It can’t be an accident: the Obama administration on Tuesday announced it would make available $20 million to aid California farmers struggling through a historic drought, just a day before House GOP members brought their own drought relief bill to the floor. That legislation, which has reignited age-old and fierce California fights over water distribution, has many Democrats crying foul.
Part of the administration aid is coming from USDA grants that will be distributed through the department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Cropland with a reduced water allocation of at least 85 percent will receive the highest priority, USDA says.
For California farmers, the relief could not come soon enough. The state, home to a $44.7 billion agricultural economy, produces half the country’s fruits and vegetables, and has the nation’s largest citrus and dairy industries. But it’s looking grim for the Golden State and its farmers: California’s snowpack, which provides much of the water needed to irrigate fields, is currently at 12 percent of its average for this time of year. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state last month.
In another sign of the times, the California Department of Water Resources last week announced it would cut off water to local agencies for the first time in its 54-year history. The 29 agencies served by the department distribute water to approximately 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland. Though the counties affected often have other water sources, including local wells, those have also been depleted by drought. In Southern California, a local water district manager has urged residents to cut their water use by 20 percent.
The state agriculture department does not yet have an estimate of the economic impact of the California drought.
“Even though my rain dance is well practiced, that doesn’t control the weather,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., who participated in the media call announcing the new USDA grants.
Costa is a third generation farmer and member of the House Agriculture Committee. He called the $20 million in aid a “good first step.”
Costa noted that the implications of drought go well beyond the agriculture industry. “For a farmer, every drop of water is precious,” he said. In years like this, [rain] can be the difference between keeping employees on the payroll and forcing them to let go.” He said communities made up of farmers and farmworkers had been hit especially hard by the drought, which is now entering its thirteenth month. He called the plight of out-of-work farmhands in his district “heart-aching.”
But Costa joined many Democratic colleagues in taking issue with a House Republican legislative proposal, which is set to hit the floor today.
The bill, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, 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. The bill’s sponsors, California Republicans David Valadao, Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, say those laws impose overly costly regulations that deprive people and industry of water in favor of fish. McCarthy called the bill “a solution to California's man-made water problems,” implicitly blaming Democrat-favored regulatory programs for California’s water crisis.
But Gov. Brown, a Democrat, yesterday accused House Republicans of grandstanding. Their proposed legislation “would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interests come out ahead of others," Brown wrote in a letter to the House Natural Resources committee. "It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies."
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat, said the bill “is disingenuous, it is irresponsible and it is dangerous.” Feinstein said she approached California House Republicans to forge a bipartisan drought relief bill, but was rebuffed.
Though the legislation is expected to pass the GOP-dominated House, it is not expected to move through the Senate. The administration, meanwhile, seems to have declined the opportunity to wade into the California fight. “I honestly have been focusing on the farm bill,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters when asked about the legislation.
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