WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2014 - Warning that weather-related disasters will only get worse, President Barack Obama drew a clear connection between the California drought and climate change as he announced new aid and brought a message of hope for Golden State residents in Fresno last week.

The U.S. must rethink the way it uses water, Obama said. Even if the U.S. acts now to curb pollution, the planet will keep getting warmer “for a long time to come,” thanks to greenhouse gasses. Natural disaster such as drought and flooding are things the country has to “prepare for, not something to wait for,” he said.

Obama unveiled a $183 million aid package for ranchers in California who have lost livestock, communities that are running out of water and farmers who need help conserving water. Starting in April, ranchers in the state’s agriculturally rich Central Valley will be able to apply for $100 million in livestock disaster assistance funding that was approved by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Farmers will have access to $5 million in USDA funds to implement water conservation programs, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields and improve the access of livestock to water. Another $10 million will go to farmers and ranchers in other drought-impacted states for the same purpose.

Projects to stabilize dry stream banks will get $5 million in federal funds, and small community water districts set to run out of water in the next 60 to 120 days will be able to apply for a total of $3 million in grants.

Finally, $60 million in USDA funds will be made available to food banks in California's driest towns, and students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the school year will be able to eat meals at 600 locations in drought-stricken areas this summer.

And while Republican and Democratic lawmakers battle in Washington over legislation to alleviate the situation, Californians are divided over Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial plan to build two giant tunnels to carry water from the northern part of the state underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to water starved communities further south.

Members of one group opposed to the project, which calls itself Restore the Delta, were protesting last Friday outside the Fresno Yosemite International Airport as Obama arrived on Air Force One.

At a press conference at a nearby Holiday Inn, the group asserted that Brown’s tunnels – each 35 miles long and 40 feet wide -- would hurt family farmers in the Delta region, while not producing any more water for the central San Joaquin Valley.

“President Obama should not be misled that the peripheral tunnels are of any value in meeting California’s water challenges,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the group’s executive director.

Rogene Reynolds, who lives in the Delta region, said the plan, with cost estimates in the tens of billions of dollars, would amount to a “massive transfer” of wealth, in the form of water, to rich farmers in the south growing crops for export. She said the losers in the process are California taxpayers, who would have to fund the project to satisfy the greed of a few.

A report by planners of the so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) insisted that the project would be good for the environment, with fewer native fish being trapped in the pumps that now force water from the Delta channels further south. Proponents also argue that the state’s economy would benefit from improved water quality and reliable supplies.

”Moving water beneath the Delta could reduce both ecosystem and economic risks,” according to Ellen Hanak, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California.

Jeffrey A. Michael, director of business forecasting at the University of the Pacific’s School of Business, disagrees. He said the BDCP report assumes water agencies would make no additional investments in alternative water supplies in California for the next sixty years, even if Delta water exports further diminish in the future.

He also said over $7 billion in costs paid by taxpayers primarily for habitat protection are omitted from the statewide economic welfare analysis, even though benefits from these investments are included. In addition, economic costs from the loss of approximately 100,000 acres of Delta farmland to BDCP habitat and tunnel construction are omitted from the report.

And while the arguments continue, the drought situation isn’t getting any better. The latest report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service calls for continued cry conditions west of the Continental Divide. Precipitation in January in the Sierra Nevada was well below normal, it said. Separate reports call for snowpack runoff of only 10 percent of normal, compared to 90 percent a year ago. And reservoir levels are at 65 percent of average.


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