By Laila Kearney
SACRAMENTO, Feb 19 (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown announced legislation on Wednesday to provide $687 million in emergency drought relief to the parched state, where half a million acres of cropland could go idle in a record production loss.
Brown, joined at a press conference by Democratic legislative leaders, said the plan would give money for food and housing to workers impacted by the drought as well as fund projects to conserve, capture and manage water in parched communities.
"This is a call to action. We must all do our part to conserve in this drought," Brown said in a statement.
He said the measures, which must still be approved by the legislature, would be paid for by voter-approved bonds and money transferred from other funds.
Coming off its driest year on record, California is gripped by a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in state history.
Drastic cutbacks in irrigation water could force farmers to idle hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland in a record production loss that industry officials say could cause billions of dollars in damages.
"Without enough rain and snow this winter, we need to capture as much water as we can through any means possible," Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg said.
"Water agencies around the state have projects ready to go to capture and distribute more of the water that's now lost to evaporation or simply flowing out to the ocean. They simply need money to get those projects done," he added.
California grows half the nation's fruits and vegetables and is the top U.S. state by value of agricultural goods produced. Large-scale crop losses in the state could lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only there.
Brown has already called on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent and state officials have launched a public awareness campaign, Save Our Water, using radio spots to encourage conservation.
Other measures officials have taken in the most populous U.S. state include hiring more firefighters in the face of heightened wildfire risks.
But 10 communities are at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days, with the small city of Willits in the northern part of the state facing the most drastic shortages, according to public health officials.
Rural communities where residents rely on wells are at particular risk because contaminants in groundwater become more concentrated when less water is available to dilute them, officials said.
Democrats control a majority in both chambers of the California legislature, making it easier for Brown to enact his drought-fighting agenda.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced nearly $200 million in aid for the parched state, including $60 million for food banks to help workers in agriculture-related industries who have lost their jobs.