As President Barack Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack got a personal look at California’s drought-ravaged Central Valley on Feb. 14, USDA and other federal agencies prepared to speed disaster aid to the state.
Oddly enough, however, much of the program outlined by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack targets livestock producers; leaving nut, fruit, and row crop farmers in a hazy situation regarding federal help.
Faced with what Secretary Vilsack terms “the worst drought in over a hundred years,” Californians enter the spring season with reduced water supplies a certainty, meaning hundreds of thousands of acres could be fallowed.
Permanent vine and tree crops are threatened as well, due to water allocation cutbacks.
USDA declared 54 California counties primary natural disaster areas due to the drought.
USDA expects to make $100 million available to California’s livestock producers under an accelerated disaster assistance program restored in the newly signed farm bill. The livestock disaster assistance program, shelved since its predecessor expired in 2011, will get payments to producers within 60 days of application.
“Normally this process takes 6-8 months,” Vilsack says.
Livestock producers in other states recently hit by natural disasters, like the Dakotas where many cattle froze to death last fall, or Texas, where they took drought-related hits, can also apply for aid. Vilsack says the agency can make as much as $1 billion available for overall assistance.
Vilsack says nut producers may be eligible for disaster aid under USDA’s tree assistance program. Dairy farmers could get help from both the forage and livestock indemnity programs.
“It’s conceivable the tree assistance program might be of assistance to tree producers, to nut producers here in this state,” Vilsack said.
Fruit and vegetable growers may be eligible to receive some of the $5 million targeted for conservation assistance in California as part of a $15 million effort for drought-stricken states, including New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The money available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) administered by USDA can be used to conserve water usage, reduce wind erosion, and improve livestock access to water.
In addition, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is providing $20 million in EQIP funds for California conservation projects. The NRCS cost-share funds can be used for irrigation efficiency, cover crops, orchard pruning, and grazing land protection.
Cropland with a reduced water allocation of at least 85 percent will receive highest priority.
Most aid targets livestock industry?
Vilsack said, “So this (aid program) is not limited to livestock. This is basically designed to try to provide help and assistance to producers of all stripes here in California, given the diversity of agriculture that’s been impacted.”
USDA and other federal agencies will step up weather studies through new ‘climate hubs’ designed to coordinate research efforts.
President Obama’s 2015 budget made public in March will include a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund to study the effects of climate change and help communities prepare to respond to it. One of the new climate hubs will be located at the University of California-Davis.
The climate hub concept, Vilsack says, will “assess the long-term vulnerabilities, to provide and identify technologies for producers that they can use to adapt to a changing climate or to mitigate the impacts.”
USDA already has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in climate-related research in the state, the Secretary says.
“A lot of it has been focused on trying to figure out how to use water more effectively, how to reduce the salinity of the water that is available, how to ensure that new technologies–new seed technologies–are being developed to utilize scare water resources more effectively,” Secretary Vilsack said.
“That’s the role and responsibility of the USDA, and that’s what I’m focused on–getting relief to folks.”
With much of California’s labor force either out of work or facing cutbacks due to the drought, USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program is now authorized to establish 600 meal sites for children throughout the state. USDA’s role essentially will be to reimburse local food banks and communities for the cost of the meals.
Problem not a lack of storage
California’s water problem is supply-based, not due to lack of reservoirs, says John Holdren, President Obama’s assistant for science and technology.
“The problem is that there’s not enough water in them,” Holdren said. “As of last weekend, Folsom Lake was at 22 percent of capacity, Lake Oroville at 37 percent, Pine Flat at 18 percent, San Luis Reservoir at 30 percent. We just haven’t had enough water flowing into these reservoirs.”
A U.S. Senate bill sponsored by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), plus Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) would provide $300 million for water projects.
The U.S. House of Representative recently passed legislation exempting both state and federal water systems from requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
Watch three videos from World Ag Expo courtesy of Western Farm Press: