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Press Briefing by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John Holdren on the President's Trip to Fresno, California

February 14, 2014

Via Conference Call

6:31 P.M. EST

MR. LEHRICH: Hey, everybody, thanks for joining us today. I hope those of you who are on the East Coast are staying warm and dry. As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, which means it's not in tomorrow's newspapers but can be online at 6:00 a.m. Eastern tomorrow morning. The call will be on the record with that embargo.

As you know, the President will be in the Fresno, California area tomorrow, where he'll be talking about the severe droughts that are affecting much of California. To talk about some of the new announcements the President will have tomorrow and related issues we've got Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Dr. John Holdren, who is the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and is going to talk to you about some of the science behind the weather we're seeing here.

So, with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Vilsack.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Matt, thank you very much. And thanks to everybody on the call. And certainly thanks to John Holdren for doing this as well. Let me just preview for you the President's focus on this California drought situation, which is really impacting California with its worst drought in over a hundred years, and it's also impacting obviously other states as well.

Tomorrow the President will meet with producers and those who have been impacted and affected by the drought. He'll have an opportunity to observe the impacts on the ground, and he'll I think offer a message of hope and a message that the federal government will do all that it can to try to alleviate some of the stress connected with this drought.

The President, last week in Michigan, signed the 2014 Agricultural Act, which is the farm bill, and in the farm bill it restored disaster assistance for livestock producers which had been dormant since October of 2011. The President will direct the Department of Agriculture to accelerate in an historic effort to get the disaster programs now authorized under the farm bill to a point where farmers and producers in California and across the country will be able to apply for disaster assistance.

Normally, this process takes anywhere from six to eight months. The President is going to direct us to get it done within 60 days so that within 60 days, by April 15th or there abouts, farmers and producers will be able to make applications for livestock assistance and should receive checks shortly thereafter.

This will not only impact folks in California but it will also have the opportunity to provide help and assistance to producers in the Dakotas who suffered from historic snowstorms last fall, and for those who suffered through the 2012 droughts across the country and other isolated situations.

We anticipate and expect that with this announcement that once applications are filed and money distributed, it will mean somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million of assistance to

California producers and probably likely nearly a billion dollars of assistance to producers across the country.

The President is also going to announce additional conservation assistance at a time when water is scarce and when livestock producers are challenged, and with those who are faced with drought conditions on their land and the possibility of losing very precious soil. The President will be announcing an additional $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for those communities and areas that have been most affected by drought. Five million dollars of that will be directed to California. This is in addition to the $20 million that was announced last week. An additional $10 million will then be given and made available to producers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. These resources will be above and beyond what normally these states have received and these producers would receive for assistance.

The President will also announce an additional $5 million in targeted emergency watershed protection -- I should back up and indicate that the $15 million that's being announced in targeted conservation assistance is really designed to provide opportunities for producers to conserve more effectively their water resources, to utilize the money to impact and reduce soil erosion as a result of the drought, and potentially use the proceeds to improve livestock access to water.

Five million dollars in targeted emergency watershed protection assistance will also be announced to California, and this is designed to specifically stabilize stream banks, to replant upland strips that have been stripped of their stations as a result of the drought. This is also a soil conservation and water quality initiative.

In addition, we recognize -- the President definitely recognizes that droughts not only impact producers but also impacts the families of those who work in these orchards and with these growers and producers. A lot of folks will not be employed, or if they're employed, they won't work the number of hours that they would normally work. So we're going to make sure that we provide assistance and help to those who might need the help of food banks to be able to provide food for their families. Sixty million dollars will be made available to food banks in the state of California to help families who have been economically impacted by the drought.

And as summer approaches, we realize that it may be a challenge for children to have access to meals, and so we will be working with the state of California and the Department of Agriculture to establish 600 additional summer meal sites to make sure that youngsters in this state who have been impacted in drought-stricken areas will have some assistance and some help during the summer months.

The President is also going to follow the lead of Governor Brown in California when he declared state agencies to focus on drought emergency relief last month. Governor Brown basically encouraged those in California to utilize water more effectively and efficiently. The President will direct tomorrow federal facilities which are located in California to immediately curb water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new and nonessential landscaping projects, to redouble our efforts to look at longer-term water use reduction operations and technologies at federal facilities.

