The California drought was a front and center issue this week, as President Obama visits the Fresno area, two versions of drought relief bills are pending in Congress and CSAC co-sponsors a major briefing on the drought in Sacramento.
More than a hundred people gathered at the Crest Theater and three times that many participated on line as the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) put on a series of panel discussions about various aspects of the drought.
CSAC Vice President and Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa (at right, being interviewed by KFBK Radio) told the audience that ag and rural counties are hit especially hard by the drought because it causes higher unemployment, more reliance on county programs, higher firefighting costs and the potential for lost revenue if ag land property values decline with no water available.
Also on Friday, President Obama traveled to the Central Valley to see first-hand the effects of the state's drought. And he announced some much-needed federal aid for farmers, ranchers and farm workers. The President made the trip aboard Air Force One with Senators Feinstein and Boxer, as well as Representative Costa.
President Obama also was joined by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack. During a stop in Fresno, the president and Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA will make implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill livestock disaster assistance programs a top priority.
The agency's disaster assistance programs, which are designed to help farmers and ranchers cope with dead livestock, tree loss, and animal feed costs, would ordinarily take six-to-eight months to establish. According to USDA, the programs will be available for California farmers and ranchers in 60 days. California alone could potentially receive up to $100 million for 2014 losses, and up to $50 million for previous years.
USDA has declared 54 counties in California as primary natural disaster areas due to the drought. Additional USDA resources announced for California and other drought-stricken states include:
In other developments this week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) introduced companion legislation designed to assist the state of California as it continues to suffer the effects of severe drought. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) - along with Oregon's two Democratic senators - are original cosponsors of the Feinstein bill (S 2016); California Democratic Representatives Sam Farr and Tony Cardenas have signed on to the House measure (HR 4039).
- $5 million in additional conservation assistance for the most extreme drought areas in California. ($10 million will be available for drought-impacted areas in five other Western states.) The funding will be provided through the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and will assist farmers and ranchers in implementing conservation practices that conserve scarce water resources, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields, and improve livestock access to water.
- $5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program assistance to the state's most drought impacted areas. EWP helps communities address watershed impairments due to drought and other natural occurrences. The funding will help drought-ravaged communities and private landowners address watershed impairments, such as stabilizing stream banks and replanting upland sites stripped of vegetation.
- $60 million for California food banks to help families that may be economically impacted by the drought.
- 600 summer meal sites to be established in various California communities impacted by the drought.
- $3 million in Emergency Water Assistance Grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages. The grants are designed to help rural communities that are experiencing a significant decline in the quality or quantity of drinking water; grant funds also are available to communities to help maintain water sources of sufficient quantity and quality.
The legislation - entitled the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014 - would boost water supplies to the Central Valley by providing federal agencies with additional operational flexibility. Under the bills, federal actions aimed at maximizing water exports from the Delta would need to be consistent with federal and state environmental laws and regulations.
In addition to provisions that would increase water supplies for drought-stricken areas, the legislation would amend the Stafford Act to clarify that droughts can be declared a major disaster. The bills also would provide $300 million in emergency funds for a range of projects that would maximize water supplies for farmers, consumers, and municipalities. A portion of funding under the bill would be targeted for additional economic assistance to farmers.
It should be noted that introduction of the Feinstein/Costa legislation comes on the heels of House action on a Republican-sponsored drought package (HR 3964). The bill, which passed the lower chamber on a near-party line vote, would make changes to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and repeal the San Joaquin River restoration program in an effort to boost water deliveries to the Central Valley. HR 3964 also would limit enforcement or consideration of environmental regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.