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Calif. lawmakers propose $3 billion in drought relief

Tim Hearden WFP-hearden-drought-050121-2.jpg
Water lines on Northern California's Shasta Dam and adjacent rocks show a receding Shasta Lake in April 2021.
Bill includes funding for community-based drinking water and water supply projects, water-use efficiency projects, and sustainable groundwater management.

Democrats in the California Senate are proposing a more than $3 billion plan to address impacts from the state's intensifying drought, and farm and water groups are all ears.

The Senate Budget Plan on Drought, Safe Drinking Water, Water Supply Reliability, and Ratepayer Assistance passed out of a key budget subcommittee last week.

It would combine money from the recently approved federal coronavirus relief bill with state funding and borrowing to provide drought relief through community-based drinking water and water supply projects, water-use efficiency projects, and sustainable groundwater management; improve water supply reliability; and assist California families, businesses, and utilities by addressing the backlog of bills and arrearages that have accumulated through the pandemic, according to lawmakers.

“Worsening drought and ongoing climate change are threatening the water that our communities, families, farmers, and businesses need to survive," said Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, D-San Diego. "That’s why the Senate is advancing a plan to allocate billions of dollars in drought relief and preparation to communities across the state—the single-largest investment in drought assistance California has ever seen.

 “Along with our expanded wildfire prevention and response efforts, the drought relief plan will help California address some of our most pressing and dangerous challenges at a time when we’re facing the specter of historic damage," she said.

Related: White House panel to address Western water

Atkins' office says the plan acknowledges and accounts for the reality that the drought is impacting communities and ecosystems throughout the state in unique and diverse ways due to varying regional conditions. Given the collision of California’s worsening drought conditions and lengthened wildfire season – the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that the entire state is facing abnormally dry conditions, with much of the state experiencing moderate or extreme drought conditions – the money would be spent on a one-time basis for off-the-shelf projects that can start immediately, the legislators say.

Discussions of the bill's contents included Danny Merkley, the California Farm Bureau Federation's director of water resources. While the bill doesn't include money for big projects, like building new reservoirs or repairing crumbling canals in the San Joaquin Valley, Merkley told The Associated Press he is "encouraged" by the proposal.

“We've been working with them to identify noncontroversial early action projects that will assist now — not six months from now, not a year or two or three years from now,” he told the wire service.

Lawmakers said their budget proposals aren't affected by Gov. Gavin Newsom's recent declaration of a regional drought emergency for the Russian River watershed in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.

Here are some reactions to the proposal, according to news releases.

What people are saying

“Westlands Water District applauds Senator Atkins for focusing attention on California’s critical water supply situation.  The state is facing one of the driest years on record and is in desperate need of climate resilient water infrastructure to support the vibrant agricultural communities throughout the Central Valley. Senator Atkins’ proposal to immediately expend one-time federal funds made available through the American Rescue Plan and state General Fund surpluses on water supply infrastructure will enable critically needed projects, including groundwater recharge projects, to move forward.  The District looks forward to working with Senator Atkins and her colleagues on this important issue.”

—Tom Birmingham, General Manager, Westlands Water District

Related: California Extension stations face irrigation curtailments

“The Senate’s proposed drought package will help ensure safe and affordable drinking water for all Californians who are most at risk during drought and makes significant investments in proven water supply solutions, like improving water use efficiency and water recycling. This package steers California in the right direction as we face dry conditions this year and prepare for more frequent and severe droughts as a result of climate change.”

—Tracy Quinn, Director of California Urban Water Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council

“We applaud Senate President Pro Tem Atkins for bringing a comprehensive drought package to the Legislature that recognizes the critical needs people and nature are confronting in California right now,” said Jay Ziegler, Policy Director for The Nature Conservancy. “The budget plan will help ensure that safe, affordable drinking water is available to all Californians, while also providing immediate investments in science to measure drought impacts, funding to support sustainable groundwater management, and actions to secure water for fish and wildlife. This should be a model for other western states.”

—Jay Ziegler, Director of Policy & External Affairs, The Nature Conservancy

“We greatly appreciate the leadership by Senator Toni Atkins and the State Senate to advance a robust drought preparation and response funding package that helps urban and rural communities across California. As water managers throughout the state navigate the challenges of delivering safe, reliable, and affordable water supplies during a second consecutive dry year, we applaud Senator Atkins’ focus on investments that improve water resiliency and sustainability for residents, farmers and businesses.”

—Sandra Kerl, General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority  

Related: Drought hitting home in California, Arizona

“The Senate’s drought proposal appropriately recognizes the significant impacts the clean water community is facing by providing much needed relief.  California’s wastewater utilities continue providing essential public services even as customers struggle to pay bills. The state now faces an impending drought. We applaud the Senate’s proactive proposal, which provides critical infrastructure investments and supports water and wastewater utilities to be more resilient to drought and the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

—Adam Link, Executive Director, California Association of Sanitation Agencies

“The East Bay Municipal Utility District commends Senate President Pro Tempore Atkins and the Senate for their leadership in creating a comprehensive ‘no regrets’ water investment plan that will provide utility debt relief to help pay bill arrearages that have accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. EBMUD has seen a dramatic increase in unpaid water and wastewater bills since the pandemic began last year. This significant investment to address utility arrearages will enable EBMUD and other utilities to provide a much-needed lifeline for the many people unable to pay utility bills during this unprecedented and challenging time. We look forward to working with the Legislature to advocate for the final adoption of this vital funding package.” 

