Steinberg bill aims to ease California drought

California’s Senate leader is drafting legislation that would expedite help for communities facing what may become the worst drought in state history.

The actions proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would set a July 1 deadline for state agencies to approve water recycling and stormwater reuse projects. It also would redirect millions of dollars intended for climate-change relief to projects that benefit water conservation.

Details of the proposal were provided to The Sacramento Bee by Steven Maviglio, a political consultant who represents local governments and environmental groups that were given a preview of the legislation. Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg, confirmed details of the proposal but said the senator is still working with the governor’s office and Assembly leaders on the legislation.

“It’s just a question of getting everything more complete before we unveil it,” Hedlund said.

The measures are proposed as urgency amendments to Senate Bill 731, a pending bill drafted by Steinberg that makes changes to the California Environmental Quality Act. The goal is to avoid further delaying “shovel ready” projects that can bring relief, whether this is the last year of drought or just another year in a much longer drought.

The proposal would appropriate $11 million of existing state and federal funds for clean-drinking-water programs and direct the State Water Resources Control Board to speed up spending that money to help poor and disadvantaged communities.

Some environmental groups said they would support the emphasis on water recycling. “However, there must be enough time to allow public health experts to confirm that the highest safety standards will continue to be met,” said Jonas Minton, senior project manager at the Planning and Conservation League.

Among other provisions, the legislation:

• Appropriates $40 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for the Department of Water Resources to spend on water conservation and energy-saving programs for farms, homes and businesses.

• Dedicates $50 million in existing funds for DWR to spend on flood-control projects that also benefit water supply.

• Appropriates $4.8 million from the state general fund for the Water Resources Control Board to increase monitoring and reporting of groundwater use.

Steinberg was the architect of a complex package of water laws in 2009, during the last drought, that reformed many aspects of state water management and allocated money for conservation and habitat projects. Those laws, for the first time, required well owners to file regular reports with the state on their groundwater use. California remains the only state in the nation that does not regulate groundwater pumping, a sore spot with many conservation advocates.

“This bill would make a small but necessary down payment on addressing the overpumping of the state’s groundwater,” Minton said.

The bill also would direct state agencies to work more closely together to expedite drought relief. In particular, it would direct DWR and the Department of Food and Agriculture to jointly develop a program of incentives for farms to conserve water.