Politico: Alex Padilla and other Western Democrats are preparing to battle the Biden administration for new drought funding.

By Meredith Lee Hill

What’s happening: Sen. Alex Padilla has his eye on water — and a potential clash with fellow Democrats and Biden officials over climate resources amid the mega-drought hitting the West.

Details: Newly emboldened after winning a full term, the California Democrat is looking to carve out a bigger role in the water debate and is ready to jockey for climate funds on Capitol Hill.

Padilla is among a contingent of Western Democrats who argue President Joe Biden’s Agriculture Department is failing to prioritize drought issues as it pushes to fight climate change through the agriculture sector, as unrelenting drought is killing off crops and livestock across the West.

Climate funds fight: Padilla and other Western lawmakers are now eyeing a $20 billion pot of conservation funds from Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, which the USDA will start rolling out in the coming months.

Biden officials and Democrats have heralded the new “climate smart” funding, which was championed by Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and largely designed to fund practices that limit greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector. Water is part of the strategy, and Democrats included $4 billion in drought funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. But Padilla and a group of lawmakers say it’s not enough.

Pressure on Vilsack: In a new letter with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Senate Ag member Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and a handful of other Western Democratic senators from states impacted by drought, Padilla is pressing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make water more of a priority as USDA prepares to roll out the billions in funding.

“In order to truly support the farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers who feed our nation in adopting and expanding climate-smart activities and systems, we must ensure that the historic funding in the Inflation Reduction Act for emissions reductions also bolsters drought resilience,” Padilla and the senators wrote in the letter, which is also addressed to Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Terry Cosby.

Context: It’s the latest pressure on Vilsack regarding the conservation funding after an effort led by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) last week, and comes as the White House has been careful to pay attention to needs in rural communities and the farm sector ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“We understand the challenges faced by agricultural and rural communities in the West in the face of drought and that’s why we continue to authorize flexibilities and pursue every avenue available to improve and expand disaster assistance programs, provide technical expertise to support producers, and increase efforts to build resilience,” said a USDA spokesperson.

USDA will “continue to take feedback from folks on the ground” as it implements the Inflation Reduction Act funds, the spokesperson added.

Reinforcements: Beyond Padilla, a slate of Western Senate Democrats unafraid of pressing the administration about drought funding are also fresh off midterm wins, including Bennet, Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Patty Murray (Wash.). Murray will be a powerful ally in the fight as the incoming chair of the Appropriations Committee, where she’s planning to make drought a funding priority, according to her staff.

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