Farm groups call for swift action on drought bills
By Christine Souza
Facing a historic drought and hot, dry summer months ahead, the California Farm Bureau Federation welcomed passage of a U.S. Senate bill to address water problems caused by the drought and urged Congress to begin negotiations to reconcile the bill with legislation passed earlier by the House of Representatives.
Having spent several days in Washington, D.C., last week talking to members of Congress about the need for immediate relief from the drought and for long-term water storage solutions, CFBF President Paul Wenger urged congressional leaders to swiftly reconcile the newly passed Senate bill with the House bill that passed in February.
"Now, the real work begins," Wenger said. "Water shortages are causing widespread suffering for California family farmers and those who depend on them for jobs and environmental stewardship. Now that each house has passed drought measures, we need to meld the two in ways that provide the swiftest, most effective relief possible."
Wenger praised Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for her authorship of the Senate bill and Central Valley Reps. David Valadao, R-Hanford; Devin Nunes, R-Tulare; Jim Costa, D-Fresno; and Jeff Denham, R-Turlock; for their work on the House measure.
"Congress recognizes that California's water system is outdated, and so is the way we operate it," said Wenger, who with other Farm Bureau leaders met with Feinstein on Capitol Hill last week to discuss water issues. "The House and Senate bills set the stage for long-overdue discussions of how to make the system work better for farms, cities and the environment—particularly in droughts like we're experiencing now."
Feinstein described her Emergency Drought Relief Act as a short-term solution that would provide federal and state water agencies with additional flexibility to deliver water where it is most needed during the drought. She said the next step in the process is to work with the House to determine what measures can be agreed upon to improve water supplies.
"My hope is that this process can proceed quickly and bypass many of the controversial issues that have been raised in the past," Feinstein said. "While we do need long-term solutions to the state's water problems, the bill the Senate passed authorizes immediate actions to help California, and I think that's what we must focus on and reach agreement quickly."
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., along with seven Republican representatives from California, issued a statement describing the Feinstein bill as "a starting point," but said the Senate bill does not address California's long-term needs.
"We now have an opportunity to find a balance between her temporary measure and the comprehensive bill passed by the House," the Republican representatives said.
Wenger said Farm Bureau and other organizations will be engaged in the upcoming negotiations.
"One reason the drought has hit California so hard is that we have failed for the past 30 years to modernize our water system," he said. "California cannot afford another 20 or 30 years of inaction. Drought and water shortages hit farmers first and hardest, but they will cause losses that ricochet throughout the wider economy and the environment. Congress must act quickly to ease the pain by finalizing effective drought-relief legislation."
Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers, said concern about California water supplies has "never been higher."
"It is our hope that the spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship prevail" during negotiations on the bill, Nuxoll said.
Thomas Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District in Fresno, said the district hopes negotiatons can begin quickly and expressed confidence that Feinstein and her colleagues in the House "will be able to identify commonsense solutions that will restore water supplies while providing reasonable protections for fish."
A preliminary report issued last week by the University of California, Davis, estimated that water shortages caused by the drought would cause the fallowing of 410,000 acres in the Central Valley, leading to the loss of 14,500 jobs and an economic impact of $1.7 billion.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.