CALIFORNIA is the top producer of agricultural products in the U.S., churning out more than half of the nation's fruits and vegetables.
However, the state's agriculture industry currently faces a monumental production challenge as it deals with drought, with 2013 being the driest year on record dating back 130 years and marking the third year in a row of drought conditions.
To help, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made available $20 million in funding for agricultural water conservation efforts throughout California as part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
EQIP funds are available statewide to implement a number of conservation practices, including irrigation efficiency, cover crops, rehabilitating existing spring developments, protecting grazing lands and other supporting components, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Funds will be divided between two specific funding pools: cropland and grazing lands. Cropland with a reduced water allocation of at least 85% will receive the highest priority. In order to be considered eligible for EQIP, the applicant must have a vested interest in agricultural production and meet other program eligibility requirements.
Vilsack said the agency has set a deadline of March 3 in order to pump available resources quickly into helping problem areas that need it most. He recommended that producers talk to their local NRCS conservationist about conservation plans and how they can best access these resources.
On a media call with Vilsack, Rep. Jim Costa (D., Cal.) welcomed the funding as a way to try to "mitigate this catastrophe" and called it a "good first step." He said snowpack is currently at 13% of average levels, and reservoirs' carryover water is at just 20% of normal levels.
"For a farmer, every drop of water is precious," Costa said.
A statement from the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) said USDA's announcement builds on the efforts already underway by CDFA to support California's drought response.
CDFA has developed a webpage as an information clearinghouse on assistance programs for farmers, ranchers and farmworkers, is working with federal and state agencies to plan a number of farmer and farmworker forums on assistance programs, will continue to work with California food banks to address drought-related impacts and is working with the University of California to develop a real-time assessment of drought impacts in farming and ranching communities.
Additionally, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. spoke with President Barack Obama earlier regarding federal drought assistance and is working on state legislation that will provide additional support to those affected by the dry conditions.
The House took up a water rights bill last Wednesday, but it was criticized by Democrats for being too partisan and for its potential to actually limit the state's rights to manage its own water.
CDFA secretary Karen Ross and Costa both agreed that it is important to work together on a bipartisan solution to a shared problem that affects many different sectors.