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California Slow To Spend Emergency Drought Money

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

Gov. Jerry Brown announces his executive order mandating water conservation near Lake Tahoe last week.

Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order mandating water conservation in California also directs state agencies to speed up reviews of water projects. But it turns out little of last year’s emergency drought money has actually been spent.

“Simply because the money has been awarded or encumbered doesn’t mean that it’s been spent,” explains Sacramento State political analyst Steve Boilard, a veteran state budget watcher.

That’s true for the $870 million in “emergency drought relief” approved by the governor and lawmakers last year.

The Brown administration says it’s committed just over half of that money. So “half of the money – nothing’s been done with it yet?” Boilard says. “The uncommitted half hasn’t yet resulted in work.”

Some of the other money has been spent – for example, fighting fires, feeding farm workers and trucking in water to communities that don’t have any. But much of the money has not.

Take the single largest chunk – regional water projects. The California Department of Water Resources says it’s awarded more than $200 million in grants to local water agencies. That money hasn’t been spent.

But some of the projects relying on that money have gotten started.

“We do have three projects that are complete. We have five under construction right now,” says Rob Swartz with the Sacramento area’s Regional Water Authority, which received grants for 17 projects.

The RWA didn’t wait for the state funding to arrive – because it knows the money’s coming.

“And we expect the majority of these projects to be done by late summer, which is really when we’re gonna need that water,” Swartz says.

Similarly, Los Angeles County has begun work on six of 13 grant-funded projects.

The governor’s executive order last week directs state agencies to speed up the permitting process – but not the grant process. Still, Tim Quinn with the Association of California Water Agencies says the state is already doing a good job – and thinks the order will push it and local water agencies to move even faster.

“It’s pretty clear, the governor of the state of California is sending some marching orders to the agencies that administer these funds. He wants to see it moving quicker. And you know, when a governor barks, people listen,” Quinn says.

Political analyst Steve Boilard acknowledges water projects – and project grants – take time, oversight and planning ... for good reason. “It’s just,” he adds, “I don’t think that’s what voters think of when they hear about emergency drought relief. They think that there’s some very quick action to come in and address the emergency.”

In a statement, the governor’s office says the administration is working on all fronts to address the impacts of California’s drought.

 drought

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio