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California governor announces $687 million drought package

By Laila Kearney

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown announced a $687 million drought-relief package on Wednesday to help residents, farm workers and local communities cope with a water shortage he called the worst in the state's modern history.

Brown, joined in Sacramento by top Democratic state lawmakers, told a news conference the money would provide food and housing aid to those who have lost work because of the drought and expedite funding to state and local water conservation and reuse projects.

The governor said he expected a bill containing the package to quickly pass both chambers of the Democratic-controlled California legislature and speed the money to drought-hit communities across the parched state within a matter of weeks.

"Unlike a lot of problems we face here in Sacramento, this drought is not caused by partisan gridlock or ideology, it's caused by mother nature herself," Brown said. "This is serious. Today is a call for action."

The measures, which also look to expand the recapture of storm runoff and the use and distribution of recycled water, would be paid for by voter-approved bonds and money transferred from other funds.

Even as much of the United States has been pummeled by a series of snow storms, California is in the grip of a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in recorded state history.

Drastic cutbacks in irrigation water could force farmers to idle hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland in a record production loss that industry officials say could cause billions of dollars in damages.

California grows half the U.S. fruits and vegetables and is the top state by value of agricultural goods produced. Large-scale crop losses in the state could lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only there.

Brown has already urged Californians to reduce water consumption by 20 percent voluntarily, and irrigation districts and municipalities up and down the most-populous U.S. state Are bracing for sharp cuts in deliveries.

'DROP IN THE BUCKET'?

"It is good to see the Governor and legislative Democrats step up to the plate with some funding for real needs, but their proposal is just a drop in the bucket," Republican Assembly leader Connie Conway and Frank Bigelow, Republican vice chair of the Assembly's Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said in a joint statement.

"It's clear that their approach won't make much of a dent in addressing our current drought problem until next year at the earliest, if then," they said. "More must be done to respond to the many pleas from the families, farmers and small business owners who are bearing the brunt of the extreme drought conditions plaguing our state."

A spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council said Brown's proposal showed a commitment to helping communities diversify their water supplies in addition to providing emergency drinking water.

"It tackles the immediate challenges we are facing as well as those will be ahead of us as California faces a drier future," said Steve Fleischli, the group's water program director.

State officials have already launched a public awareness campaign, using radio spots to encourage conservation. Other measures include hiring more firefighters in the face of heightened wildfire risks.

But 10 communities are at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days, with the small city of Willits in the northern part of the state facing the most drastic shortages, according to public health officials.

Rural communities where residents rely on wells are at particular risk because contaminants in groundwater become more concentrated when less water is available to dilute them, officials said.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced nearly $200 million in aid for California, including $60 million for food banks to help workers in agriculture-related industries who have lost their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Matthew Lewis, Lisa Shumaker and Mohammad Zargham)

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