With some 35 percent of the West in severe to exceptional drought and little relief in sight, the White House has moved to help ameliorate the effects. Farmers and rural communities harmed in the drought will be eligible to apply for $110 million in aid from a variety of government programs.
Besides the obvious needs of water for crops and municipalities, the parched region is also facing a potentially disastrous fire season. The California drought – now in its fourth year – is so serious the State Water Resources Control Board has announced it is chopping historical water rights held by some farmers, communities, and companies for more than a century.
Following the board’s action, Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said “As the water-rights system responds to shortage in this extraordinary year, we must pursue long-term efforts to reduce the underlying scarcity that plagues us. … California must remove obstacles to development of new water storage and pursue new supplies through recycling, desalination and other technologies. The spreading shortages from the current drought only underline the need to move swiftly.”
As for USDA assistance to drought-stricken farmers “in the short-term, we have a number of programs we can utilize to assist producers as they deal with drought,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary, during a June 12 press call. “The FSA’s Livestock Forage Program is particularly important to help livestock producers who’ve had significant losses due to drought. Over the last three years, we’ve paid out over $4 billion. In 2015, we’re expecting there will be significant claims under that program, as well.
“We’re also, on the conservation side, dedicating $21 million through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to help landowners, farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, adopt water conservation practices, prescribed grazing and other things that will help them deal with drought.”
The rural development side of USDA is making $10 million available to help small rural communities having problems with their water systems as a result of drought.
Bonnie also announced that the Risk Management Agency has increased options under its crop insurance program to help crop producers who may be impacted by drought, providing an estimated $30 million in additional relief to farmers in 2016, and $42 million in 2017. The action, “will ensure that bad production years where they’re (hurt) by drought won’t affect their ability to get insurance coverage in the future.”
Longer-term, Bonnie said the USDA is dedicating “sizable portions of our conservation resources under the farm bill to help landowners deal with impacts of drought. We recently announced about $370 million through our Regional Conservation Partnership Program. We estimate about $84 million of that will help landowners deal with drought, soil health, water conservation and a variety of practices. We’re focusing heavily on soil health across the United States.”
Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, said the department is “marshalling every resource we have to provide meaningful relief. That starts with the operation of our federal facilities. … We have a large amount of infrastructure out West and we operate those facilities (in a manner) to maximize (water supplies) while being in (water use) compliance and protecting the environment.”
Regarding the wildfire season, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has recently been talking up the need to ramp up funding for firefighting and improving the health of the nation’s forestlands. Not coincidentally, the House Agriculture Committee passed the “Resilient Federal Forests Act” on June 17.
“The Resilient Federal Forests Act will give the Forest Service more authority and much needed flexibility to deal with the challenges of process, funding, litigation, necessary timber harvesting and much needed management,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson, chairman of the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee. “This legislation incentivizes rewards and collaboration with the private sector for management activities, while allowing for state and third party funding of projects. Furthermore, in order to reduce unnecessary process and improve agency efficiency, this act will provide the Forest Service new categorical exclusion authorities for commonsense projects."
The bill, said Texas Rep. Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, “will expedite forest management activities in the National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management to promote healthy, resilient forests and prevent wildfires. With one-quarter of the 193 million acre National Forest System considered at risk for wildfires, we have to ensure that the necessary tools are available to keep our national forests healthy and thriving.”
Bonnie explained in more detail the stress the firefighting system is under. “We’ve had some spring rains, which have been helpful, but we expect an above-average fire season, particularly in California and the Pacific Northwest as we move into August and September.
“Every year, we estimate what the fire season will cost the Forest Service and the Department of Interior. For the Forest Service, we expect we could spend as much as $200 million than we’ve allocated for suppression.”
There are “substantial challenges” related to the fire budget. “Our fire seasons now are about 60 to 80 days longer than they were three decades ago. The number of acres we’re burning has about doubled over the same time frame. We’re looking at bigger and more catastrophic fires.”
In 1995, the Forest Service spent about 16 percent of its total budget fighting fire. “Today, it’s north of 40 percent and if you include other expenses on fire, it’s more than 50 percent.
“In most years, even with those expenditures, we have to borrow additional dollars from the non-fire side of the Forest Service in order to pay for fighting fire. Of course, we’ll always do what we can to fight fire. We’ve got 14,000 firefighters across the Forest Service and Department of Interior, 150 helicopters, up to 21 large air-tankers and lots of other assets we’re ready to deploy.”
Since 1998, the Forest Service staff has been reduced by about 39 percent as a result of the slow shifting of resources away from non-fire parts of the agency, said Bonnie. “That’s why it’s so critical for Congress to address this issue.”