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$687M proposed to help Calif. drought as clock ticks on communities' water supplies

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Jan. 9, 2014: In this file photo a visitor to Folsom Lake, Calif., walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards away from the waters edge, in Folsom, Calif. (AP)

Gov. Jerry Brown and the top Democratic lawmakers are proposing to spend $687 million to help drought-stricken communities throughout California, including $15 million for those with dangerously low drinking water supplies. 

The governor announced the legislative proposal during a news conference Wednesday, describing it as "a call to action" as the nation's most populous state deals with one of the driest periods on record.

Most of the money -- $549 million -- will come in the form of accelerated spending from two bonds approved previously by voters. It will go toward local water conservation and recycling efforts, such as systems to capture stormwater and recharge groundwater supplies.

The general fund, the state's main checkbook, also will be tapped. In addition to the money for emergency water supplies, $25.3 million from the general fund will provide food assistance in communities affected by the drought.

The proposal, which now goes to lawmakers for consideration, does not address long-term improvements to California's water supply and distribution system.

In Willits, one of several rural communities that California's Department of Public Health recently described as dangerously low on water, the lack of rain was so bad last month that instead of going to the next step in a five-step scale, they skipped steps three and four and declared a water emergency.

The problem in Willits is mirrored elsewhere in California where state health officials on Tuesday put out a list of ten water systems in dire shape.

"We're on that list because we have one water source--one main line coming into town,"  Willits city manager Adrienne Moore told Fox News.  The reservoirs that normally supply the town are well below normal and without easy access to any other water sources city leaders are left up the proverbially -- dry  creek. 

Willits, a couple of hours north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, was once home to legendary racehorse Seabiscuit. It is now known for its wineries. A notice from the county wine growers association says a drought declaration "seems to place agriculture use of water last in priority." 

It reports only 2.82 inches of rain fell from October 1 to January 15.  A typical drought would have triple that amount.  

“As an industry we're known for our conscientious use of water even in abundant years," says winemaker Alex MacGregor. "We are hopeful that some weather models will pan out and we’ll see a gradual return to normal spring precipitation levels. That said, given extreme drought conditions, we may not have enough supply to sustain our businesses.” 

Helen Bartow's explanation for the drought is simple. "The man above hasn't sent us any rain." But she also casts a sinister eye on another cause for the shortage. "The God damned pot growers have taken the water."

Bartow needs water for her 300-acre cattle farm. She says she and her neighbors have already cut back on what they use. And if the drought continues? "I'll probably have to go out of business and put my hand out for welfare."

City officials hope a $2.1 million plan to bring in well water to supplement their supplies will help ease the pain. That water is now only used for irrigation but with the upgrades in pipeline and treatment it'll be used by all residents. Moore hopes the city's inclusion on the state list will help pay for the project which costs about 12 percent of the city's annual budget.

Politicians including President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have travelled to the state in recent weeks to address the shortage. Those visits happened in the state's central valley--far from Willits--but near other communities that also made the state's top ten list. 

Fox News' Ross Lee and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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