Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman signed a memorandum of understanding that will set up an inter-agency task force that is supposed to identify areas with the most immediate drought problems and focus more assistance on those areas.

"This agreement will bring focused federal assistance to Western communities facing severe water shortages," Secretary Norton said. "It will enable the departments of Agriculture and Interior to respond quickly and to effectively coordinate existing programs to maximize the benefits of those resources."

"The MOU is an important step in our continuing efforts to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities impacted by drought, while at the same time enhancing our natural resources," Secretary Veneman said.

"The USDA Drought Coordinating Council will help identify and marshal resources to address drought-related issues. We are working to take action and deploy resources where the needs exist, whether in the wise management of public rangelands and watersheds, or fire prevention and suppression through the Healthy Forests Initiative."

The secretaries noted that much of the West has been hard hit by a multi-year drought that has left several critical reservoirs at historic lows and led to water shortages around the region.

“The continuing drought magnifies already stressed water supplies in important river basins,” Veneman said. “In some areas, there is not enough water to meet the needs of cities, farms, tribes and the environment even under normal water conditions.”

The memorandum of understanding is part of Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West, a recently launched proposal under which Interior and USDA are working with state and local governments to identify the watersheds facing the greatest potential water supply risks in the next 25 years, evaluate the most effective ways of addressing these challenges and recommend cooperative planning approaches and tools that have the most likelihood of success.

The proposal calls for concentrating existing federal financial and technical resources in key western watersheds and working to coordinate programs between agencies.

“The MOU will ready the agencies to address the most severe situations,” USDA said in a press release. “It establishes an interagency task force, co-chaired by the deputy secretary of each department, which will identify areas of the country with severe water supply problems that are in need of focused assistance and use interagency drought action teams to mobilize the appropriate federal resources to help those communities and producers in need.”

These teams will include department level policy officials and appropriate staff from bureaus or agencies in each department, it said. The teams are temporary in nature and will serve as first responders in the worst of situations.

Interior and USDA will use their established authorities and programs to work with states, tribes and local entities to minimize the impacts of water supply crises that affect communities, farms, ranches and the environment.

Both departments offer a range of assistance programs. USDA recently made available $53 million in Ground and Surface Water Conservation funding under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers and ranchers implement technologies and practices to conserve water and mitigate the long-term impacts of drought, in addition to $7 million in funding for conservation efforts specific to the Klamath Basin.

USDA also is using the 2003 Livestock Feed Assistance Program to provide surplus stock of non-fat dry milk to livestock producers in areas hardest hit by continuing drought.

Additional USDA programs that provide relief assistance include the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP), the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), Emergency Loan Assistance (EM) and emergency haying and grazing of certain Conservation Reserve Program acreage and crop insurance programs.

Interior's Bureau of Reclamation has authority for construction, management and conservation measures to alleviate drought conditions, including the construction of permanent wells. When drought is declared for an area, Reclamation can also undertake temporary contracts to provide water supplies and can use Reclamation facilities to store and convey drought relief water.

Reclamation also has funded the purchase of water to mitigate drought effects on fish and wildlife in the Rio Grande, Pecos and Klamath Rivers. And the bureau has constructed wells for tribes and small communities that have inadequate resources to handle drought.

More information on the Water 2025 proposal and the Memorandum of Understanding are on-line at www.doi.gov/water2025. Information on relief available to farmers and ranchers is on-line at www.disaster.usda.gov.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com