White House Expands Aid to Drought-Stricken States
By Curtis Tate
The White House expanded drought assistance to California and other western states on Friday with $110 million in new grants to aid farmers and communities.
Officials from seven states, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, participated in an hourlong video conference with President Barack Obama in the White House Situation Room to discuss the drought. About 35 percent of the West is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions.
The new grants from the Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Labor are in addition to the $190 million the Obama administration has pledged so far, Brian Deese, a senior adviser to the president, told reporters on a call following the video conference.
They include $6.5 million for agriculture water conservation, $10 million for wildfire landscape resilience, $10 million for emergency water assistance and $18 million to offset job losses related to the drought.
A "sizable" portion of those resources will go to California, administration officials said, including all of the job assistance.
"We're marshaling every resource we have," said Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior.
The president talked to the governors about the longer-term challenges, including the effects of climate change: hotter summers, more severe weather events and longer wildfire seasons.
Deese said wildfires are squeezing the U.S. Forest Service's budget, forcing the agency to spend money intended to prevent future fires to fight current ones.
Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment at the Department of Agriculture, said the wildfire season is 60 to 80 days longer than it was historically. Wildfire suppression accounted for 16 percent of the Forest Service's budget 20 years ago, Bonnie said, but now it's north of 40 percent.
"We're looking at bigger, more catastrophic fires," he said.
The president's 2015 budget includes provisions that would increase funding for fire suppression and end the need to transfer funds from other programs; "robbing Peter to pay Paul," as Bonnie described it.
The Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis estimated last year that the drought cost the state's agriculture industry $2.2 billion and resulted in the loss of 17,000 jobs.
The Labor Department grants wouldn't support permanent jobs, said Portia Wu, the agency's assistant secretary for Employment and Training. Rather, she said, the funds would provide employment in public agencies and nonprofit groups to 1,000 workers for six months.
The secretary of Agriculture has designated 57 of California's 58 counties as disaster areas, making them eligible for emergency loans. The department estimates that it will provide $1.2 billion to assist livestock producers whose grazing areas have been reduced by the drought.
"We're going to do everything we can at the federal level," Deese said.
(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau