WASHINGTON, March 12 2014 - Despite some recent rain in California, farmers continue to suffer through a historic drought there and in nearby states as the Obama administration and lawmakers work to provide assistance.

Two drought assistance bills remain idle in the Senate, but the measures may receive a jolt after high-profile visits from administration officials to California and an upcoming House committee field hearing.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Southern California on Tuesday to examine on-the-ground drought conditions and related water issues. “The administration remains committed to an ‘all in’ approach to the federal response to drought conditions in the West,” Jewell said. Officials are working closely with the state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, to “to ensure a balanced and coordinated approach to providing for the water needs of people, agriculture, businesses, power, and the environment,” she said.

Jewell toured water storage and conveyance facilities in Central California with state Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and met with farmers who rely on water exported from delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Jewell said President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal includes $66.5 million for programs to assist communities in stretching water supplies and improving water management.

After Brown’s declaration of a drought state of emergency in January, the federal departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce began working with California to provide operational flexibility to store and convey water, expedite environmental review and compliance actions, and pursue new or fast-track existing projects that might help stretch water supplies, Jewell said.

To put increased attention on the drought issue, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a field hearing in Fresno, Calif., on March 19, entitled “California Water Crisis and Its Impacts: The Need for Immediate and Long-Term Solutions.” The committee said the field hearing is designed to focus on the need to resolve differences in order to bring immediate and long-term water supplies to the San Joaquin Valley and other parts of California.

Lawmakers at the hearing are likely to discuss the House-approved legislation (H.R. 3964) that 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. Many Democrats claim the bill would override state laws and protections, while mandating that certain water interests in the state take priority over others.

The bill’s sponsors, California Republicans David Valadao and Devin Nunes, have said current California laws impose overly costly regulations that deprive people and industry of water in favor of fish. Their bill now sits on the Senate legislative calendar, awaiting action.

The other bill pending in the Senate (S. 2016) would authorize $300 million in emergency funds for drought-relief projects to maximize water supplies for farmers and other consumers in California and Oregon. The bill, offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., includes a range of provisions that would 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 Feinstein bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Committee staff has been non-committal on timing for a hearing or a mark-up.


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