CFBF Seeks Movement on Drought Bills

Taylor Hillman Drought, Water

California drought
A delegation of Farm Bureau leaders from California, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last week, encouraged the U.S. Senate to pass Western drought legislation that can be sent to a conference committee with a bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives.

The delegation, which included county Farm Bureau leaders and the 2016 Leadership Farm Bureau class, visited the nation’s capital at the same time that a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on drought legislation.

“In an election year, people want their representatives to act on matters that affect their livelihoods and the environment around them,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. “Drought has plagued California, and human action has made matters worse by unnecessarily reducing water supplies. It’s time for the Senate to send a drought bill to a conference committee, and for Congress to produce commonsense legislation that helps ease the impact of water shortages in California and the West.”

Farm and ranch leaders in the Farm Bureau delegation advocated for maintaining momentum toward a single, effective compromise bill that can be signed into law.

Tulare County citrus grower Matt Watkins said, “We’ve been trying to get legislation for over two years and we’re in year five of a drought and nothing has changed. We need a Senate bill.”

The amount of water received from this year’s El Niño storms is positive, Watkins added, but he said some San Joaquin Valley farmers still face 95 percent supply reductions and, in his area, supplies have been cut 35 percent.

“There’s still not enough water to farm adequately with that supply,” Watkins said, “so you’re going to have to supplement with groundwater or purchased water. Even in an above-average rainfall year in an El Niño, we are not even at a normal supply.”

During testimony before the subcommittee, Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said federal regulatory agencies “are approaching water management problems the same way today that they did decades ago.”

“Federal agencies cling to a single-species-single-tool approach that has a devastating impact on water supplies for our urban and agricultural economy,” Quinn said, criticizing federal agencies’ interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The ESA did not cause the drought, but the manner in which the ESA has been implemented by the federal government has made the impacts of the drought much worse,” he said. “Too often, ESA regulators impose rules and regulations on water users that have enormous costs but negligible benefits for the environment.”

CFBF federal policy consultant Erin Huston said Farm Bureau and other organizations urged the subcommittee to move to prompt markup of a bill for consideration by the full Senate.

While discussing drought with California congressional representatives, members of the Farm Bureau delegation pointed out that it continues to increase the risk of wildfire, resulting in an urgent need to manage the state’s forests to protect them, as well as water sources and rural communities.

Shaun Crook, a timber operator and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, encouraged passage of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a proposal that allows access to disaster funding for the worst fires, minimizes the impact of fund transfers on routine forest restoration activities and addresses the trend of increased wildfire suppression costs.

“We know that the drought and water issues are the No. 1 priority in all of California. We need the water for agriculture as well as domestic use,” Crook said. “We also have a timber management problem. We have a fuel load in our forests that is unsustainable, and we need to thin those forests and get rid of that extra fuel.”

He said Congress needs to treat wildfires “like a regular disaster like an earthquake, flood or hurricane.”

During their meetings in Washington, Farm Bureau leaders addressed a variety of issues important to farmers and ranchers, including challenges with finding enough seasonal employees and the need for immigration reform that would provide a legal foreign workforce for agriculture. In discussions with House Agriculture Committee staff members about the development of the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers suggested that funding be directed toward helping farmers mechanize more operations.

Farmers also urged passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with 12 Pacific Rim countries that would expand trade opportunities for California agriculture (see related story, U.S. farm exports would gain from TPP, report says).

Farmer Daniel Bays of Westley, who grows almonds, apricots and other crops, said the TPP agreement “would greatly benefit” California growers of nuts and other specialty crops.

“The agreement would eliminate or reduce tariffs on nut crops in several countries, such as Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia, increasing demand for our products overall,” Bays said.

Other key issues discussed by the Farm Bureau delegation included the organization’s opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency “waters of the U.S.” rule, the need for science-based labeling uniformity for genetically engineered products, and addressing the outdated Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president sole authority to designate federal lands as national monuments.

Dairy farmer Tom Barcellos of Tipton said the Farm Bureau delegation was well-received by representatives in Washington.

“We carry a strong message and we have information that backs it up,” Barcellos said. “It’s a function of being visible and keeping it going in the right direction.”

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.