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Climate change prompts talk of permanent USDA disaster fund

Sixteen lawmakers, all but one from Texas, are sponsors of HR 1692 for USDA assistance to farmers and ranchers hit by natural disasters in 2020 and 2021.

The government must respond rapidly to the destructive weather that accompanies climate change, said House Agriculture chairman David Scott on Tuesday, so he is working on legislation to create a permanent disaster aid fund at the USDA. “Many of our farms are done away with because we move too slow” in drafting and passing relief bills, he said.

“We are working on a bill to set up a permanent disaster aid that is already there, that we can get help down to our farmers,” said Scott during a “member day” committee meeting to hear the concerns of lawmakers. Scott mentioned the possibility of an ever-ready fund after a Texas Republican sought expansion, to include losses in 2020 and this year, of a disaster package aimed at farmers and ranchers hit by floods, wildfires, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and freezes in 2018 and 2019.

“Just let me tell you, this is an issue we are grappling with on the committee … disaster aid is so critical,” said Scott. “I’m trying to put together an effort to create a separate immediate disaster aid fund so it doesn’t have to go the regular appropriations process (which) takes too long.” He added that “this climate is really causing us to come up to our challenges.”

The USDA operates a number of relief programs, triggered by disaster designations, and federally subsidized crop insurance offers some protection against losses but Congress often writes multibillion-dollar disaster packages in response to catastrophic losses inflicted by hurricanes, floods, or drought. The stopgap disaster bills may require several weeks of work before enactment. At times, the proposals are considered too parochial to generate broad congressional support.

Sixteen lawmakers, all but one from Texas, are sponsors of HR 1692 for USDA assistance to farmers and ranchers hit by natural disasters in 2020 and 2021. Texas suffered $600 million in agricultural losses from the polar vortex ice and windstorms last winter, they said. Their bill would give producers access to the Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, known as WHIP+ and enacted after savage weather in 2018 and 2019.

A month ago, the USDA turned to WHIP+ to help growers cope with drought that has greatly reduced irrigation allocations in the Klamath River Basin this year. Up to $10 million was available to farmers in the basin, based on drought losses in 2018 or 2019, it said. The money would be given as block grants to California and Oregon to distribute. “By providing this flexibility to the states, the assistance can also be targeted to producers who agree not to use irrigation in 2021, allowing better management of the available water this year,” said the USDA.

WHIP+, with more than $3 billion in funding, was a successor to the original WHIP of 2017. It went into operation in early September 2019, three months after President Trump signed a broad-scale disaster bill that was delayed by haggling over hurricane relief funds for Puerto Rico. Producers were eligible for payments of up to $500,000 overall, or $250,000 per year, since WHIP+ covered two years.

An audio recording of the House Agriculture Committee hearing is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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