Emergency Drought Funding: Not A Sustainable Option for California

18 December 2014


Read Intern Briefing as PDF

December 17, 2014

Kira Lou, Food and Climate Policy Research Intern

As the end of 2014 approaches, California is finishing out its third year in a row of drought—and one of the worst droughts the state has seen in recent history at that. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of mid-November 80% of California was designated as experiencing “extreme” drought,[i] causing a water shortage that has led to debilitating effects that California must now try to address. In particular, surface water availability has been decreasing, forcing many farmers and communities to turn to pumping groundwater through wells from underground aquifers. Significant impacts of these very dry conditions have included drinking water scarcity, increased numbers of wildfires, and threatened agricultural production. California’s Central Valley alone provides the nation with 25% of its food.[ii] These crops need consistent sources of water to remain in production, and farmers need consistent sources of water to remain in business and maintain their livelihoods.Untitled

While certain regions, businesses and communities are impacted more directly by the drought than others, the drought’s effects are diffusing across the state. One analysis predicted that in 2014 alone, California has suffered a net water shortage of 1.5 million acre-feet, a total economic loss of $2.2 billion, and 17,000 lost jobs due to the drought[iii]. In 2014 the state of California has seen an influx of emergency funding and drought relief packages, but it remains to be seen how sustainable and effective these emergency funds will be, as drought conditions continue and increasingly become the new normal. Ultimately our policymakers at all levels need to establish and implement long term policy changes and funding shifts that prioritize our communities and localized solutions to mitigate and adapt to the drought.

Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency in response to the drought on January 17, 2014,[iv] but extreme effects of the drought were felt much earlier than that in California. The declaration came at a time when an ongoing wildfire had burned more than 1,800 acres in Glendora, CA, and the state’s overall snowpack was at 20% of normal levels. Governor Brown referred to this State of Emergency as a “call to arms,” and challenged California residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20%. Brown’s proclamation of a State of Emergency also reportedly came out of several weeks of pressure from both policymakers and the public to take action against the drought[v]. His recognition—and by default the state’s recognition—of the severity of the drought undoubtedly increased statewide and national awareness about the historically dry conditions in California. The declaration of this State of Emergency opened the door for proposed solutions to the drought in the following months, and gave the state the opportunity to seek support from the federal government.

Throughout the drought, farmers, farm workers and agriculture producers in California have been hit particularly hard, with lands turning fallow and herds liquidated. Approximately one fourth of rice fields went fallow in 2014, which reduced farm output significantly and left many farmers at a loss. One rice farm in Sutter County was forced to leave a third of its entire operation out of production due to lack of water resources[vi]. Fruit and nut producers are also feeling the effects of drought. An 11,000-acre farm operation in the Central Valley predicted that one fifth of that land would lie fallow through the drought, resulting in a significant cut from the multimillion-dollar operation[vii]. For ranchers who rely on their livestock for business, the drought has caused a lack of water but also a lack of forageable food for their herds. One rancher located east of Fresno had to reduce his herd by 35% due to a year of poor grass production[viii]. A farmer in Alameda County had to liquidate about half of his herd[ix]. These losses have an immediate effect on ranchers’ business, and recovery to rebuild herds and regain profit is a long process. Cases like these are not uncommon in times of drought, but the cases have been increasingly dire. For both farmers and ranchers, emergency funds have been helpful but not comprehensive in providing relief from the drought.

In February of 2014, the USDA and President Obama announced emergency federal funding for drought relief in California. The USDA made an initial $200 million available to farmers, ranchers and residents, half of which were accelerated funds from the 2014 Farm Bill intended for livestock disaster assistance[x]. This left the rest of farmers, who produce things like nuts, fruits, and vegetables (known federally as “specialty crops) in a hazy situation. These fruit and vegetable producers may have been eligible to receive some of the $5 million that came from these emergency funds that was targeted for conservation assistance, though the intended distribution of these funds was uncertain. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also claimed that the “aid program is not limited to livestock.”[xi] This ambiguous messaging about allocation of funds has left the options for fruit and vegetable growers unclear. But even with the emergency funds for livestock assistance, for some cattle ranchers the help might just “delay the inevitable,”[xii] which is liquidation of their herds.

