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California water crisis moves into national spotlight

Issue Date: February 19, 2014
By Kate Campbell

The serious consequences to food production from the ongoing California drought rose to national prominence last week, as President Obama toured drought-stressed areas of the San Joaquin Valley, U.S. senators introduced a bill to address the situation in the wake of earlier House legislation, and leaders around California discussed the impacts of potentially historic water shortages.

During his visit on Friday, President Obama pledged to expedite federal help for parched farms and communities.

The president toured a Firebaugh-area farm and met with agricultural leaders, including California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, as well as community leaders and water agency officials. Congressional representatives, Gov. Brown and state water agency officials also joined the president to discuss impacts of one of the worst droughts to strike the state in nearly a century.

Obama visited Joe and Maria Gloria Del Bosque's farm southwest of Firebaugh for a ground-level perspective on hardships resulting from the dire lack of water.

"Water has been seen as a zero-sum game—agriculture against urban, north against south," Obama told meeting participants and the media. "We're going to have to figure out how to play a different game."

He said because California produces so much of the nation's food supply, there's a huge national concern related to the state's drought. He talked about global warming and the need to plan now to use dwindling resources.

"We can't afford years of litigation and no action, because this is going to be a very challenging situation for some time to come," Obama said.

"We appreciate the national attention the president brought with his visit, as well as the recent visit by House Speaker Boehner," Wenger said. "I'm encouraged by the president's pledge to fast-track disaster assistance and increase regulatory relief, but more needs to be done to get California through this crisis and prepared for the future."

Federal disaster assistance programs under the recently approved 2014 Farm Bill will provide nearly $100 million for California livestock producers suffering losses due to lack of forage and water for their animals. Assistance had been suspended for two years after the previous farm bill expired.

"Normally and traditionally, it takes somewhere between six and eight months to restructure and recharge programs that have been dormant," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The president is saying we need to get this done by April 15th so that producers are in a position to make application for disaster payments on or before then."

In an interview with Ag Alert® that coincided with the president's visit, Vilsack said the administration understands "this is a historic drought and it's having a very substantial impact on their (food) production processes."

In addition, the administration said $15 million in conservation assistance targeted to the more extreme drought areas and $5 million in emergency watershed protections are being made available to California farmers and ranchers.

After the House of Representatives passed a bill by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, addressing critical water issues made more acute by the drought, California's U.S. senators introduced a bill last week to authorize $300 million in further emergency federal assistance. The bill would ensure quicker environmental reviews for water projects and water transfers.

Wenger said Farm Bureau hopes the House and Senate "can work together to craft a bipartisan solution that will both help with immediate water challenges and address the long-term need for additional water storage."

On Friday, water leaders from throughout the state attended a drought briefing in Sacramento. Several speakers emphasized areas of the state are facing "catastrophic" water shortages.

Beyond the drought's threat to public health and safety, experts said water shortages place the state's economy at risk through fallowing of more than 500,000 acres of farmland statewide.

"There are areas in the state where farmers have already taken land out of production and more will probably follow," CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis said during the briefing. "Folks need to understand that reductions in water needed to produce a crop mean a loss of jobs across our economy."

Matteis said the estimate is that 2.5 million California jobs are tied to agriculture.

"Not only is agriculture an important part of the state's economy, but more than 20 percent of our commodities are exported," Matteis said. "There is a ripple effect that moves throughout the economy, and we haven't done enough in the past to develop the infrastructure necessary to capture the water needed to maintain our agricultural production."

During a separate water forum last week at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, farmers and local government leaders warned of dire impacts on the San Joaquin Valley from widespread water shortages this summer.

Those shortages are expected to spread from the western valley to east-side water districts. Mario Santoyo of the California Latino Water Coalition warned that the east side of the valley "will see things it hasn't seen before."

On the Westside, which has been plagued with chronic water shortages, Mendota Mayor Robert Silva said unemployment rates as high as 50 percent are possible. Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson warned of the indirect impacts of agricultural water shortages on rural small businesses, school districts and local services.

Water district officials said water transfers, which have eased shortages in previous years, will likely be less available this year because conditions are so dry throughout California.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Assistant Editor Ching Lee and Editor Dave Kranz contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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