White House directs USDA to speed up drought efforts

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2014 - The administration said today it is directing USDA to accelerate programs that would aid drought efforts in California and other states.

The White House said it will push to advance $100 million in livestock disaster assistance to producers in California, as part of requirements of the 2014 farm bill's Livestock Forage Disaster Program. President Obama is expected to talk about the plan today during a tour of drought-stricken areas in California.

USDA has been directed to making implementation of disaster programs a top priority and to have the programs available for sign up in 60 days. Producers will be able to sign up for the livestock disaster programs for losses in 2014, 2013, and 2012. A White House statement said, “While these livestock programs took over a year to get assistance out the door under the last farm bill - USDA has committed to cut that time by more than 80 percent and begin sign-up in April.”

The administration said it will make available $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for the most extreme and exceptional drought areas, including $5 million in assistance to California and $10 million for drought-impacted areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. The assistance would help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices that conserve water resources, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields, and improve livestock access to water.

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The White House said $5 million has been targeted for the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program assistance to aid the most drought impacted areas of California to protect vulnerable soils. EWP helps communities address watershed impairments due to drought and other natural occurrences.

The administration said $60 million has been made available to food banks in California to help families that may be economically impacted by the drought.

Also, the White House said 600 summer meal sites will be established in California's drought stricken areas.

Also, USDA is making available $3 million in emergency water assistance grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages.

The administration said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with stakeholders and partners to ensure that Corps-operated dams in California make best use of available flows for drought management purposes without affecting authorized project purposes, such as flood risk management.

The administration's latest announcement comes after four Democratic senators introduced legislation Tuesday to authorize $300 million in emergency funds for drought-relief projects to maximize water supplies for farmers and other consumers in California and Oregon.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced the bill, which includes a range of provisions that require 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.

The senators said the drought, which could be worse than the historic dry conditions of 1976 and 1977, threatens California's $44.7 billion agriculture sector. Safe drinking water also is in danger of running out in at least 10 California communities.

The bill would require the Interior and Commerce Departments to cooperate with a California Water Resources Board plan to keep the Delta Cross Channel Gates open as long as possible to allow more water to be delivered without endangering migrating salmon. It further would mandate that federal agencies use flexibility under existing law to maximize water supplies using Delta pumping.

The Senate bill came on the heels of House-passage of its own drought-relief legislation (H.R. 3964), that moved on a mostly party-line vote of 229-191. The bill would repeal some of California's authority over its Central Valley, rolling back the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act in vital water areas.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said their bill would incorporate three main actions:

  • Turning on the Delta pumps this year and next year to capture future rain events.
  • 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 has reignited age-old and fierce California fights over water distribution. Many Democrats claim the bill would override state laws and protections, while mandating that certain water interests in the state take priority over others.

Valadao and Nunes have said current California laws impose overly costly regulations that deprive people and industry of water in favor of fish.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called the House bill “a solution to California's man-made water problems,” implicitly blaming Democrat-favored regulatory programs for California's water crisis.

On the Senate bill, McCarthy said, “Unfortunately, this proposal disappointingly focuses mainly on treating the symptoms of fallowed fields and dry spigots instead of taking steps toward curing the root of the problem so that our communities can receive more water.” McCarthy said the House-passed bill would “solve our communities' ability to capture and store the water that they have contracted and paid for.”

In addition to today's announcement, the administration recently said that it would provide $20 million to aid California farmers struggling through the historic drought.

Further, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency directing state officials to take necessary actions to combat serious drought conditions as farmers there are dealing with record low levels of rainfall. The declaration said the state's water supplies have dropped to alarming levels with snowpack in California's mountains at about 20 percent of the normal average, low water reservoir levels, and reduced surface water flows. In addition to the drought, several wildfires have continued to rage across various parts of the state.

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