WATER

Federal drought 'disaster' declared in 50 Calif. counties

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Obama administration late yesterday declared 50 of California's 58 counties federal drought disaster areas.

The declaration, from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, means hard-hit farmers suffering from three straight years of drought will be eligible for emergency loans. Of the counties eligible, 21 have been declared primary disaster zones, many of them in the fertile Central Valley.

The development comes as the national media increasingly turns its attention to the complicated web of water supply problems facing the agriculture industry in California's San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Last week, FOX News host Sean Hannity filmed his cable television show on location in Fresno County and levied a number of charges against the administration for allegedly putting environmental interests above the farmers.

Environmentalists have since shot back at Hannity for, in their view, spreading misinformation about the crisis. They say Hannity and others have overestimated the amount of water that has been placed off-limits by a pair of federal biological opinions meant to protect endangered delta smelt and salmon.

In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider the bi-ops, which have become something of a lightning rod as officials in the state continue their long-running haggle over how to best cope with water shortages.

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But the Obama administration has so far resisted. A Sept. 3 letter to Schwarzenegger from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said a "reconsultation" is required "only where new scientific information has become available."

"The FWS and NMFS determinations were completed within the last 12 months, and we are not aware of any new scientific information or infrastructure or operational changes that would allow for a 'reconsultation,'" the secretaries wrote.

Against this backdrop, the drought declaration was welcome news for some but seemed unlikely to placate farmers dealing with fallowed fields.

"This is an important first step in helping farmers, ranchers and entire communities that have been decimated by the drought," said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Game.

According to the Fresno Bee, an effort to get a broader disaster declaration from President Obama was unsuccessful. That declaration would have meant more direct federal help, including food and unemployment assistance.

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