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California ag groups respond to introduction of drought relief bill in U.S. Senate

Six days after the Feb. 5 passage of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act by the U.S. House of Representatives, California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein introduced in the Senate a bill called the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014, with a very different vision for addressing California's severe water shortage.

Unlike the House bill, which proposes modifications to federal legislation restricting the availability of water to farms and cities of Central California and Southern California, the Senate bill would provide $300 million in emergency drought-relief funding and mandate that state and federal agencies act expeditiously to minimize reductions of water deliveries by being as flexible as current laws allow.

Several California agricultural groups have endorsed the proposed Senate legislation which, as of Feb. 12, was in committee.

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers Association, said in a written statement Feb. 11, "The state of California is facing potentially devastating drought conditions, and Western Growers' members and other producers across the state welcome the introduction" of the Senate bill.

The act will provide "congressional direction to federal agencies responsible for implementing federal regulations affecting operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project," Nassif said. "The legislation mandates that for the duration of the current drought emergencies, these agencies act with a sense of urgency and be as flexible as the law allows in order to minimize water supply reductions resulting from the application of those regulations. If enacted, these changes would provide assistance to water users and our farmers who face critical shortages."

Nassif expressed hope that the bill "will be promptly taken up and passed in the Senate so it can move quickly to a conference with the House bill passed last week. 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."

The Westlands Water District, which provides water to much of the drought-stricken farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, issued a statement Feb. 11 urging passage of the Senate legislation.

"Notwithstanding the rainfall and snow California has enjoyed over the last week, the state is facing unprecedented drought conditions," the statement said. "Water supply reductions resulting from these extraordinary dry conditions have been exacerbated by the implementation in prior years of regulations imposed under federal law [on the CVP and SWP]. The legislation introduced today would provide much-needed relief for the public water agencies that receive water from these projects and for the people, farms and businesses they serve."

The California Farm Bureau Federation also urged the senate to pass the bill, stating that the legislation "will increase the availability of water for farmers and other water users, as well as provide immediate drought relief for livestock ranchers."

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League in Fresno, CA, told The Produce News Feb. 12 that his organization has not taken an official position on the proposed Senate bill.

However, he said, "I think it absolutely is a positive step." The organizations that have expressed support "hope something gets passed by the Senate that can be conferenced with [the House bill] so that something gets done. These bodies are so different, you just hope they can produce something that they can get to negations in conference."

All parties recognize that "we have a very, very serious problem," Bedwell said. "We eventually have to realize ... that what we are seeing now is in large part due to the inaction that we have experienced over the last four decades," during which time the state's population has doubled while no additional water storage has been built and water available to agriculture has been reduced by environmental regulations.

"The idea for $300 million for emergency drought relief, good," he said. "The idea to create flexibility to be able to pump as much water south as possible" under current law.

But "at some point we have to address [some] hard questions, and that will include the Endangered Species Act. It will include building more dams."

How much the Senate bill would actually increase water deliveries to drought-stricken farms and cities in California is "a tough one to really evaluate," Bedwell said. "I think in the short term we have to focus on getting something passed as soon as possible in the Senate" to see what can be done "in terms of a compromise" with the House bill."

There remains "a basic divide in terms of philosophy" between the two, he said.