California lawmakers to unveil drought response legislation

Wed Feb 19, 2014 2:09pm EST

Feb 19 (Reuters) - California lawmakers are set to unveil legislation on Wednesday to combat a devastating drought, a month after Governor Jerry Brown declared an emergency and called on state residents to conserve water.

Officials did not immediately release details of the legislation, but a draft of a $644 million emergency drought relief bill, circulated by environmentalists earlier this month, appeared designed to quickly fund shovel-ready projects.

The wide-ranging effort would fast-track water supply projects and speed up funding for expanded use of recycled water and efforts to capture rainwater.

California's Senate Democratic leader, Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, also a Democrat, will join Brown in presenting the legislation, according to a statement from Brown's office. Democrats control a majority in both chambers of the legislature, making it easier for the Democratic governor to enact his drought-fighting agenda.

The drought has forced farmers in California, the No. 1 U.S. farm state, to idle hundreds of thousands of acres, and has led to complaints in some rural areas that water distribution was being mismanaged.

The drought has put 10 communities at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days, with the small city of Willits in the northern part of the state facing the most drastic shortages, public health officials said on Tuesday.

Rural communities where residents rely on wells are at particular risk because contaminants in groundwater become more concentrated when less water is available to dilute them, officials said.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced nearly $200 million in aid for the parched state, including $60 million for food banks to help workers in agriculture-related industries who have lost their jobs.

Brown has called on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent and state officials have launched a public awareness campaign, Save Our Water, using radio spots to encourage conservation.

Other measures officials have taken include hiring more firefighters in the face of heightened wildfire risks.

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