And the President will direct the Department of Interior to continue to take executive action to work with water contractors and communities to speed up changes in -- obviously to maintain important environmental safeguards, but to make sure that key water projects that could be encouraged and moved along are done so. NOAA, EPA, the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Services will be working daily with their state counterparts to try to make sure that everything that can be done to move water projects forward is being done in an effective and efficient way.

And we'll obviously continue to invest in climate resilience. The President has been very focused on it, directing these agencies to be looking at this. The USDA announced that there is a climate change hub, one of which -- sub-hub will be located in Davis, California. That sub-hub will be doing research and assessing the vulnerabilities specifically of California to the change in climate. The President's 2015 budget will include additional resources for a climate resilience fund.

So these steps are being taken in addition to the steps that have been taken and announced last week -- the $20 million for conservation and the $14 million for forestry assistance that was announced by the Department of Interior and USDA -- all in an effort to try to send a very specific message to producers in California that we are here to help to the extent that we can.

With that, I think I'd like to turn it over to John Holdren so he can explain to you the context of all of this.


DR. HOLDREN: Well, thank you, Secretary Vilsack. First of all, we know that scientifically, no single episode of extreme weather, no storm, no flood, no drought can be said to have been caused by global climate change. But the global climate has now been so extensively impacted by the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases that weather practically everywhere is being influenced by climate change.

We've always had droughts in the American West, of course, but now the severe ones are getting more frequent, they're getting longer and they're getting drier. And we understand a substantial part at least of the reason that that is happening in a warming world. First of all, in a warming world, a larger proportion of total rainfall occurs in extreme downpours, and that means more of the rainfall is lost to storm runoff, and less soaks into the ground.

Secondly, in a warming world, more of the precipitation that falls in the mountains occurs as rain rather than as snow. The rain runs off quickly in contrast to snowpack that melts gradually and thus maintains river flows through the spring and the summer. And third, higher temperatures, of course, mean greater loss of water to evaporation both from soils and from reservoirs.

There are other, more subtle respects in which global climate change may be affecting the prevalence of drought -- scientists are still arguing about those -- but the three I just described are more than enough to understand why we are seeing droughts in drought-prone regions becoming more frequent, more severe, and longer.

The situation in California as I think you all know is particularly severe. As Secretary Vilsack noted, it is the most severe drought in the more than hundred years of incremental records, but it's also probably based on paleoclimate records one of the strongest droughts in the last 500 years. And by the way, the drought in the Colorado River Basin is probably one of the strongest droughts in that area in the last thousand years.

MR. LEHRICH: Thank you, Dr. Holdren and Secretary Vilsack. And we're ready for some questions now.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what does the administration think of the Feinstein-Boxer legislation that was introduced last Tuesday? Briefly, that would push the feds to be more flexible on how they control pumping and the water contracts for Central Valley water as well as the state water projects.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, the reality I think this is an opportunity for us today to focus on executive action. Obviously we'll be -- the administration will be taking a look at what the senators are proposing -- I know they're proposing additional help and assistance. And we'll obviously work with the Senate and the House if they can reach a consensus on this. Obviously there's a difference of opinion, based on what Senator Feinstein and what Senator Boxer have proposed, and what the House recently passed.

But rather than wait for congressional action, what we're going to try to do is try to put the resources that are available that we have control over to work as quickly as possible. And that's -- I don't want to underemphasize the significance of the President's directive on this livestock assistance because, historically, this has taken months and months and months to do, and the President has been very clear to me and to USDA that he wants it done so that people can begin applying within 60 days. That is going to send a very strong message about his need and his desire to get things moving and to help to the extent possible.

MR. LEHRICH: And I can just add to that, Roger, from our perspective that we are encouraged by the progress in the Senate on efforts to ease the pain caused by the drought and that we look forward to continuing to work with the bill sponsors and other members of Congress, like the Secretary said, as the process moves forward.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could you elaborate on what you mean by operational flexibilities? When you want to speed changes to key water projects, what key water projects are you talking about?

SECRETARY VILSACK: These are projects that the Interior, EPA, Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Services are working on. These are not projects that are specific to USDA. But the President has been very clear that he doesn't want any delay. He wants folks to move as quickly as possible. And the announcement today in terms of the disaster assistance is a reflection of that.

I'm sure we can get you a list of the projects that are currently being worked on in California, but the bottom line here is that there's no time for delay, there's no time for inefficiency. The President wants things to move and he's directing all of his agencies to do what they can to try to alleviate or to try to mitigate the impacts and effects of this drought.

