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Other Lawmakers, Farmers Want to Add on to Any California Disaster Aid Bill

06:18AM Apr 29, 2014

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Recent farm bills helped to avoid ad hoc ag disaster bills, but California's drought is big and major

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

A few farm bills ago, some farm-state lawmakers said if they could just get the farm bill passed, there would be no need for ad hoc ag disaster bills. They were wrong – despite a nearly $1 trillion farm bill recently signed into law by President Obama. The reason: California's drought is pervasive and costly, and growing more so.

Must-have amendments. When odds were beginning to rise (by no means above the 50 percent mark) regarding California senators' push for disaster aid, senators from other states wanted aid for their growers. That is a sign of the past, when the mention of an ag disaster bill brought forth a big push for "must have" amendments.

Despite some recent and significant rainfall, California water supplies and federal networks of reservoirs and canals remain extremely low, and the projected deliveries are slight by historical standards. The National Climatic Data Center reported last week that California's drought has only worsened, and that for the first time in 15 years all of the state is considered to be in a moderate to exceptional state of drought.

Facts and figures. The latest drought monitor released by the National Climatic Data Center shows that the entire state is under moderate drought conditions, but within that map, 76.7 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, and for 24.8 percent of the state, the level of dryness is "exceptional."

California drought

During the same period last year, none of the state was considered to be under extreme or exceptional drought conditions, and just 30 percent fell under the "severe" category, according to the latest assessment.

The statewide situation eased somewhat after soaking rains in Northern California earlier this year allowed the State Water Project, which supplies a majority of the state, to announce that it would make 5 percent of the system's allocation -- a minor bump from the zero allocation that customers had been expecting.

California farmers are considering idling half a million acres of farmland, which could cause billions of dollars in economic damage, some note. The Economist magazine recently noted that "the last time the water supply was as low, in the 1960s, California’s population was just less than 20 million. Today, the same amount of water must accommodate twice as many people — underscoring the severity of the crisis."

The state's fish are especially at risk, said Peter Moyle of the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences. The state lists 37 types of fish as endangered, the Sacramento Bee reported Saturday. Moyle said 80 percent of them could be extinct by the year 2100 given current trends. "The problems created by the drought are just a harbinger of things to come," Moyle said. California is in its third consecutive dry year, and in January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. Animals are taking their toll, Moyle said in Friday's summit. California lists 47 animals as endangered with 36 considered threatened, The Bee reported.

California grows between one-third and one-half of the country's vegetables and fruits. As a result, prices are going to increase, perhaps significantly, for broccoli, baby greens, almonds, and many more products. But that may not be evident in its totality until 2015, some economists note.

Enter California lawmakers, in particular Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She is trying to garner enough votes to clear a disaster aid package, but to date has not accomplished that goal. She has scaled back the bill (S 2016) sought by farmers and communities in her state but still cannot muster enough support to overcome a possible if not likely Republican filibuster.

California not the only state experiencing drought. But while President Obama visited California earlier this year relative to its drought impacts, other states, especially in the Plains, are in a multiyear drought.

Feinstein’s measure would accelerate environmental decisions that some say may be slowing water deliveries.

As for how Feinstein has altered her approach, the measure no longer includes any direct spending – the initial approach provided $300 million in emergency assistance.

Even if Feinstein gets the needed Senate votes, the bill faces even higher hurdles in the Republican-controlled House. The House passed an alternative bill (HR 3964), sponsored by freshman GOP Rep. David Valadao and opposed by Democrats, that would end federal and state water-sharing restrictions that Republicans say have worsened the drought’s effects.

Something may help California before the US Congress and that is a greater than 50 percent chance that El Niño, a meteorological phenomenon that brings warmer-than-usual water to Southern California, will return by summer. For California, El Niño also usually brings rains in winter.

But Feinstein doesn't want to bet on El Niño. Too many weather and climatic predictions go awry.


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.