California officials, after describing efforts to stretch water supplies through a fifth straight year of drought, asked the federal government Tuesday to put its know-how and dollars into the battle.
Several drought-relief bills have been filed in Congress to aid California. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of a House Interior subcommittee, said he planned to speed a drought-aid bill through his panel "in short order."California is the No. 1 supplier of fruits and vegetables in the nation. There have been suggestions that lack of water for the state's crops will translate into higher produce prices in grocery stores throughout the nation.
"We again look to the federal government for the financial assistance which was pivotal in 1977," Secretary Douglas Wheeler of the California Resources Agency told the panel.
The 1976-1977 drought was the most recent statewide water shortage.
In particular, Wheeler pointed to $805 million that was appropriated through three programs to mitigate the impact of the previous drought.
In addition to that kind of financial aid, Wheeler said the federal government should authorize the Bureau of Reclamation to take emergency steps, including purchase of water from outside sources and delivery of it to farm and municipal users, even if they were not part of the bureau's water system. Regulators also should be given authority to ignore regulations if it would protect remaining water supplies, he said.
"Most areas of the state face very serious water shortages this year," Wheeler said. "Barring unprecedented heavy storms in the next few weeks, most urban areas . . . will have to ration water this year."
Deliveries of irrigation water to farmers in the productive Central Valley have been curtailed sharply, and on Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to impose a mandatory 15 percent water rationing plan. The head of the local water agency predicted that could rise to as high as 50 percent by the end of the year.
Some Capitol Hill observers have said it may prove difficult for Congress to provide sizable aid to California. Budget rules adopted last year in general require spending cuts to offset any decision to increase spending in another area. Texas and the Southeast, which suffered hot, dry weather, were unsuccessful when they broached the idea of financial aid last year.
California congressmen said the drought has the potential to throw agricultural laborers out of work, bankrupt farmers and undermine small businesses in rural communities.
"They've got more water in Baghdad" than in California, said Rep. Mel Levine, D-Calif.