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February 06, 2014 |
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USDA Offers $20 Million in Drought Aid to California

Aimed at areas that have lost at least 85% of their irrigation allotments

Feb. 05--The federal drought aid announced Tuesday could bring drinking water to some beef cattle, improved irrigation systems for some farmers and soil erosion controls for those who will not grow a crop this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing $20 million to California, a small fraction of the federal aid that could come if the drought does not ease.

Part of the money is aimed at areas that have lost at least 85 percent of their irrigation allotments. They include parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, where many farmers expect zero water from the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project this year.

"We in California are facing a disaster that has a potential to devastate our economy and force many of my constituents out of work," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, whose district includes Merced County. He took part in a telephone news conference Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Karen Ross, food and agriculture secretary for California.

The drought, now in its third year, threatens to reverse the growth in California's gross farm income, which Ross' staff estimated at $44.7 billion in 2012. The county figures included $3.28 billion each for Merced and Stanislaus and $2.87 billion for San Joaquin.

The $20 million in new federal aid will not do much on its own, but it can be supplemented by other government sources, agricultural lenders and the bank accounts of farmers, who generally have done well in recent years.

The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service will take applications for the new money until March 3. Information is at www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov.

Farmers can use some of the money to make their irrigation systems more efficient, such as installing drip lines or micro-sprinklers to direct water to plants' roots. They already are widely used but could help selected farmers stretch this year's supplies.

The drought has hit especially hard at beef producers who rely on rain in the nonirrigated rangelands flanking the Valley. The aid package includes drilling wells to provide cattle with drinking water that usually comes from springs or storm runoff.

These would not be large wells that stress the region's groundwater, said John Harrington, state conservation engineer at the NRCS office in Davis. "This is like drinking water for a house; it's very minor," he said.

Another effort, protecting fallowed cropland, harks back to the NRCS's origin as the Soil Conservation Service in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Farmers can get help with planting lower-water-using crops, such as barley, that will not produce marketable food but can keep the dirt from blowing away. The work can prevent air pollution while keeping the soil structure in place for the next crop.

The NRCS also can help with mulching bare soil or tilling it in a way that makes it less vulnerable to erosion, said Anita Brown, public affairs director for California.

County agricultural commissioners and other experts will gather data on lost income and other effects of the drought for use in future appeals for federal aid.

"Everything that happens in this drought is going to ripple through the economy if it doesn't rain," said Milton O'Haire, commissioner for Stanislaus County, at Monday's meeting of its agricultural advisory committee.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

Copyright 2014 - The Modesto Bee

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