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Feds rush to ease Calif. drought

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 9:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department on Tuesday offered new aid to water-starved California farmers, while lawmakers tussled over competing anti-drought proposals.

Underscoring how California's water crisis has reached a political boil, top federal and state officials jointly announced the relatively modest package of aid that features $20 million for agricultural water conservation efforts. Additional aid for California will be announced by the Forest Service on Thursday.

“This is really designed to pump resources into problem solving,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared. “We expect and anticipate that this is the first of a number of (aid) announcements.”

Accompanied by Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., Vilsack announced the funding for which California farmers can apply. Grants will be provided for projects that could include improving irrigation efficiency, planting cover crops and protecting grazing lands, among other efforts.

“While we're all praying for rain, we can use all the help we can get,” Costa said.

Officials opened the aid taps precisely as the Republican-controlled House prepared to approve on Wednesday an ambitious California water package tailored for Central Valley irrigation districts. The House bill authorizes several new dams, repeals a San Joaquin River restoration program and steers water from fish to farmers.

There's little doubt the House will approve the GOP water bill, introduced by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., and based largely on a controversial bill previously authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. There's also little doubt that key elements will subsequently sink in the Senate, where California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have vigorously denounced the House measure.

California Gov. Jerry Brown opposes the House bill as an “unwelcome and divisive intrusion.” At the same time, the House push has seemed to motivate senators and administration officials to bounce back with alternatives. It did not seem a coincidence that the Agriculture Department aid was announced on the eve of House action.

In a similar happenstance, top state and federal water officials set Wednesday for a Sacramento briefing on drought responses. A Feinstein bill is expected within days.

“You have to act,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said on Tuesday, as if addressing California's senators. “If you don't like the bill we send, then tell us what you do support so we can go to conference and get something done. But stop ignoring a problem.”

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