The Obama Administration this week has unveiled its “Sierra Cascade California Headwaters” package that will direct $130 million toward drought relief. Most of the money will support tree thinning, watershed restoration, streambed improvements and other work that the White House believes will assist California in finding its way through four years of financially-crippling drought. Another $13.6 million will be allocated later for ranchers, and $6 million is forthcoming to provide grants to rural communities.
The new support follows the administration’s delivery earlier this year of more than $110 million in grants and other forms of assistance for farmworkers and rural communities. The White House Council on Environmental Quality helped pull together the latest aid package, which included input from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and California’s Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird.
“Producers want to know someone is paying attention,” Vilsack said, “and they like the notion that resources are being directed at specific needs.”
The assistance package, however, does not address endangered species protection, irrigation, water deliveries or other fundamental problems that farmers in the Central Valley consider most troublesome. A study this year conducted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture found that the drought has shrunk the state’s surface water supplies by 8.7 million acre-feet, and that only 6.2 million acre-feet has been made up through increased groundwater pumping. That’s a net loss of about 2.5 million acre-feet of water which has forced farmers to fallow nearly one-half million acres of land.
“Here’s the problem,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-22). “We have a 2 1/2-million acre-foot shortfall … do they have a plan to fix it?”
Legislation is being drafted by House Republicans that could confront these fundamental environmental policies, including operations of the vast federal water storage and delivery system. But after six months into the 114th Congress, the expected GOP California water bill still has not been introduced. However, Nunes expects the legislation to be introduced sometime next week with the goal of House passage in August. He said the legislation will likely include water storage provisions and call for repeal of the controversial San Joaquin River restoration plan.
“We’re really at Armageddon now,” said Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We’re definitely at the end of our rope … the whole state is out of water.”
The so-called “report cards” on how the various water districts are cutting back usage are expected to be released soon. When Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a barren field that is normally covered in snow in April, he demanded a 25-percent cut in urban water use. To comply with the mandate, the State Water Resources Control Board developed reduction targets that each of the state’s more than 400 urban water districts must meet throughout the summer months. Districts that have had high residential water usage were ordered to cut their overall consumption by as much as 36 percent. Districts that have recorded low residential use must cut their usage by as little as 4 percent.
Regulators will begin soon to evaluate compliance in water reduction on both a monthly and a rolling cumulative basis through February 2016. Districts that have demonstrated a failure to meet reduction targets may be fined up to $10,000 per day. The report cards will also show the targets for urban districts statewide, such as revealing how much each district’s actual water usage increased or decreased in April 2015 as compared with April 2014. Although districts will be judged on how much they reduce total water use—which includes commercial, industrial and other sectors—residential use usually makes up the largest share of water consumption in urban areas.