—Doug Linney, President, East Bay Municipal Utility District Board of Directors 

“CSDA commends Senator Atkins for her leadership and commitment to thoughtful investments that will provide immediate ratepayer relief while strengthening our water infrastructure resiliency.”

– Neil McCormick, Chief Executive Officer, California Special Districts Association

“We want to thank the Committee and the Senate leadership for including this critical and timely funding to assist with unpaid electric and water bills in their budget proposal. We support this important action to help Californians. We have heard loud and clear from customers who are struggling with their utility bills during this terrible health crisis, which in turn has created its own economic crisis.  Every public agency serves people who want to keep up with their utility bills, but desperately need help to get back on their feet, especially in our disadvantaged communities where so few people have personal equity or savings to fall back on.  This action by the Senate is commendable, and truly is critical to ensuring that the utility infrastructure that supports society and our customers is itself supported and maintained.”

—Martin Adams, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

“We applaud Senate Pro Tem Atkins and her staff for proactively responding to the state's next crisis, another drought, and recognizing that it will wreak havoc on the Central Valley and the state's most disadvantaged communities already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Central Valley irrigation districts like TID have been working on innovative water efficiency projects to help support groundwater sustainability in our region. These projects are shovel-ready and are critical to conserving every last drop for our communities, farmers and environment.”

—Josh Weimer, Turlock Irrigation District

“The Association of California Water Agencies applauds Pro Tem Atkins’ leadership and supports the Senate’s proposal for drought and COVID-19 water relief funding.”

—Dave Eggerton, Executive Director, Association of California Water Agencies

“We applaud the Senate’s swift action to advance a drought relief package that will help California’s communities, businesses and farms to address drought conditions head-on.  This bold package will help prepare California for a more resilient future in the face of a changing climate.”

—David Pedersen, P.E., General Manager, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District

“As California moves to respond to the drought it will be critical for water agencies to have access to funding for our on-going efforts to diversify local water supply portfolios and expand water use efficiency programs. We applaud the leadership of Pro Tem Atkins and the Senate on taking these important actions which will support both drought preparedness and long-term water supply resilience.”

—Paul Jones, General Manager, Eastern Municipal Water District

“As our state faces a second consecutive dry year and many ratepayers have fallen behind in their water bills due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the Senate’s drought relief package will provide the necessary funding to help us overcome challenges to our water supply, as well as initiatives that support conservation, water recycling projects, safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities and ratepayer assistance. As in droughts past, it’s important that we’re all working together across the state to ensure our communities continue to have access to adequate, safe and reliable water supplies.”

—Gloria D. Gray, Chairwoman, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

“The reality of California’s climate-change-influenced extremes in precipitation requires that we continue to expand water recycling—a drought-resilient water supply—invest in water use efficiency, sustainable groundwater management, and safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities. The current dry conditions highlight the need for these continued investments. The Senate’s drought relief package puts forth a bold funding package that will make a difference in California’s ability to respond to drought while helping Californians impacted by COVID-19 with their outstanding water bills.”

Paul Cook, General Manager, Irvine Ranch Water District

“Sonoma and Mendocino counties are on the cusp of setting a new drought of record. The Senate Drought Relief Package provides much needed assistance to our community, and support for modernizing water management through Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) and atmospheric river research.” 

—Grant Davis, General Manager, Sonoma Water

“The Senate Budget Plan will support key priorities through funding for atmospheric river research, forecast informed reservoir operations and successful implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. These strategic investments will help water managers better address the needs of agriculture, communities and the environment during droughts, as well as contribute to long-term climate resilience by enhancing our ability to prepare for future storms and floods.”

—Willie Whittlesey, General Manager, Yuba Water Agency

"With half of our customers being economically disadvantaged, we are encouraged by the proposed critically needed funding for utility customer arrearages and—as a heavily groundwater-dependent agency experiencing serious septic systems-related water quality impacts to increasingly limited supplies—we welcome the intended funding for sewer conversions, among other elements of this proactive package."

—John Mura, General Manager/CEO, East Valley Water District

“The Senate’s Early Action Budget Plan on Drought, Safe Drinking Water, and Water Supply Reliability is a good start as California looks to the future. We are glad to see the Legislature working on funding for multi-benefit water management. There is more collaborative work to do to make sure we all get through this drought while preparing for future unknowns.” 

Anjanette Shadley, Assistant General Manager, Western Canal Water District

“The Resilient Water Infrastructure Projects component of this package is of particular interest to our region as we plan additional infrastructure investments to facilitate increased cooperative conjunctive use activities to enhance capabilities of the Sacramento Groundwater Bank; an asset that improves local water supply reliability and resiliency, provides environmental benefits to the Lower American River, and which can also be a tool to help water short areas of the state.”

—Paul Helliker, General Manager, San Juan Water District

Source: Office of California Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 
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