President Barack Obama called the California drought a national concern and promised millions of dollars worth of assistance to the state that provides almost half of the fruits and vegetables for the U.S.
“What happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food you put on your table,” Obama said in in the state’s fertile Central Valley, where farmers are being forced to idle thousands of acres of fields and rural towns are running short of drinking water.
Obama also linked the drought, one of the worst in California history, to climate change and said local, state and federal governments must start preparing for the impact of more extreme weather events.
“There has to be a sense of urgency about this,” he said. “This cannot be a partisan endeavor.”
The administration plans to accelerate distribution of as much as $100 million in aid to ranchers to help feed livestock and offer compensation for losses. The Agriculture Department is also making available $15 million in conservation aid for the worst drought regions in California and in five other states to reduce wind erosion on damaged fields and to improve livestock access to water.
The White House said $60 million has been made available to California food banks for families affected by the drought, and plans are under way to establish 600 summer meal sites in hard-hit regions this summer.
Another $5 million is being set aside to protect vulnerable soil, along with $3 million in grants to communities facing water shortages and $3 million in grants for towns facing a decline in water quality or quantity.
As part of his policy on climate change, Obama plans to ask Congress to approve a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund in the budget plan he’ll send to lawmakers March 4 for the fiscal 2015 spending year, which begins Oct. 1.
If approved, the money would be devoted to researching the projected effect of climate change on agriculture, communities and the nation’s infrastructure, according to a White House fact sheet. If would also finance research leading to “breakthrough technologies” to help cope with climate change.
Republicans in Congress, some of whom have questioned whether the climate is warming because of human activity, have rejected many of the new spending proposals Obama has presented in past budgets. White House press secretary Jay Carney earlier today declined to assess the chances that Congress will approve the $1 billion in funding.
The budget request follows on an executive order Obama signed last year directing federal agencies to make it easier for state and local authorities to rebound from extreme weather events and plan for the effects of climate change.
Crop losses, property damage and lost tourism will hit California’s economy, which would rank as the world’s 10th largest, as it’s still emerging from the effects of the worst recession since the 1930s. Lost revenue in 2014 from farming and related businesses such as trucking and processing may reach $5 billion, according to estimates by the California Farm Water Coalition, an industry group.
The state also has become a tinderbox. There have been at least 487 wildfires so far in 2014, compared with only two for the same period a year ago, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department.
Lawmakers at the state and federal level are debating steps to mitigate the water shortage.
A system that includes 34 reservoirs, lakes and storage facilities and more than 700 miles of aqueducts sends water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the north to Central Valley farmers and Southern Californians. For the first time in more than half a century, state officials said on Jan. 31 that they were unable to make deliveries through the project to 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
While the California Legislature is under Democratic control, there is a split over a proposal by Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, to build two 30-mile-long water tunnels, each the size of a two-lane Interstate highway, under an ecologically sensitive area east of San Francisco to pump water from Northern California to Southern California. Brown has asked the public for a 20 percent voluntary cut in water use after 2013 turned into the driest year on record.
At an earlier community meeting, also attended by Brown, Obama said the U.S. needs to end fights over water between farms and cities.
U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, are sponsoring legislation to provide the state with $300 million in emergency funding and help maximize water supplies.
The bill also would reduce review times for projects and direct water to users with the greatest need. Feinstein and Boxer, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, made the trip with Obama.
“We hope they move forward with this bill,” Carney said, referring to the Senate. “We support the Feinstein-Boxer effort.”
The Republican-controlled U.S. House on Feb. 5 approved a separate bill that would allow more water to flow into the parched San Joaquin Valley while rolling back some environmental restrictions.
The White House has threatened to veto the House measure, saying in a statement of administration policy earlier this month that it “would undermine years of collaboration” among federal, state and local officials and result in a resumption of litigation over water use.