Ag Secretary Vilsack: Obama drought help meant to give aid now

The Fresno BeeFebruary 14, 2014 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed the media outside Fresno Yosemite International Airport Friday morning and repeatedly delivered a single message: The Obama administration's drought-rescue package is about the here and now, not the long-term.

"People need help today," Vilsack said. "We're trying to figure out what we can do."

Vilsack offered his comments before the arrival of President Barack Obama. He is scheduled to land at FYI at 2:30 p.m. and then begin a tour of the Valley's west-side as part of a trip to understand the area's drought.

Vilsack ran through the long list of help. There's $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for California producers. There's $5 million for targeted conservation assistance in California. An estimated 600 summer meal sites will be up and running by summer to offset lost jobs due to the drought. The progress of all sorts of climate-change programs will accelerate.

But Vilsack faithfully parried every question dealing with water supply. There were many such questions. Are the smelt getting too much water? What about more storage capacity in the mountains east of Fresno? Is there 600,000 acre-feet of water sitting somewhere up north that rightfully belongs in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley?

"This is not about long-term solutions," Vilsack said. "How can we get through today?"

In many ways, droughts in the Valley are like the deep, sustained freezes that occur every 15 or 20 years. Freezes can destroy agriculture-based economies as readily as lack of water. The federal government after the Big Freeze of the 1990s pumped millions into the Valley through workforce investment boards to give jobs to farmworkers made idle. Vilsack was asked why the list of Obama benefits does not include similar jobs help for the thousands of Valley workers destined to lose livelihoods if fields go barren.

Vilsack said he's the agriculture secretary, not the labor secretary. He said he'd talk to local labor leaders.

Vilsack also repeatedly mentioned the words "forage" and "livestock" when touting all the help that's coming the Valley's way. The Valley has a strong and valuable cattle industry. But the region didn't become the world's richest farming region by exclusively raising and slaughtering cows. Vilsack was asked if the Obama administration's cash help is focused more on the Valley's west side, made up largely of corporate agriculture, at the expense of the east side with its thousands of smaller family-run farms concentrated for the most part in tree crops.

The Obama help is "also about tree assistance," Vilsack said.

Members of the American Pistachio Growers' board of directors said Friday their view of Obama's drought-aid package can be summed up in one word: Disappointment.

The board, which oversees the trade association, met Friday at The Elbow Room in north Fresno for a luncheon meeting.

"We have to start with long-term solutions," said board member/grower Gary Smith of Fresno. "You can't solve this problem by coming in and throwing money at it. Short-term solutions won't solve the problem."

Board member/grower Larry Lowder of Madera said long-term solutions begin with a single concept: "Storage."

Smith explained the obvious. Pistachio growers plant trees expecting 50 to 100 years of production from them. Those trees need a consistent source of water. A part of the Valley may average 11 inches of rain over the span of a half-century. But that doesn't mean 50 straight years of 11-inch totals, Smith said. That means stretches of 13 inches or more a year and stretches of 7 inches a year or less.

Adequate storage, Smith said, is the only way to even out the supply and bring operational stability not only to the pistachio industry, but to the entire array of Valley ag businesses.

The board members were told of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's ducking and weaving Friday morning whenever a reporter asked questions about long-term water solutions.

"That's all they are about -- short-term," Smith said.

This story will be updated.

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