Commentary: Congress must agree on California drought legislation
By Rayne Pegg
Congress will meet for only two weeks during September—its last session before the November election—and Farm Bureau says it will press for action on California drought legislation.
Two weeks: That's how long Congress will meet between now and Election Day. That short session starts next week, and it's paramount for the House and Senate to reach agreement on federal drought legislation.
The House of Representatives passed its version of drought-relief legislation in February. The Senate followed suit in May. Since that time, leaders from both houses of Congress have been working to reconcile the two versions, to present a package that can win approval.
The stakes couldn't be higher:
- California faces the worst drought in a generation.
- Continuing restrictions on surface water diversion, storage and delivery during this critically dry year leave California farms and ranches short of the water needed to produce the food on which our state and nation depends.
- After years of rigid water restrictions focused single-mindedly on saving the delta smelt and salmon, fish populations are not improving.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature has approved a rewritten water bond that promises to make the greatest investment in new surface storage in more than 30 years—but has also been discussing groundwater legislation that threatens to restrict farmers' access to groundwater as a fallback option when surface supplies are constricted.
Simply put, the House and Senate must reach agreement on a drought bill this month.
California needs federal drought legislation to improve management of our water supply and provide protection for both endangered species and family farms. That legislation must take into account the importance of producing food in California and how our farms and ranches benefit the state, nation and world.
The federal government must do everything in its power to assist in the development of viable surface storage and groundwater options in California, as the state's voters consider the water bond and its significant commitment to storage.
House and Senate leaders from California must also be sure their colleagues from other states recognize the impact the drought and water shortages have had, particularly on rural communities: an estimated 480,000 acres of land left idle; some 17,100 jobs lost; an estimated $2.2 billion in economic losses to the farm economy alone.
Elected officials from other parts of the nation may not think the California drought affects them or their constituents, but few places in the world have the combination of climate, soil, knowledge and experience that California provides. That makes it possible for people throughout the nation to have fresh, American-grown fruits and vegetables all year long.
To be sure, there are other issues that the California Farm Bureau will be raising with Congress when members return from their summer break. We continue to seek support for a bill that would provide more reliable funding for federal wildfire-prevention efforts, and we will maintain the pressure on Congress to take action on immigration reform.
But in this short, two-week September session, it's clear that California drought legislation must be a high priority. If Congress cannot pass a drought bill this month, it will fail to tackle a difficult issue facing California and, crucially, will set the stage for more desperately needed water to flow to the ocean this winter while our reservoirs remain seriously depleted.
Farm Bureau will be engaged with California congressional leaders in working to finalize the drought bill. Be ready for FARM TEAM alerts as the September congressional session progresses, and be sure to contact your representative to urge meaningful action to address drought and water shortages in California.
(Rayne Pegg is manager of the California Farm Bureau Federal Policy Division. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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