Beyond farming, the drought has had significant impacts on the livelihoods of California communities and their residents. It has been hardest on rural towns such as those in the Central Valley region, which largely depend on wells for drinking water as well as kitchen and bathroom needs. In Tulare County, many residents had no running tap water from May 2014 through the summer and into fall. Some have been able to get a limited supply from local firehouses, charities that donate water tanks, or neighbors that may still have running water. Living on restricted resources has also caused a shift in food consumption from fruits and vegetables to canned foods, since there is not enough water to spare for washing fresh produce[xiii]. On July 18, 2014 Secretary Vilsack met with CFJC and others at the Farmersville Community Center in Farmersville, CA to announce the USDA was providing $9.7 million in July of 2014 specifically to rural Californians to alleviate some of these effects. The funds were directed toward 73,000 residents in 11 specific counties, including Tulare County, which have experienced sharp declines in drinking water quality and quantity since the drought began[xiv].

Untitled1Emergency funds have come in waves, from the USDA and President Obama as well as the state of California. In March of 2014, California legislators passed Senate Bills 103 and 104, which provided $687.4 million for an array of drought relief activities. The majority of this funding came through borrowed money, which was previously approved by California voters. The majority of this money was also directed towards existing local or regional projects that address water conservation and groundwater management[xv].

Significant portions of both state and national funds ($60 million from the USDA[xvi] and $25 million from SB 103 and 104[xvii]) were designated for foods banks. This funding was made available in anticipation of farmers going out of business and workers becoming unemployed, and thus in need of more food for themselves and their families. While this may solve immediate issues of food insecurity for certain individuals, providing additional money to food banks is a downstream solution and is not sustainable for alleviating long term impacts of the drought, which are inevitable. Furthermore, emergency funds have neglected to provide help for certain farming communities, including minority farmers and small farming operations.

Several barriers exist that many minority and small farmers have struggled to overcome since the drought began. With increasingly low groundwater levels, shallow well pumps that may have been sufficient in the past no longer reach water and are coming up dry, leaving farms with few options. One is to hire a company to drill new wells, but that is often times too costly for small farmers and even if they could afford it, waiting lists stretch from 6 months to a year. Micro loans of up to $35,000 are available from USDA funding, but processing time for the loans takes at least 30 days plus the time it takes to get off a waiting list for a new well and pump[xviii]. Furthermore, the funding for subsidized federal crop insurance is favors mono-crop farms growing commodity crops, leaving small farms without much help even with the increased emergency funds from government[xix].

 California’s population is becoming more and more diverse, and this diversity has permeated through the agriculture and farming business[xx]. Minority farmers are generally engaged with small farms, and thus subject to the difficulties previously described[xxi]. However, minority farmers can experience an additional set of challenges when it comes to the drought and obtaining aid. While loans and other funding opportunities from the USDA are available, an information gap exists for minority farmers. Obstacles can be cultural, where language might be an issue in understanding government programs, or technical, where farmers may lack the necessary records or documentation to receive funds[xxii]. Continued efforts of outreach are critical in order for the funding that is available to reach these farmers.Untitled2

Governor Brown’s declaration of California’s drought and the subsequent funding on the state and national level have been steps in the right direction for creating a sense of urgency about the drought. However, the emergency funds that the government has provided will not be sustainable for California moving forward. The emergency funds, while welcomed by communities and farmers, should not be considered a quick fix for the multitude of problems brought on by the lack of rainfall. Even as California has seen record levels of rainfall in early December 2014, the drought remains far from over. The recent storms have even been more damaging to farms, with heavy rainfall destroying the few crops they have been able to grow. The government’s support may allow farms to stay in business and barely get by during these tough times, but the funds do not address the root of the problem. Short-term policy and funding revisions are downstream solutions that are increasing in frequency from policymakers in this country. A lack of commitment from policymakers to long-term changes inherently leads to a lack of long-term, sustainable plans to address the drought. Without the programs to create and implement long-term solutions, the government will continue to fund downstream solutions like increasing supplies for food banks and drilling more wells, depleting the groundwater. In addition, the emergency funding has failed to provide the necessary support for small and minority farmers. While this issue was largely left out of this paper, it needs to be part of the dialogue of solutions to the drought as we build discussion for an equitable future.


