California farmers watching for congressional action on drought

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 - Farmers in California who are patiently waiting for rain and congressional drought assistance have their eyes focused on the Senate where legislation has been slow to move.

Forecasters are predicting rain for the parched state this week, but it is not likely to make much more than a small dent in its historic drought. “The storms are coming,” said Brad Rippey, USDA agricultural meteorologist. “But it's not going to be enough.” Rippey said he anticipates the drought to last another year or two.

The Senate has legislation (S. 2016) that would authorize $300 million in emergency funds for drought-relief projects to maximize water supplies for farmers and other consumers in California and Oregon.

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Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced the bill, which includes a range of provisions that allow federal agencies to use existing powers to maximize water supplies, reduce project review times, and ensure water is directed to users whose need is greatest. The bill would not waive any federal or state laws.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House approved its drought legislation (H.R. 3964) on a mostly party-line vote of 229-191. The bill would repeal some of the state's authority over its agriculturally rich Central Valley, rolling back the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act in vital water areas. California Representatives David Valadao and Devin Nunes, both Republicans, said their bill would incorporate three main actions:

         Turning on the pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta this year and next year to capture rains from future storms.

         Ending restoration flows in the San Joaquin River for this year and next year in order to stop wasting water.

         Establishing a bipartisan, emergency joint committee from the House and Senate to devise a long-term legislative solution.

The House bill reignited age-old and fierce California fights over water distribution. Many Democrats claim the measure would override state laws and protections, while mandating that certain water interests in the state take priority over others. Valadao and Nunes say current California laws impose overly costly regulations that deprive people and industry of water in favor of fish.

In addition, House Democrats have companion legislation to the Senate bill (H.R. 4039), which was offered by House Agriculture Committee member Jim Costa, D-Calif. “When I look at these devastating weather and snowpack reports, I see the faces of farm workers who could lose their jobs and their children who might be forced to leave school,” Costa said. “For these people, there is no option but swift action on our bill that will remove the barriers that prevent limited resources from reaching those most in need.”

The Feinstein and Costa legislation would provide $100 million in emergency funds for Interior Department projects to rapidly increase water supplies; $100 million in emergency assistance for farmers to fund water conservation measures that protect lands and sensitive watersheds; $25 million to the Emergency Community Water Assistance Grants program; $25 million for pre-disaster mitigation grants; $25 million in grant funding for public and nonprofit institutions to provide emergency assistance to low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers who are directly harmed by the drought; and $25 million in grants for private forest landowners to carry out conservation measures in response to drought and wildlife risks.

The Senate bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The panel has not scheduled a hearing or mark-up for the bill, and the legislation has not been scheduled for floor time. Feinstein's office was not able to provide an update on when the bill might move.

An aide with Nunes' office said the House is just waiting for the Senate to act on its bill. The plan then would be to take it to conference with the Senate bill. The aide said they have not heard any kind of schedule plan from Feinstein's office. “We've been hoping it would get rolled out this week,” the aide said. “We're dead in the water [until the Senate acts].”

Valadao aide Anne Vitter said farmers have been calling, e-mailing, and tweeting about the lack of movement of legislation in Congress. Vitter said the lawmaker has met with Feinstein about the issue and is willing to work with anyone to assist farmers in the drought-stricken areas.

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