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Amidst California’s Drought, an Opportunity for Action

News of California’s epic drought continues to reverberate around the nation. Not only have millions of Californians been cut off from their usual water supply, but the drought is threatening the state’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture and tourism industries.

To learn about the impacts of the ongoing drought first-hand and discuss how the federal government might help, President Obama will travel to Fresno this Friday. In addition to his visit, the President’s Task Force on Climate Resilience and Preparedness will convene in Los Angeles, California today for the next round of meetings to determine ways the federal government can assist local efforts to address and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Made up of more than two dozen governors, mayors and tribal leaders from around the country, the group represents a significant opportunity to bridge the gap between local and federal climate action.

California’s Drought Threatens Communities and the Economy

California experienced its driest year on record in 2013, receiving less than one-third of its average annual precipitation. Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in mid-January, and the State Water Project – the main municipal water distribution system for roughly 25 million people and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland – suspended service for the first time in its 54-year history. Even after last weekend’s heavy rainfall, most of California is still blanketed in “extreme drought.”

Citizens both inside and outside of California are feeling the effects. The drought is not only threatening the viability of the nearly 50 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables produced in-state, but is already impacting California farms and ranches. These farms and ranches generated $44.7 billion in gross income in 2012 alone. The ripple effect of these impacts could affect grocery stores around the nation in the coming months.

Tourism in California may also take a hit from the drought. With the Sierra Nevada snowpack being recently reported as only 12 percent of its average, the state’s $1.4 billion winter sports industry and the 24,000 jobs that rely on it are under threat.

Drought and the Climate Change Connection

As extreme as this drought is, though, it may be a harbinger of what’s to come. Studies suggest that the drought over the last decade in the western United States represents the driest conditions the region has experienced in the last 800 years. As the world continues to warm, more frequent and intense droughts are projected for the region. Furthermore, the combination of more frequent and intense droughts and warmer temperatures are expected to contribute to an increase in wildfires throughout the state. This is concerning for a state that witnessed seven of its 10 largest-recorded wildfires since 2003.

California is certainly not alone in feeling the impacts of a warmer world, however. From record forest fires and historic floods in Colorado, to coastal flooding in Florida, to threatened water resources from reduced snowpack in Utah, local communities across the United States are truly at the forefront of climate change.

Bridging the Gap Between Local and Federal Climate Action

These local communities tend to also be at the forefront of climate action. From the 10 mayors who recently joined an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by boosting energy efficiency within city buildings to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, growing local leadership is establishing models for community-level action elsewhere in the country. But while these local initiatives are an encouraging sign, they must be met with complementary and comprehensive action from Congress and the administration if the United States is to truly rise to the climate change challenge.

The Task Force on Climate Resilience and Preparedness is one such initiative working toward this goal. When the Task Force meets today in Los Angeles, California, they will take the next step toward generating recommendations on how the federal government can both remove investment barriers to local resilience initiatives and create the tools and information communities need to prepare for and adapt to climate impacts. Once formally submitted to the government, these recommendations should not only help those in California deal with the impacts of future droughts, but assist communities throughout the nation in overcoming future climate impacts.

The Task Force represents a critical opportunity for the federal government to both learn from and enhance local climate action. But, supporting these communities also means following through on comprehensive federal initiatives—such as putting ambitious emissions standards in place for existing power plants. Only through collective action at the local, state, and national levels can the country effectively adapt to and mitigate the growing impacts of climate change. .

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