[i]“United States Drought Monitor > Home > State Drought Monitor,” accessed December 18, 2014, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA.

[ii]Lesley Stahl, “Depleting the Water,” November 16, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/depleting-the-water/.

[iii]Ellen Hanak et al., “Paying for Water in California (PPIC Publication),” March 2014, http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=1086.

[iv]“Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. – Newsroom,” January 17, 2014, http://gov.ca.gov/news.php?id=18368.

[v]Bill Chappell, “California’s Governor Declares Drought State Of Emergency,” NPR.org, January 17, 2014, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/17/263529525/california-s-governor-declares-drought-state-of-emergency.

[vi]Dale Kasler, “California Harvest Much Smaller than Normal across Crops,” Sacbee, September 28, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/news/business/article2613416.html.

[vii]N. P. R. Staff, “California’s Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools,” NPR.org, April 20, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/04/20/304173037/californias-drought-ripples-through-businesses-and-even-schools.

[viii]Ching Lee, “Poor Grass Production Hurts Cattle Ranchers,” July 10, 2013, http://www.agalert.com/story/?id=5724.

[ix]Michael Kuhne, “California Rancher: Worst Drought in a Lifetime Forces Slaughter, Sale of Cattle,” AccuWeather, May 10, 2014, http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/cattle-ranchers-forced-to-cull/26595624.

[x]“Obama Administration Announces Additional Assistance to Californians Impacted by Drought,” accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/2014/002214.

[xi]“Federal Drought Aid Targets California Ranchers,” Www.proag.com, February 19, 2014, http://www.proag.com/News/Federal-Drought-Aid-Targets-California-Ranchers-2014-02-19/1791.

[xii]Keith Carls, “Cattle Ranchers Getting Federal Drought Relief,” KEYT, February 17, 2014, http://www.keyt.com/news/cattle-ranchers-getting-federal-drought-relief/24527718.

[xiii]Jennifer Medina, “With Dry Taps and Toilets, California Drought Turns Desperate,” The New York Times, October 2, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/03/us/california-drought-tulare-county.html.

[xiv]“USDA Provides Aid to 73,000 Rural Californians Impacted by Drought | USDA Newsroom,” July 18, 2014, http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2014/07/0152.xml&navid=NEWS_RELEASE&navtype=RT&parentnav=LATEST_RELEASES&edeployment_action=retrievecontent.

[xv]Katie Orr and Amy Quinton, “$600 Million Drought Legislation Passes,” KPBS Public Media, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/feb/28/600-million-drought-legislation-passes/.

[xvi]“Obama Administration Announces Additional Assistance to Californians Impacted by Drought.”

[xvii]Orr and Quinton, “$600 Million Drought Legislation Passes.”

[xviii]Robert Rodriguez, “Drought Drying up Small Central Valley Farmers’ Future | Agriculture | FresnoBee.com,” accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/19/4032162_drought-drying-up-small-farmers.html?rh=1.

[xix]Willy Blackmore, “California’s New, Official Drought Emergency Is Old News for Farmers,” TakePart, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/01/23/california-drought-and-small-farmers.

[xx]“2012 Census Drilldown: Minority & Women Farmers | National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition,” accessed December 18, 2014, http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/census-drilldown-sda/.

[xxi]Camille Tuason Mata, Marginalizing Access to the Sustainable Food System: An Examination of Oakland’s Minority Districts (University Press of America, 2013).

[xxii]“Latino Times | Drought Brings Hard Times to California Ethnic Farmers,” accessed December 18, 2014, http://latinotimes.org/2014/02/07/drought-brings-hard-times-to-california-ethnic-farmers/.

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