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Emergency Drought Relief Money Still Unspent

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

California water managers are selectively watering parts of the state Capitol grounds to preserve historic trees while letting grassy areas dry out.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

It’s been four months since Governor Jerry Brown signed what he and Democratic lawmakers called “emergency drought legislation.” It promised nearly $700 million in immediate drought relief. But nearly 90 percent of that money has yet to be spent.

“This is a call to action,” Brown proclaimed in late February at a visit to the state's emergency operations center. “What needs to be done will be done – and is being done.”

The governor’s office promised the $687 million would “immediately help communities deal with” the drought and “provide funding to increase local water supplies.”

But more than four months later, the governor’s Department of Finance says just $87 million has been officially committed – which doesn’t automatically mean the money’s been spent. That leaves $600 million of “emergency drought relief” untouched.

“They made a big political statement on it – that it was going to get out early,” says state Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Twain Harte). “Everybody likes to put a big headline out there. But the fact that they haven’t been able to move this money quickly doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s part of the problem with big government.”

The Brown administration says $200 million in competitive grants for water projects will be awarded in September – with $250 million more in a second round next spring.

Celeste Cantu is applying for some of that money. She’s with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority and says she has projects ready to go. She’s grateful the governor and legislature are making the money available as soon as September – normally, she says, “I think it’s like a year, year-and-a-half.”

But frankly, she says, there’s nothing the governor and legislature could have done this year to reduce the water shortage. “The water challenges that we face in California today – and probably the rest of the 21st century – can never be responded to in an emergency fashion,” Cantu says.

As for the unspent money, the Brown administration says the grant process has been “as expeditious as possible while making sure state money is being spent appropriately.”

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