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Jul 18, 5:46 PM EDT

Agriculture chief visits water-starved families

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited drought-stricken homeowners on Friday in Central California, saying drought and climate change would require major investment to secure future water supplies.

Vilsack also announced $9.7 million in new emergency drought aid to help rural Californians hurt by the state's three-year drought.

A drought monitor sponsored by the federal government says 81 percent of the state is experiencing major agricultural losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions.

All but one of the state's 58 counties are now federally designated disaster areas because of the drought, making farmers and ranchers eligible for emergency loans, according to the agriculture department.

Outside the small city of Farmersville in Tulare County, 60-year-old Carlen Overby told Vilsack the running water in her home now came via a garden hose connected to a neighbor's well, the Fresno Bee reported. (http://bit.ly/1zRY2Uq ).

Overby's own well, like others in her area, had gone dry. She now showers each morning with the hose.

"When you get up in the morning and turn the water on, you wonder if the water is going to come out," Overby told the agriculture secretary.

The new drought spending is intended to help secure water supplies for 73,000 Californians in 11 counties.

Recipients include Farmersville, where a $500,000 grant will connect residents who have dry wells to a water main.

Vilsack called drought and climate change a major national concern. He said the country will have to invest in infrastructure, including more storage facilities.

California Gov. Jerry Brown also is pushing for heavy investment to secure state water service, including a proposed $15 billion to build giant tunnels to carry water from the San Francisco Bay Area to the state's water-thirsty south.

The Obama administration says it has designated more than $50 million in drought-related aid for California. Projects include supporting climate-change research hubs to seek ways to ease the impact.

The University of California, Davis, is a designated "sub-hub" for that research.

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