House action needed quickly on California drought

Last week the Senate unanimously passed S2198, a critically needed drought relief bill to aid those suffering in California’s Central Valley and in surrounding communities economically impacted by the enormity of this disaster. Conference with the House should proceed with equal speed to quickly address the state’s historic drought and prevent further economic disruption to workers and families.

The Senate bill, largely the work of California’s respected senior politician and water policy expert Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), is a compromise product representing the interests of industry and environmentalists. The Senate acknowledged this with its unanimous support.

The bill was crafted to represent all stakeholders and to assure consumers of stabile food prices. It will also provide domestic and foreign markets with a clear message of orderly California food supplies despite the severity of the situation and the potential for mayor supply disruptions.

The humanitarian aspects of drought relief to California have not been popularly reported.  The economic uncertainty of the drought has produced unprecedented demand on local food banks, churches and other food assistance programs by workers and farm families.

Unless water is immediately available, California’s economic suffering and unemployment will grow in the absence of crops. Congress must do what it can as quickly as it can to reduce the widespread anxiety over employment, food and water insecurity.

The primary focus of the criticism over the drought legislation has been the tired and over reported debate between agricultural producers and environmentalists. The Senate bill grants no excess privileges to farmers. Both interests share sacrifices necessary to limit the impact of the impending economic and social crises. Workers and consumers will be the winners of a final, responsible and bipartisan drought relief bill.

Congress must also convince our agricultural trading partners swift action is forthcoming to address the water needs of their California suppliers. The Senate sent this important trade signal to world markets last week and House negotiators give indication they similarly understand the need to assure foreign marketers and state importing agencies of our trade commitments.

Failure of Congress to quickly enact drought relief will have national and international implications. Rising food prices will penalize all consumers, especially those working on less than living wages, and increase the demand by the needy for scarce social services.

Disruption of food supplies to importers and as aid to developing economies could damage the U.S. reputation as a stable and responsible supplier to commercial businesses and as a humanitarian supplier to relief agencies in nations experiencing food insecurity.  

In the former case, small businesses could suffer economically and this could set back struggling economies. In the latter case, food aid disruption, seen as unjust to the needy nations, could breed anti-Americanism and result in terrorist actions against international U.S. companies and government agencies. Other foreign policy initiatives could also be complicated.

California agricultural products are demanded worldwide. Similarly, global travelers journey to California for its breathtaking natural resources and its preservation and respect for its environmental attractions.

Senator Feinstein realizes these realities and her bill represents the best outcome for California at this difficult time. It is not a perfect solution. It requires mutual sacrifice. In sum, it provides the relief Californians need.

Patterspn, a longtime Washington diplomat and agricultural economist, is a life member of the American Foreign Service Association and a frequent contributor to the Foreign Service Journal, and served at Embassy Mexico among other international assignments. He writes on trade and technology from his San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices.

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