CQ Roll Call: Feinstein Struggles to Move Drought Aid

  • by BPC Staff
  • on April 28, 2014

April 28, 2014 – 7:59 a.m.

Feinstein Struggles to Move Drought Aid

By Philip Brasher, CQ Roll Call

Supermarket shoppers could be feeling the impact of California’s severe drought into 2015 and beyond, but getting congressional assistance to the state’s farmers  is proving as hard as finding spare water in the San Joaquin Valley.

CQ Roll Call

Sen. Dianne Feinstein , D-Calif., has scaled back a disaster aid package ( S 2016 ) sought by farmers and communities in her state but has so far been unable to muster the necessary support to overcome a possible Republican filibuster. A Feinstein spokesman, Tom Mentzer, said the senator “continues to talk with Republicans” and believes she’ll get the necessary 60 votes, but some farm lobbyists aren’t so sure.

As of March, farms accounting for more than half of California’s $44 billion in annual agricultural production were experiencing exceptional drought, the most severe rating, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.  Another one-third were in extreme drought.

Officials with the American Farm Bureau Federation say senators from other regions, including the Plains, are going to demand that the bill include benefits for growers in their states. Among other things, the Feinstein bill seeks to accelerate environmental decisions that may be slowing water deliveries.

“If we’re going to do something for California, we’re going to do something for the high Plains,” and then the bill “starts to mushroom into the prototypical ad hoc disaster program,” said Dale Moore, a Farm Bureau lobbyist.

Feinstein’s original bill would have provided $300 million in emergency assistance, but a revised version dropped all direct spending while expanding other forms of assistance to more states. For example, the revisions would make other drought states eligible for emergency environmental reviews.

Even if it passes in the Senate, the bill’s prospects in the Republican-controlled House are uncertain. 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.

It doesn’t help Feinstein make her case that shoppers aren’t seeing the impact of the drought yet on food prices. The biggest effect so far has been on the price of japonica rice, a variety grown in California and used in Japanese and Korean foods, said Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California at Davis. California farmers are expected to slash their rice acreage this year.

Prices for some crops like lettuce and broccoli probably won’t be affected at all because they’re grown in areas that aren’t being hurt by the drought, Sumner said.

USDA economists continue to predict food inflation at normal levels this year, about 2.5 to 3.5 percent. But they warned Friday in their monthly forecast that the “ongoing drought in California could potentially have large and lasting effects on fruit, vegetable, dairy, and egg prices, and the drought in Texas could drive beef prices up even further.”

The pressure on prices could continue into 2015 and beyond, depending on how many desperate farmers deplete precious groundwater supplies just to make it through this year, economists say. Farmers frequently resort to pumping water from wells when they can’t get it from state or federal water supplies. California’s State Water Project announced that it would not be delivering any water this year and the Federal Central Valley Project is severely constrained.

“Be very concerned about 2015,” said Sumner.  “It is impossible to get the ground water recharge needed in the short term, so unless next year is normal or better we are in bigger problems.”

About 8 million acres of California farmland is irrigated. Some 3.2 million is irrigated from off-farm surface water supplies, and as much as a million of that probably has no groundwater available, according to USDA economists.

In a normal year, roughly 30 percent of the state’s water comes from groundwater, with roughly 80 percent going to agriculture and 20 percent to urban areas.  This year, groundwater use will surge to about 60 percent.  “There’s no living in California without groundwater,” said Thomas Harter, a hydrologist with UC-Davis. “Groundwater is basically our insurance so we can deal with the variability of our climate.”

During three recent droughts, the state’s legislature passed bills related to groundwater management, and will likely take another serious look this year.  But because surface water recharges groundwater, federal policy plays a role.

The Endangered Species Act has long been a major thorn for farmers in the Central Valley because of limits the environmental protections impose on water flowing from the north. Farmers have to rely more on groundwater, and some wells drilled in the 1960s are no longer deep enough, Harter said. “Senator Feinstein’s bill is about: How do we make more surface water available in the short turn and how can we deal with the delta issue?  We’ve talked about this for 30 years. How can we get water moving through the delta, in a way that protects the environment and gets water movin?” he said.