California Drought Relief Bill Passes

Congress has approved a wide-ranging bill to authorize water projects across the country, including more than $500 million to provide relief to drought-stricken California.

The Senate approved the $10 billion bill, 78-21, early Saturday, despite complaints from some Democrats that the drought measure was a giveaway to California farmers and businesses. The vote sends the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The water-projects bill also includes language authorizing aid for Flint, MI and other cities afflicted by lead in water.

The extended drought has been rough for California growers, who have been forced to fallow more than 1 million acres of farmland. It’s estimated that more than 35,000 people have lost their jobs while more than 2,000 wells have gone dry as the water table dropped

One vivid reminder of the drought came just recently, as U.S. Forest Service aerial surveys found more than 100 million trees on federal land have died since 2010.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was one of the bill’s key authors, but found herself urging senators to vote no because of a last-minute rider that Boxer said puts the interests of big farms over the fishing industry.

Boxer, the senior Democrat on the Senate environment panel, is retiring after 24 years in the Senate and said she never imagined she’d end her career trying to scuttle her own bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., disputed Boxer’s claim that the bill would have a negative effect on fish and the environment. The measure merely requires state and federal agencies to use the best available science to control water flows to protect fish while ensuring water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California, she said.

“After three years and dozens of versions of legislation, I think this is the best we can do,” Feinstein told The Associated Press.

Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif applauded Feinstein for standing firm against criticism from her longtime ally.

“For the past several years, Californians have looked to Congress to help bring relief to drought-stricken communities up and down the state,” he said “We are thankful to Senator Feinstein and senators from across the country who have remained diligent – in spite of intense political pressures – in their efforts to produce bipartisan legislation that provides temporary improvements to the operations of the Delta pumping plants while maintaining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, as well as laying the foundation for long-term investments in the state.”

Nassif added the bill is only an important first step toward restoring California’s outdated water system.

“The focus now shifts to the White House. As President Obama considers the merits of (the bill), we point to the overwhelming support demonstrated by the House vote, including California representatives on both sides of the aisle and in all geographic regions, including the Delta,” he said. “We urge the President to quickly sign this bill into law as too much time and water has already been wasted. Any further delay will only sentence Californians to another year of hardship if the runoff from upcoming winter rains cannot be judiciously diverted to storage.”

California Fresh Fruit Association President George Radanovich said the passage of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) was a significant step forward and long overdue. He too applauded Feinstein, as well as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of Congress who have put in so much effort.

“While the measure passed last week will not fix all of California’s water problems, it will give water managers much needed operational flexibility to expedite water transfers, update the science being used to make valuable water flow decisions and authorize much needed funding to expand water storage throughout California,” he said. “We hope this is a sign of good things to come.”

Radanovich concluded: “We understand the difficulty in bringing people together, finding solutions and knowing when this is the best that can be done. We appreciate what was accomplished last week and look at it as a first step. However, we must continue the effort to strengthen California’s water security so that the growers that we represent can continue to produce the best and most nutritious fresh fruit in the world.”

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