Presuming Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation approved Thursday in Sacramento, there will soon be about $687 million available for various drought-relief activities across parched California.
The passage of the bills this week was politically splashy, but certainly welcome. Yet while representatives of water and relief organizations the central San Joaquin Valley have their fingers crossed, there remains a great deal of uncertainty over just how much of that money will end up in the drought- and poverty-stricken region.
Visalia-based Proteus Inc., which provides job-training, placement and other services to farm workers and low-income residents in Fresno and Tulare counties, said it’s too early to know.
“I would say it’s unknown, but it doesn’t look good,” Proteus CEO Michael McCann said of the prospects for his agency to receive much of the $2 million included in Senate Bill 103 for job training for workers or employers in areas hit by the drought. Proteus does receive some retraining money already to help displaced farm workers, “and I expect that will be enhanced, but I can’t confirm that,” he said.
“Fresno is ground zero for the drought” because its rural towns — with large concentrations of workers who depend on agriculture for their income — are expected to be devastated as at least 500,000 acres of farmland remains unplanted because of a lack of water, McCann added. “We expect there will be more assistance coming, probably from the feds.”
“We’re putting our marbles on a (federal disaster) declaration, which hasn’t occurred yet,” he said. “This is not the first year of the drought. ... This is like watching molasses.”
The state bills include about $15 million for drinking water for communities where wells are tainted or going dry and $47 million in food and housing aid for workers who are out of jobs from the drought. But there’s no word yet on how that money will be allocated, or how much agencies like Fresno’s Community Food Bank and others can expect in the Valley.
However it’s divvied up, however, McCann said it’s a relative drop in the bucket compared to the drought’s effects on families. “We’re just trying to limp through to where we can get to another harvest period where they can start planting and harvesting again.”
McCann noted that the lion’s share of the money — about $475 million in the two bills, Senate Bills 103 and 104 — is for water conservation and recycling programs and improvements to water systems.
Gary Serrato, general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, said his district and others in the region have shovel-ready projects in the queue that would likely qualify for some of that money. But, he added, Valley districts will have to compete for those funds, and it’s not clear yet what the criteria will be to determine how much gets spent, or where.
Some of that money, however, is from other bond funds such as Prop. 84 that are being reshuffled for distribution through regional water management boards.
“I do believe there’s going to be some money that comes into the Valley, albeit there’s not a whole bunch of money left for this region, maybe somewhere around $16 million,” Serrato said.