Q: Thanks.

Q: I just want to make sure - we're only talking about the -- we're not talking about the livestock indemnity program, it's just the forest disaster program, because you said it's going to be a billion dollars country-wide and that it would help the folks who went through blizzards, but that would be more like the livestock indemnity program, wouldn't it -- for animals who just died from freezing to death? I just want to make sure there's nothing in here for fruit and vegetable growers.

SECRETARY VILSACK: First of all, let me be clear about this: There are four livestock disaster programs, there are four disaster programs that were reauthorized in the farm bill, and the President is instructing us on all four, to get them lined up so that applications can be received within 60 days and money can flow shortly thereafter. So this is both the forage and the livestock indemnity program, the tree assistance program -- and one that's escaping me right now. So it's all four; all four of them have to be institutionalized.

And as it relates to some of the specialty crops that are grown in California, it's conceivable the tree assistance program might be of assistance to tree producers, to nut producers here in this state.

Secondly, the conservation programs that we're announcing are designed to provide help and assistance to growers of a multitude of crops, including fruits and vegetables. To the extent that that land is now fallow and there is concern about soil erosion, to the extent that there are ways in which water resources, irrigation systems can be assisted or helped, these resources could potentially be made available as well for those growers.

So this is not limited to livestock. This is basically designed to try to provide help and assistance to producers of all stripes here in California, given the diversity of agriculture that's been impacted.

Q: Super. Thanks.

Q: Hi. Thanks, Mr. Secretary. I was wondering if there was any work being done to ease water transfers between the state water program and the Central Valley Improvement program.

SECRETARY VILSACK: That's a question I'm not qualified to answer, but perhaps somebody from the White House can get some information to you on that. I don't know the answer to that question.

MR. LEHRICH: Sure. Shoot us an email and we will make sure we get you in touch with the right people, I would imagine at the Department of the Interior.

Q: Thanks for the call, Mr. Secretary. The state expected $1.1 billion to be available --

SECRETARY VILSACK: I'm sorry. I couldn't hear that question very well. There's a problem with the phone. I'm not sure why.

Q: Yes, is that better?

SECRETARY VILSACK: You can try it.

Q: Yes, Mr. Secretary, so the $1.1 billion, is that the total in damages that you -- that has been calculated for this? Or that's just the amount of money that may be used? In other words, is it $1.1 billion in damages right now, just to be clear?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Yes, to be clear about this, we estimate that the livestock disaster assistance programs will provide for California producers up to $100 million. That's our estimate based on what we know and what we think we know about the damages that already have been suffered.

The billion-dollar number would include the $100 million and would include all of the other potential applications that could be forthcoming from folks who lost livestock or were impacted by the 2012 drought across the country, or who lost serious losses as a result of the snowstorms in the Dakotas last fall. So it's a billion dollars total. Of that amount, $100 million is the estimate for what we think is likely to occur in California. Is that clear?

Q: Okay. One follow-up? Would you support more reservoirs to hold the water for droughts like this in California?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think actually I'm probably not the person to ask that question. What I am interested in making sure that we do is to provide producers with as much information as we possibly can about how to most effectively use the water resources, whatever they are, wherever they come from, however they're stored in an environmentally appropriate way and the like, and distribute it appropriately.

Our goal here is to make sure that we provide producers help and assistance because they have suffered immediately and to use the climate hub efforts to assess the long-term vulnerabilities, to provide and identify technologies for producers that they can use to adapt to a changing climate or to mitigate the impacts.

We have already invested several hundred million dollars in research in California. A lot of it has been focused on trying to figure out how to use water more effectively, how to reduce the salinity of the water that is available, how to ensure that new technologies -- new seed technologies are being developed, to utilize scarce water resources more effectively. That's the role and responsibility of the USDA, and that's what we're -- that's what I'm focused on -- getting relief to folks.

DR. HOLDREN: Can I just add -- this is John Holdren. Let me just add one point there. The problem in California is not that we don't have enough reservoirs. The problem is that there's not enough water in them. Just to give you some numbers: As of the end of last weekend, Fulsom Lake was at 22 percent of capacity; Lake Oroville at 37 percent; Pine Flat at 18 percent; San Luis Reservoir at 30 percent. You get the idea. We just haven't had enough water flowing into those reservoirs. It wouldn't help to build any more.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Yes, can you tell me if the administration took a position on the bill that passed the House last week that was supposed to address these water problems in California?

MR. LEHRICH: Yes, Gary. We did take a position. We've issued a statement of administration policy opposed to that bill. and we'll be happy to send you the full text of that statement of administration policy.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Hi. Thank you for speaking with us. I have a question about the $100 million in livestock disaster assistance. Can dairy farmers use that money to shore up the crops they need to feed to their livestock? Or is it simply for livestock head guys?

SECRETARY VILSACK: There are two different programs. One addresses livestock that died as a result of whatever -- storms, drought. There's also a forage program that basically provides help and assistance to producers who have been unable to obtain the forage that they traditionally could rely on to feed their livestock. This gives them cash assistance that allows them potentially to get forage and feed from other sources. It might be more expensive. There may be transportation expenses. So it's both.

Q: Okay, so we could see California dairy farmers using that money to buy forage from out of state?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Or a different feed that they wouldn't normally or traditionally use, because they have their own access to their own fields, which right now are not producing enough. It's always up to the producer. It's up to the producer's situation.

But the point of this is it provides help and assistance to producers who have been negatively impacted by this drought either in terms of the availability or substantial cost with alternatives or substitutes.

Q: The President rarely discusses climate change when he talks about extreme weather. Is that going to change tomorrow? And if so, for all those parched Americans out there, how do you really connect things like cutting greenhouse gases or backing renewable energy with terrible drought?

DR. HOLDREN: I mean, number one, you can certainly expect that the President will talk about the connection between the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts and climate change when he speaks tomorrow. He has actually repeatedly talked about the connection between climate change and extreme weather. He did so in his speech at June 25th at Georgetown University when he rolled out the Climate Action Plan.

And he will talk tomorrow about the phenomena that I mentioned earlier in this call, which is that we really understand a number of the reasons that global climate change is increasing the intensity and the frequency and the length of droughts in drought-prone regions. This is one of the better understood dimensions of the relationship between global climate change and extreme weather in particular regions.

Q: I also have a question about moving along key water projects. I'm wondering if by that you or the administration is endorsing in any way the Bay Delta Conservation Project to build twin tunnels under the Delta to transfer water more effectively from north to south.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I don't know the answer to that question. I can tell you that we have at the USDA been involved in the California Bay Delta area with additional investments over the last several years. But I'm not familiar with that specific project.

DR. HOLDREN: Nor am I.

Q: Can I have a follow-up question? I'm wondering for the drought assistance for growers and farmers, what form will that assistance take? Do you have an idea about that?

SECRETARY VILSACK: When you say "form" -- well, let me just see if I can respond to your question. The livestock disaster assistance we referred to earlier is in the form of cash. It's in the form of money. The conversation assistance is also in the form of resources that will be utilized by producers. It helps to pay for conservation practices that they may install on their property or efficiencies that they may create in terms of water resources that they're currently using.

Most of these programs are sort of matching funds providing help and assistance to the producer -- not fully paying for all of the steps, but helping to pay for a portion of them. The emergency water assistance grants are grants made to communities themselves. So that's resources, money that's provided to a community, it's not provided through producers. It's provided to a community that is faced with water shortages. And they may be taking steps to secure additional water resources. And this money is provided to assist them in helping to pay for whatever steps they're taking.

The food bank resources is money from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, TEFAP, that gives food banks the capacity to go out and purchase whatever they believe is most appropriate, most necessary, to help families based on what demand at the food bank is. And the summer meal program, basically once the sites are set up, USDA provides a cost to -- the 600 summer meal sites, that is -- USDA provides reimbursement to the affiliates or the community that is sponsoring the meal sites. We basically pay for the meals and we provide a reimbursement level based on the number of meals that are supplied. So it's a wide range of types of assistance that are provided.

MR. LEHRICH: Thank you, Secretary Vilsack and Dr. Holdren. And thank you all for taking the time to join us. One more reminder that this call was on the record, but is embargoed for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning Eastern time, which means it's not in Friday's papers, it's in Saturday's papers, but can be online at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time.

As always, if you didn't get a fact sheet or have follow-ups, feel free to get in touch with us. Otherwise, I'm sure that Secretary Vilsack and the President look forward to seeing a bunch of you tomorrow in California.

Thanks again. Have a good night.

END 7:01 P.M. EST

Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John Holdren on the President's Trip to Fresno, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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