White House Announces $110 Million For Drought Relief, Wildfire Mitigation

By Tripp Baltz

June 12 — The White House announced more than $110 million in new funding to support farmers, workers and rural communities facing drought and an increased risk of wildfire.

About 35 percent of the U.S. is in severe or extreme drought, Brian Deese, White House senior advisor, said during a June 12 teleconference announcing the funding. Winter snowpack in California is now “virtually at 0 percent,” Deese said.

“Forecasts indicate the drought is likely to deepen in the summer months,” he said. “And under these very dry conditions, the outlook for the fire season will be acute in large parts of the West for the summer months. The president is determined to meet these serious challenges using the resources of the federal government.”

The new funding comes on top of more than $190 million federal agencies have spent so far in 2015 to support drought-stricken communities, Deese said.

Earlier President Barack Obama gave a videoconference briefing to several western governors about what federal agencies are doing to support drought-stricken states. He was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor and Portia Wu, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training.

Deese said Obama and the governors “talked about how the climate is changing, and we are facing hotter summers and more extreme weather, with some areas much drier and at risk of more fires.”

Water Management Projects 

The new funding includes $6.5 million from the Bureau of Reclamation in fiscal year 2015 to support water management improvement projects over the next two years, Connor said.

The grants will be combined with local cost-share contributions, making nearly $30 million available to help alleviate the impacts of the drought on communities and agriculture, he said.

Additionally, the Interior Department announced $10 million for 10 Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Projects designed to lessen the risk from catastrophic wildfire and enhance the protection of critical natural resources and watersheds.

Suppression of fire should treated the same as other natural disasters, Deese said. The White House is seeking the establishment of a funding fix so the Forest Service can fight catastrophic fires without having to use money earmarked for other agency priorities, he said.

He said he is optimistic about the chances for bipartisan support for “funding certainty” that will “allow us to promote reducing fire risk while achieving long-term forest health and resilience.”

Relief for Agricultural Producers 

As part of the new funding, the Agriculture Department will provide an estimated $30 million in relief to farmers in fiscal year 2016, and $42 million in FY 2017 by expanding its Risk Management Agency. This program allows farmers to exclude their exceptionally bad production years from the calculation of their crop insurance coverage, said Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

“In layman's terms, this ensures those agricultural producers can continue to get the benefit from the crop insurance program,” he said.

The department said it estimates it will provide at least $1.2 billion in 2015 to livestock producers facing grazing losses because of drought.

Drought Mitigation Jobs 

Also, the Labor Department will award as much as $18 million to California to provide jobs for workers dislocated by the drought, Wu said. Starting in July, a grant made possible by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will focus on the areas facing the most severe impacts in California, she said. The grant will employ up to 1,000 workers for up to 6 months who are working with public and non-profit agencies to build drought resilience, reduce wildfire risk, and improve water efficiency, she said. It will also support youth in drought-impacted households as well as the long-term unemployed, she said.

Other states that have received a drought emergency declaration and can document drought-impacted job losses will have the option to apply for similar grants, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com