Senate Democrats proposed a $3.41 billion spending plan on Thursday to fight the growing drought crisis in the state.
The drought, caused by lower precipitation this year, the mountain snowpack half what it usually is, high demand for water, and the state wasting many water resources, has spurred Governor Gavin Newsom to issue emergency drought declarations and has led to increased worry from urban residents, farmers, and environmentalists alike.
However, due to budget precautionary measures made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, California has brought in $16.7 billion more than expected so far this year. Combined with the $26 billion sent by the federal government, lawmakers decided that some of the money should be spent on the drought emergency.
“We live in an unprecedented time and I think we shouldn’t have unprecedented patience,” explained Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) on Thursday. “That’s very clearly happening throughout communities in California because we understand what’s at stake. We really have an opportunity now and we should take advantage of it.”
According to the proposal, the largest portion of the spending, around $1 billion, would go towards paying off the COVID-19 recession-caused accumulated debt of unpaid water bills in California. Around $500 million would go into trucking emergency water supplies and the building up of the water system to help connect different water systems to avoid droughts happening in different areas. Communities could get grants for as much as $5 million under the plan if they were tied to water reliability, water quality, and increasing water supplies. Another $500 million would go toward grants for homeowners and cities to replace grass lawns and medians with natural landscapes that don’t use as much water, as well as farm irrigation upgrades.
$600 million would go to ancillary water efforts, with $400 million of that to be spent on recycled water projects and stormwater management, with the rest going towards increasing the water supply through efforts such as groundwater recharge projects and ground water banking improvements. Fish and wildlife protection would get $285 million under the proposal, with much going into state water buyback programs to replenish the Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys to save fish in those areas. Other funds would go to salmon monitoring programs.
Additionally, $350 million would go towards starting up Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) endeavors that would reduce groundwater pumping while also removing up to 1 million acres of farmland from being used because of the restrictions, with $75 million into technological water sensing improvements for better water and drought predictions in the future.
A $3.41 billion proposal
The $3.41 billion proposal would be funded from several different sources. $1 billion would come from federal COVID-19 relief funding, $145 million would come from reallocated California Water Commission funds that were intended for dam upkeep, and the rest coming from state tax dollars.
Governor Newsom and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) both indicated willingness to work with the Senate on their proposal through their own spending proposals that will be revealed in the next few weeks.
And, despite being received well by different organizations, such as the California Farm Bureau, many others have blasted the plan for putting much of the burden and sacrifice on the backs of farmers.
“We’ve been begging for more water for years,” explained Central Valley farmer Roscoe Flanagan to the Globe on Thursday. “They want to limit groundwater usage while also diverting even more water back into rivers. While the irrigation improvement are a good step forward, the rest of this not only puts us two steps back, but it knocks us on our feet.”
“We need water, pure and simple. While money is nice to have, water is key here not only for our survival but for agriculture to survive as a whole.”
“A lot of this state’s fresh water is wasted. This bill doesn’t change that fact. Not the way I see it.”
The Senate drought proposal will likely be negotiated on in the coming weeks following the release of Governor Newsom’s budget proposal for next year.