” They plan to introduce a proposal to “secure California’s water future and hopefully minimize the impact of future droughts on our state,” they said in a statement.

For the most part, farmers are giving Brown’s announcement a wait-and-see or lukewarm reception.

“These funds will help the farmworkers who will be impacted, and we are all grateful for that. However, farmworkers would rather be working,” says lifetime San Joaquin Valley farmer Joe Del Bosque, who has 2,000 acres near Los Banos. “They have families to support, house payments, children’s needs, insurance payments. [Brown’s plan] seems to leave out small businesses in the farming communities, and all those businesses who depend on farm dollars including local government and schools.”

He says more help with farm water conservation in the valley is almost a moot issue. 

“We already use the most efficient irrigation systems available, and no water is wasted,” he says.

John Harris, whose family has been farming in Coalinga since 1937, says he “can’t see how it can help in really getting more water flowing immediately.”

It is unfortunate, he says, that some of the bonds already passed by the voters never were fully capitalized. “Also, if any environmental impact at all is a game-breaker to moving water, it will be tough to prove that and takes a lot of time,” Mr. Harris says.

Others are more optimistic.

“Can the governor’s action really provide timely help for the drought?” asks Kate Poole, director of water programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The answer is emphatically yes.”

The same amount of money in the past decade, she says, created 1 million acre-feet of new water supplies by leveraging local investments in recycling, conservation, and ground-water cleanup.

“That’s real water, and it doesn’t come at the expense of our rivers and environment,” Ms. Poole says. “Those programs can also yield quick results, many of which could affect supplies this year.”

For example, she says, implementing the rebates for cash-for-grass programs and replacing old inefficient appliances with new, water-efficient ones can have an immediate impact on reducing demand, which, she says, “stretches the water supplies available for everyone.”

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