WASHINGTON — The easiest part of the Obama administration’s response to the California drought is now over.
The White House has provided money, commitments and a presidential visit. But the money is limited, the president is moving on, and the commitments will soon be tested on Capitol Hill and deep within the federal bureaucracies.
“How serious are they?” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) asked in an interview Friday. “I don’t think the White House has really been engaged with this so far.”
Abiding by Politics 101, President Barack Obama brought to the San Joaquin Valley on Friday what pros call “deliverables.” He announced new aid, including conservation grants, livestock producer assistance, and funds for water-short rural communities. He pledged flexibility in federal water management decisions to maximize deliveries to farmers. He put his prestige on the line, a definite signal to administration underlings.
The coming weeks and months will test the administration’s staying power on multiple California drought fronts. These include:
-Legislation. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a California water bill that authorizes new dams, lengthens irrigation contracts and repeals a San Joaquin River restoration program and replaces it with something less ambitious. California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have authored a competing bill. It’s unclear what role the administration will play in guiding a compromise.
-Regulation. Obama’s demand that Interior Department water managers use flexibility in operating the vast Central Valley Project leaves unanswered what this means for water deliveries. Environmental activists fear the president’s commitment will pressure agency scientists and regulators to shortchange species and habitat protection. Farmers fear the promised flexibility will turn to mush.
-Administration. The new Agriculture Department aid includes an estimated $100 million for livestock producers, with the money provided from a newly signed farm bill. Under the last farm bill, officials took more than a year to get livestock aid into the hands of needy ranchers. Officials insist they will now cut that time by 80 percent, an efficiency goal that will test agency managers.
Getting large bureaucracies to move nimbly could prove the first test.
“Historically, this has taken months and months and months to do,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged, citing past livestock aid programs.
This time, Vilsack pledged the signup for livestock producer assistance will start in April. Speed, though, could also render the agency vulnerable. A prior drought-related livestock aid program in the Midwest was “left open to waste (and) misuse,” the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General reported in 2005.
Simply understanding California’s complicated water scene will be another challenge. In a conference call with reporters Thursday, both Vilsack and White House science adviser John Holdren said they were unfamiliar with California’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The proposed $25 billion program has long been at the center of debate over the state’s water future.