Northern California leaders ask for help in drought

SACRAMENTO Calif. Mon Jun 9, 2014 8:31pm EDT

1 of 2. A Caltrans information sign urges drivers to save water due to the California drought emergency in Los Angeles, California in this February 13, 2014 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn/Files

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SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - With California facing its worst drought in decades, farmers, environmentalists and government officials begged lawmakers Monday to invest in projects to shore up the state's water supply.

The demands from Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, The Nature Conservancy and Northern California water districts are an effort to help break a deadlock in the state legislature over how to prevent future water shortages.

The demands range from environmental restoration work for rivers and wetlands to building new reservoirs.

"My own family's ranching business has felt firsthand the impacts of not having enough water," said Stan Van Vleck, a rancher who is also the chairman of the law firm Downey Brand, which specializes in water-related issues. "As a direct result of the ongoing drought, we've had to sell 90 percent of our cattle."

California Governor Jerry Brown declared the state's drought to be an emergency last January, committing millions to help stricken communities and temporarily easing protections for endangered fish to allow pumping from the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta.

Brown is hesitant to ask voters to approve the sale of billions in bonds to finance new projects after pushing them successfully last year to raise taxes. Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting over what types of projects should be funded.

A water bond is already slated to go before voters in November, but at $11 billion it is unpopular, so lawmakers are trying to develop a new one to replace it on the ballot.

Rice farmer Bryce Lundberg, sweat running down his face in 104 degree heat outside the state capitol, said he would prefer a scaled-down measure that includes funding for a long-planned reservoir near Sacramento as well as environmental restoration for wetlands and streams that have been harmed by drought and over-use.

As if to emphasize the extent of the problem, just hours after the group demanded action, the state ordered cutbacks in water use from a tributary of the Sacramento River.

State Senator Lois Wolk, a Democrat and author of the main bond proposal in the senate, said in a statement she would add the group's suggestions to her bill, which must pass by June 26 to make the November ballot.

“I will be amending my (bill) today with the aim of replacing the current and highly controversial water bond now on the November ballot with a consensus measure,” Wolk said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Andrew Hay)

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