SACRAMENTO (AP) — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a $1 billion proposal to speed up spending on water projects and offer about $75 million in immediate aid to residents and wildlife in drought-stricken California.
The legislation accelerates water infrastructure spending, some of which can boost local water supplies in future years. It includes $267 million to give out grants for water-recycling projects and expand drinking water in small and poor cities.
“It’s step one in responding to this really extraordinary drought,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.
The funding plan was fast-tracked after it was announced last week by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders of both parties. But a companion measure to authorize fines for illegal diversions of water drew criticism from Republicans on Wednesday for expanding government powers without traditional legislative scrutiny.
Nearly two-thirds of the money, or $660 million, is slated for flood protection instead of the ongoing drought, now in its fourth year without enough rain or snow to replenish reservoirs.
Brown said using money to prevent floods is related to the drought because climate change increases the likelihood of sudden storms overtaking communities, even in dry periods. The Legislature also faces a summer 2016 deadline to spend the flood-protection money that comes from a $4 billion bond measure approved by voters a decade ago.
The water legislation, AB91 and AB92, doesn’t spell out which levees, dams and Central Valley communities would benefit, marking a change from how flood bond money is usually spent. Lawmakers typically know what projects they are approving, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Communities can start applying for funding next month if the bills pass. However, projects eligible for funding might not be chosen until 2020.
The analyst’s office says spending for flood protection in California has been slowed in recent years as projects have struggled to find federal and local matching funds and get lengthy, mandatory environmental clearances. The office has criticized earlier versions of the flood-protection plan for not addressing these delays.
More immediate funding includes $20 million for additional emergency drinking water for communities with dry wells; $24 million for food banks in counties with widespread job loss; and $16 million to help fish and animals threatened by vanishing streams and rivers.
The emergency legislation also cracks down on water-guzzling marijuana farms by authorizing state fish and wildlife officials to fine growers up to $8,000 for illegally taking water.
“These devastating illegal trespass grows on state and federal lands are literally drying up Northern California rivers,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from the rural North Coast where marijuana farms are blooming in heavy forests.
Republican lawmakers raised concerns about growing government and the potential for farmers also facing fines. “Every time we do one of these emergency bills what we really do is expand the authority of the government,” said Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte.
The measure authorizing fines for water diversion on Wednesday passed the Senate on a 24-12 party-line vote, with Republicans opposed. The bill approving spending passed the Senate 35-1.
The bills head to the Assembly for a Thursday morning vote, where they are expected to pass.
Not everything in the legislation deals with water. One provision approves a labor agreement expanding pay for prison psychologists and social workers who have to help remove inmates with mental illness from cells because of a federal court order.
Keely Bosler, deputy director of the Department of Finance, told lawmakers earlier Wednesday that the governor’s office wanted the extra $647,000 approved as quickly as possible to ease the burden on supervisors who are filling in until the labor deal is finalized.
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