Emergency Drought Relief Begins to Flow, But Solutions Will Cost California Much More

California is due receive a big chunk of money to alleviate its drought, but long-term resiliency will require much more spending.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    California is exploring new options to save, conserve and reuse water as a record drought continues.

    In a few weeks, the first splashes of cash will begin to flow from a billion-dollar spigot of drought-relief programs in California.

    The emergency aid package marks an aggressive push to help farmers forced out of work and others who don’t have enough to drink. The measures also accelerate efforts to strengthen California’s resilience to drought.

    But the money represents just a tiny fraction of what California, with 38 million people and America’s largest agricultural economy, spends on water every year — and what is needed to negotiate a future in which water will become more scarce.

    “For the short term, it’s a big chunk of money, an important chunk of money toward solving this problem. But, long term, our needs are great,” said Steve Fleischli, director of the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Officials rushed to approve the relief funds in February, as the drought threatened to become the worst on record. President Obama visited the parched Central Valley to announce a federal aid package, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that directed more money from the state budget.

    California is chipping in the largest amount, with packages totaling about $677 million, most of which would be covered by money left from two bond sales approved by voters in 2006. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is kicking in about $200 million.

    A relatively small portion of the money, about $131 million, is going toward providing immediate help, mostly in the form of water and food, housing and utility subsidies, and job training for people hit hardest by the drought. Farmers with fallow fields or suffering livestock will get financial assistance as well.

    Recipients will begin to see the start of that emergency aid within the next month, as officials determine who needs it most.

    The $549 in bond revenues will be distributed in the form of grants to fund regional projects that conserve, collect, protect and reuse water. The first block of grants, totaling $200 million, are expected to be awarded in the fall. A second block will be distributed a year later.

    A third chunk, about $77 million, will go to flood protection projects whose impact on the drought are more tangential.

    In addition, $40 million from the state's cap-and-trade pollution program will be used to install more efficient water equipment in homes and commercial buildings, fund a pair of power-generation sites and help farmers improve irrigation techniques.

    Another $3 million from the state’s general fund will help improve the way California monitors groundwater supplies.

    There is also money for public education programs.

    In total, the aid could reach $1 billion.

    But no one thinks that will be enough.

    Around the time public officials were rushing to approve the relief packages, the Public Policy Institute of California was putting the finishing touches on a report that showed how, despite spending $30 billion a year on water management, the state was still shortchanging the system by at least $2 billion.

    Ellen Hanak, one of the authors, said in an interview that while the new drought-relief packages will do some good, the state needed to take bolder, more sustained action.

    “For the most part, what’s in the rest of these packages, it’ll help some,” Hanak said. “But when you think of water management in these dynamic and growing economies, it’s not like you do something and you’re done. We need to continue improving the ability to be resilient in the face of drought.”

    With that in mind, Brown is pushing a plan that includes a controversial proposal to build two tunnels, at a cost of about $15 billion, that would divert water from Northern California to farms and cities in the south. But it faces opposition from critics who see it as old-fashioned, and a boondoggle.

    At the same time, lawmakers are arguing over the size of a proposal to sell new bonds to fund more projects that would improve water quality, conservation and storage. The proposal is currently set at $11 billion, but it could get shaved down before it goes to voters for approval in November.

    That measure, according to Hanak, would cover about half the shortfall identified in her report. She recommended adding a range of funding alternatives, including new taxes, surcharges, fees and property assessments.

    There are also concerns about the current round of bond-funded grants.

    In a February analysis of California’s budget, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that in past years, grants made available from the 2006 bonds were awarded to projects that either didn’t meet the state’s water management goals or “would provide uncertain levels of benefits.”

    That, the agency said, could become a bigger problem in the coming rounds, which involve much larger amounts of money.

    Anton Favorini-Csorba, an LAO analyst who specializes in water issues, said his agency’s concerns may be alleviated if the next round of grants attract a large pool of high-quality applicants.

    Finally, there’s the challenge of making sure all this money gets spent well.

    “I’d like to know what the accountability mechanisms are related to the amount of money that’s being spent,” said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

    State officials said the drought-relief measures, particularly the long-range ones, were subject to several layers of scrutiny, including internal audits, legislative oversight, and public hearings.

    “I imagine interim hearings based on what was appropriated and what has been done to date — in particular from members in impacted regions,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

    But while those reviews might help ensure that the money goes to the right projects, the bigger challenge is measuring what impact it will have on the state’s ability to weather the next drought.

    That’s because ecosystems change too rapidly to allow a clear window into a project's effects, Favorini-Csorba said.

    There is also no reliable information on the statewide use of groundwater, which accounts for 30 to 40 percent of California’s water supply.

    The reviews “are at least a good start," Favorini-Csorba said, "but it doesn’t get you to the next level, which is how much water you got out of it. That’s very difficult to evaluate, and that would be the next step.”