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Feinstein Tweaks California Drought Bill To Improve Prospects

WASHINGTON (CBS / AP) -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday she has dropped $300 million in emergency spending from drought-relief legislation to try to improve prospects for getting the bill passed.

Most parts of California are under extreme drought conditions. In February, Feinstein and other senators from the West introduced legislation designed to increase water supplies and offset some of the economic damage caused by the drought.  Feinstein said Thursday she had introduced a new version of that bill.

The new bill will continue a focus on regulatory relief. It mandates that federal agencies open channel gates on the Sacramento River as long as possible without endangering salmon populations. The gates are closed during certain times for fishery protection.

The bill also mandates that federal agencies use "flexibility" within existing law to pump more water to farmers through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  It also speeds up federal decision-making in a program that offers low-interest loans for new water projects, and extends the amount of time that local agencies have to pay back the loans.

The bill does increase the authorized caps for two existing drought relief programs by $100 million, but there's no guarantee the extra money would be included when Congress takes up spending bills for the coming fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Feinstein stripped out $300 million in emergency spending, such as $100 million that was to go to farmers to undertake new conservation projects, and $25 million that was to go to communities and non-profits serving migrant and seasonal farmworkers hurt by the loss of jobs.

The bill also seeks to expand aid to other drought-stricken states. For example, it gives states access to unemployment benefits and re-employment services normally reserved for a major disaster such as hurricane or flood.

The House has passed drought legislation. Feinstein says her office is close to securing the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate.

She said the state's economy faces a $7.5 billion hit as a result of the drought and that more than 15,000 jobs are at risk.

"This is an emergency, and this bill deserves a vote," Feinstein said.

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