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Committees approve $687 million in drought relief

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- A $687 million drought relief plan is headed for floor votes in the Legislature after winning quick approval Wednesday in legislative committees.

Assembly and Senate budget committees passed the bills, a week after the package was announced by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic legislative leaders. California is facing its driest year on record, forcing farmers in the nation's agricultural heartland to fallow fields and uproot orchards and putting 17 communities at risk of running out of drinking water.

The legislation calls for immediate action on the drought, including $15 million to address emergency water shortages. Most of the money comes from bonds previously approved by voters and will accelerate existing or planned water conservation and recycling projects.

Both houses of the Legislature are expected to vote on the drought legislation Thursday. If Brown signs the bills, as expected, they would take effect immediately.

Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about how quickly the legislation is moving and pointed to language they say could affect existing water rights. Under the legislation, the State Water Resources Control Board would have new powers to issue fines for illegal diversions of water. Representatives of the governor's administration say existing water rights laws will not change.

Republicans also questioned the Democrats' plan to tap $40 million from a fund created for projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is beginning to look more and more like an executive slush fund,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, who proposed drawing the money from the general fund, the state's main checkbook.

The governor's office says water efficiency and energy efficiency go hand-in-hand. For example, the State Water Project, which supplies 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of agricultural land, is the state's largest energy user.

The legislative package also will draw $47 million from the state's general fund to provide food and housing assistance for Californians hit hardest by the drought, primarily in regions heavily dependent on agriculture. Some Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about whether that would be enough.

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