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State Senate moves $1 billion water plan

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POSTED March 25, 2015 7:16 p.m.

SACRAMENTO . (AP) — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a $1 billion proposal to speed up spending on water projects and offer some relief to residents and wildlife in drought-stricken California.

The Senate voted 35-1 on a bill accelerating infrastructure spending, including $660 million on flood protection. An accompanying measure that authorized fines for illegal water diversions passed on a 24-14 party-line vote, with Republicans opposed.

The bills, AB90 and AB91, are headed to the Assembly for a Thursday morning vote, where they are expected to pass. The legislation has been fast-tracked since Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders from both parties announced the plan last week.

“We should be responsible and get the money out the door,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. “It’s step one in responding to this really extraordinary drought.”

The largest share of money is slated for flood-protection, drawing from a $4 billion bond measure approved by voters in 2006. It must be allocated by summer 2016, creating urgency for legislation.

The water legislation 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.

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 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.

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 legislation would also make about $75 million available to help residents and wildlife affected by the dry conditions, including for food banks and emergency drinking water. Another $267 million from a water measure approved last year would fund grants for water recycling and expanding drinking water in small and poor cities.

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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