California farmers run dry as Congress debates drought-relief aid

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While some of the country's most fertile farmland lies parched from a historic drought in California's Central Valley, partisan disputes over Obama administration ecological policies in the Golden State have held up congressional aid since last year.

Two competing bills would tackle the drought from significantly different angles. A Democrat-crafted measure in the Senate would provide millions of dollars in emergency aid and require federal agencies to increase water supplies whenever possible. A Republican version in the House focuses more on undoing environmental restrictions that would allow more water to be pumped to farms but would cause protections for endangered species and salmon runs to be rolled back.

"We are seeing the failures of this generation to wisely manage our precious water resources and the consequences of these failures in the most painful of ways."

As neither side budges, Central Valley farmers say they're desperate for help.

"The people who live and work in agricultural areas of the [Central] Valley are facing a disaster,” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which provides water to much of the region. "If irrigated agriculture is going to survive this year, it will require close coordination and cooperation among state and federal agencies that exercise authority over water project operations."

The massive Central Valley, which encompasses much of California's central interior, is one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. About 250 crops are grown there, producing about 8 percent of the nation's total agricultural output by value.

The House bill, which was passed largely along partisan lines, would divert water from the San Joaquin River to farms, homes and businesses. Such a move is opposed by the administration, Democrats and environmentalists largely because it would halt a project designed to restore the natural flow of water — and salmon — in the river.

The restoration project has caused decades of fierce battles that have pitted farmers in need of water against groups pushing to bring the river's salmon runs back to historic levels.

"Without substantive changes to burdensome environmental regulations, the well-being of fish will continue to be placed ahead of the well-being of our central and southern California communities that rely on critical water supplies to survive," said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The White House has threatened to veto the House measure, saying it would disrupt decades of work while not doing enough to alleviate the water woes.

California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown called the bill an “unwelcome and divisive intrusion” because it would override state laws and pit water users against each other.

The Senate bill, sponsored by the four Democratic senators from California and Oregon, wouldn't undo any federal or state law as the House version does. Rather, it's designed to streamline efforts to increase water flowing into the Central Valley by calling on authorities to maximize water supplies, reduce project review times and ensure water is directed to users whose need is greatest. The measure would provide $300 million in emergency funds to be used on a range of projects.

California agricultural and water management groups say both bills offer solutions and are pressing for a compromise.

"I believe if reasonable accommodation can be made between the two and merged into a single bill in a bipartisan effort, benefits can be realized by all California water users," said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of Western Growers, which represents California and Arizona farmers.

The situation in the valley has improved slightly in recent weeks. President Obama visited the drought-stricken area in mid-February, when he announced more than $160 million in emergency federal aid, including $100 million from the recently enacted farm bill.

Recent storms also have dumped rain and snow in California.

But agriculture and water management groups say short-term fixes aren't enough.

"This crisis demonstrates the need for workable solutions that address the immediate situation and long-term solution that will prevent these reoccurring droughts," said a statement from the Westlands Water District.

"We are seeing the failures of this generation to wisely manage our precious water resources and the consequences of these failures in the most painful of ways."

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Sean Lengell

Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner