By GARANCE BURKE
FRESNO, Calif. -- U.S. federal agencies have pledged to send nearly $60 million in grants to help California communities, farms and dairies suffering from ongoing water shortages.
It is welcome news for farmers on the west side of Fresno County, the most productive agricultural county in the nation. Farms in the area are receiving only 10 percent of their federal water allocation this year.
The funding announced Thursday includes $40 million in stimulus money aimed at drought-relief projects, the bulk of which will go to the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, where three years of dry weather and irrigation cutbacks have crippled production and caused severe unemployment.
Most of the Department of Interior's stimulus funds are intended to help growers dig new wells and install temporary pipelines and pumps to move water to farms that need it most, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.
"The farming communities in the San Joaquin are central to our bread basket, to our prosperity and to our agricultural strength as a nation," he said.
The grants, plus other federal funding announced earlier this year, should help put rural communities back to work by freeing up water supplies to keep crops and fruit trees growing, Hayes said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced that it would direct an additional $18 million in grants to help California farmers, dairy operators and resource conservation districts use water more efficiently and tackle environmental problems.
"Regulations for air quality and water quality keep getting tougher, so this will be a huge help," said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.
The biggest winner was the sprawling Westlands Water District, which received a total of $9.5 million in grants from both agencies.
The district, which produces about $1 billion in crops annually and is one of Fresno County's biggest employers, says the water shortages have meant hundreds of thousands of acres (hectares) used to grow lettuce, tomatoes and other crops have been fallowed this year.
The USDA grants will help Westlands farmers save enough water to irrigate 1,000 more acres (405 more hectares) and put about 800 people to work, said Tom Birmingham, the district's general manager.
More than $2.2 million will be spent so U.S. Geological Survey scientists can monitor how increased pumping affects California's central aquifer, which some state scientists fear could sink enough to slow delivery of water to Southern California.
The California Aqueduct, a major canal that delivers drinking water to more than 20 million people, is among many structures threatened by the sinking.
A study released by the USGS earlier this month revealed that groundwater pumping is causing the valley floor to sink.