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Underwood calls special session to deal with drought

August 06, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood announced Thursday he will call a special session of the Legislature to consider financial aid for state farmers feeling the effects of the drought.

Lawmakers will consider using money from a $75 million "rainy day fund" to help farmers offset the cost of hauling grain and water to their farms, said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

The money also could be used to buy feed for animals, Unger said.

The session could be held Aug. 17, said Unger.

State Agriculture Secretary Gus Douglass has asked for $2 million from the state savings account to help farmers. The money will draw $7 million in federal money.

Douglass said 35 percent of farmers are hauling water to livestock and 30 percent of the state's wells are in danger of drying up.

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Fifteen state agencies met Thursday to discuss their response to the drought. They recommended the state buy an additional 200 300-gallon water tanks and implement an emergency conservation program.

That program would use state and federal money to drill additional wells, lay pipe and create farm ponds. Farm ponds are part of a permanent solution because they facilitate collection of water from the winter's snowfall. The money also would pay overtime to state employees working on drought relief.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday agreed on a $7.4 billion package of farm assistance, but it omits any special assistance for Eastern growers who are suffering through one of the region's worst droughts this century.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has declared West Virginia and parts of five neighboring states agricultural disaster areas. The drought assistance could be added when House and Senate negotiators work out of the final version of the measure this fall.

The U.S. Small Business Administration said Thursday that loans are available to small, nonfarm agriculture-dependent businesses in West Virginia and counties in other states covered by the disaster declaration, including Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties in Maryland.

The loans are for those who do business with farmers and have been unable to pay bills because the drought reduced the purchasing power of their customers.

Underwood said he will continue to use money from his contingency fund to buy portable water containers and move them to where they are needed. The first arrived Wednesday in Moorefield and some will arrive Saturday in Ripley.

Underwood said he is prepared to call on the National Guard to haul hay and grain to areas where it is needed. Vehicles owned by the Division of Highways and West Virginia Parkways Economic Development Authority also can be used to haul hay and grain.

Underwood said he may ask for donations of hay and grain from other states and from West Virginia farmers who have not been affected by the drought.

His spokesman, Rod Blackstone, said the state also may buy some hay and grain.

"We need to need to determine how the quantity and quality of available supply matches the quantity and quality of the need of the farmers," Blackstone said.

Unger said farmers can't afford to wait for assistance.

"We have to hurry because these farmers have really taken a hit with the drought," he said Thursday night.

Farmers are witnessing stunted crops due to the lack of rainfall. Rainfall in Washington County was 13.1 inches below normal in the last 12 months, and rain totals in the Eastern Panhandle have been as much as 15 inches below normal.

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