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Governor, Legislature ante up $1 billion to fight California drought

By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune

POSTED: 03/19/15, 4:51 PM PDT

Gov. Jerry Brown answers questions concerning the proposed $1 billion package of emergency drought-relief legislation during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 19, 2015. The proposal accelerates spending already approved by voters for water and flood projects. It includes money for emergency drinking water, food aid for the hardest-hit counties, fish and wildlife protections and groundwater management.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In response to a dire fourth year of drought, Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the state Legislature announced a plan Thursday to accelerate $1 billion in bond money for water recycling projects and delivery of emergency supplies to hard-hit communities.

Brown said the proposal accelerates spending that voters have already approved for water and flood projects, including last year’s $7.5 billion bond measure.

“We need to get the money out the door now for shovel-ready projects and existing water programs that only need funding to get started,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said. “No delay. No red tape.”

Last year, Brown signed a $687 million drought-relief package for water infrastructure projects. A third of that funding has still not been allocated.

The latest plan garnered support from Democrats and Republicans as well as agriculture, environment and water industry groups who commended the actions, which in part create a fund of $135 million for drinking water and bathing water for Central Valley communities and $17 million for food assistance for those unemployed by farmers unable to raise crops for lack of water.

“Thousands of Californians — many of whom are living in small, rural, low-income communities — are experiencing extreme and acute impacts from the drought. In the worst cases, communities have run out of water completely,” said Laurel Firestone, co-executive director of Community Water Center.

For urban areas such as Southern California and San Diego, which consume more than 50 percent of all water in the state, relief may be long-term.

“By fast-tracking water recycling, conservation measures, storm-water capture, all those things will help fight the drought in our area, but they will take time,” said Rich Atwater, executive director of the Southern California Water Committee and a board member with the Foothill Municipal Water District in the east San Fernando Valley.

Atwater said he’s working with institutions in Southern California to use some of this bond money to recycle sewage water and use it for landscape irrigation, saving billions of gallons of potable water. For example, the committee is paired with the Claremont Colleges to develop recycled water for athletic fields and campus landscaping.

While general manager of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, he helped Kaiser Permanente develop recycled water for its cooling towers and landscaping at its hospital in Ontario, he said.

“The governor’s announcement is a big deal. A billion dollars is a lot of money. It is a way of stimulating the public and institutions,” Atwater said, adding he wished Caltrans would plant more drought-tolerant plants and use less water.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power hopes to garner grant monies for cleanup of its San Fernando Valley aquifer so it can be used more effectively for storage.

Smaller cities, such as El Monte, could use the extra money from the governor’s plan, said Adan Ortega, a Southern California water consultant and former manager at Metropolitan Water District, to offset skyrocketing water bills caused by the drought.

As water companies drill deeper into the San Gabriel Basin, the water can contain more minerals and appear milky, he said. To offset water quality issues, smaller water companies, also known as mutuals, must purchase scarce supplies from MWD at premium prices.

“So their bills were going up to $100, and this is an area with 18 percent unemployment,” said Ortega, who represents the California Association of Mutual Water Cos. Water companies can obtain grant monies to provide low-income customers with lifeline rates, he said. The program is similar to existing lifeline rates for electric, gas and phone bills.

For more affluent residents living in larger homes with lawns and pools, reducing outdoor watering to as few as two times a week, according to new State Water Board regulations, is key to getting through a dry summer. Also important is replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. While many have done so, more need to jump on that bandwagon, Atwater said.

“We have contractors who can do a makeover of your front lawn and it is all paid by a Metropolitan Water District rebate,” Atwater said. “Why isn’t everyone doing that?”

Associated Press reporter Fenit Nirappil contributed to this article.