OPINION: Even though California received heavy rains in the past week, officials say we still are experiencing an historic drought. We are not out of the woods. Far from it.
According to the California Department of Water Resources, 10 communities have less than 60 days of water, ranchers and farmers across hundreds of thousands of acres are scrambling to find water, and dozens of municipalities have ordered homeowners to reduce their water use by 20 percent or more.
The good news is that Californians are aware of just how severe this drought is — and they want action. A new poll for the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week notes that 92 percent of all Californians recognize that we’re experiencing a drought.
Their solution? By overwhelming margins, they favor strategies to stretch local water supplies, including recycling, employing water efficient technologies, and fixing up long-neglected pipes and other water delivery systems.
That’s exactly the strategy embodied in a legislative package recently signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Assembly Speaker John A. Perez and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed the bills through their chambers with bipartisan support in record time.
The new law provides $687.4 million to support drought relief, including money for housing and food for workers directly impacted by the drought, bond funds for projects to help local communities more efficiently capture and manage water and funding for securing emergency drinking water supplies for drought-impacted communities.
In addition, the new law increases funding for state and local conservation corps to assist communities with efficiency upgrades and reduce fire fuels in fire risk areas, and includes $1 million for the Save Our Water public awareness campaign — which will enhance its mission to inform Californians how they can do their part to conserve water.
Along with the funding provided, the California Department of Public Health (DPH) has been directed to adopt new groundwater replenishment regulations by July 1, 2014, and for the State Water Resources Control Board and the DPH to work on additional measures to allow for the use of recycled water and storm water capture for increasing water supply availability.
The new law also makes statutory changes to ensure existing water rights laws are followed, including streamlined authority to enforce water rights laws and increased penalties for illegally diverting water during drought conditions.
The state’s action is a striking contrast to the political posturing in the U.S. House. Governor Brown and the Legislature have produced a unified plan that represents a significant state commitment to help communities diversify their water supplies and become more drought resilient, provide emergency drinking water, and offers much-needed assistance for drought-stricken communities. It tackles the immediate challenges we are facing as well as some of those that will be ahead of us as California faces a drier future.
Ed’s Note: Steve Fleischli is Senior Attorney and Water Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.