(NaturalNews) The worst drought in at least a century threatens to reduce California's agricultural industry to ruin, possibly creating a new Dust Bowl.
According to the White House's top science and technology adviser, the western United States is suffering from the worst dry spell in 500 years. The drought's effect on California in particular has national implications: California is the top farming state in the United States, producing one-third of the country's fruits and vegetables.
California is suffering from its worst drought in at least 100 years, which Governor Jerry Brown has called an "unprecedented" emergency. Statewide, agriculture is a $44.7 billion business. In the Central Valley, California's agricultural heartland, almost 40 percent of all jobs are agriculture-related.
"It's really a crisis situation," said Kenneth McDonald, city manager of Firebaugh, a Central Valley city. "And it's going to get worse in time if this drought doesn't alleviate."
If the state's agricultural industry fails, cities like Firebaugh may end up as ghost towns, McDonald warned.
"It's going to be a slow, painful process -- but it could happen," McDonald said. "It's not going to be one big tsunami where you're gonna having something get wiped out in one big wave. It's gonna be a slow, painful, agonizing death."
A national problem
Federal agricultural officials have designated disaster areas in 11 separate states, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah, particularly noting the economic strain that the drought has placed on agricultural workers. In an attempt to mitigate this strain, President Obama has announced a $15 million assistance plan for farmers and ranchers in California and the Southwest to implement water conservation.
"The truth of the matter is that this is going to be a very challenging situation this year, and frankly, the trend lines are such where it's going to be a challenging situation for some time to come," Obama said.
As part of the $956 million farm bill, Congress has allocated $100 million in livestock-disaster aid to California ranchers. Another $60 million will be allocated to areas of the state most affected by the drought and to food banks serving drought-affected communities. In a visit to the Central Valley, Obama also announced measures designed to reduce water usage by federal facilities in California, including a moratorium on new non-essential landscaping projects.
In the same visit, Obama also announced a plan to ask Congress for a $1 billion "climate resilience fund" to help communities cope with a changing climate. However, analysts predict that passing such a bill will be an uphill battle, due to Republican reluctance to approve increased spending, or any bill implying that global warming is an undisputed reality.
Indeed, the drought and its effects have generated a number of political controversies on both the state and federal levels. In California, politicians, the media and farming groups are promoting a narrative that pits farmers against environmental protections. The House of Representatives recently embraced this narrative, voting to roll back environmental laws and to halt restoration of the dried-up San Joaquin river in order to restore salmon populations. The bill is opposed by Democrats and environmental advocates, who warn that the bill would not actually alleviate water shortages but do severe environmental harm. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.
In response to the House bill, California's senators have teamed up with Senate Democrats to propose an alternative bill. This bill would designate $300 million for emergency drought relief, water conservation, upgrading municipal water systems and accelerated environmental review of water projects.