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  • Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

    President Barack Obama, visiting the Central Valley for the first time on Friday, said California and other states will need to re-examine how they will supply enough water for all users.

  • Eric Paul Zamora / <243>The Fresno Bee

    The president also met with Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer for a forum that included politicians, labor leaders and water officials. He also expressed support for Boxer’s drought bill.

Obama witnesses toll of California’s drought

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 - 11:45 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 - 12:50 pm

President Barack Obama took a tour of the central San Joaquin Valley’s drought-damaged farm country Friday, getting a look at fallowed dirt and hosting a round-table discussion with farmers, industry representatives, environmentalists and politicians.

On his first trip to the Fresno area, the president spent barely three hours in the region before flying to Southern California, where he met with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage.

Taking a seat at a horseshoe table inside a maintenance building on the west side of Fresno County, Obama tried to assure round-table participants that California’s importance as a farm producer makes the state’s water problems a national concern.

“I wanted to come here to listen,” the president said during brief opening remarks before the event was closed to reporters. “We are going to stay on top of this because it has national implications.”

The president said he’s been warned about the history of water politics in California – politics he said he did not want to get mired in “because I want to get out alive on Valentine’s Day.”

Turning serious, the president added that longer-term solutions to water would be required.

“Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game. We can’t afford years of litigation and no real action.”

In remarks later in the afternoon, the president expanded on that theme, saying climate change would make weather events like drought and downpours more extreme. That, he said, would require rethinking how to meet the needs of all water users – farmers, city residents, industry and the environment, and not just in California.

“California is our biggest agricultural producer,” the president said, “so what happens here matters to every working American.”

About 25 people were invited to the discussion. Participants included a range of people – including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rep. Jim Costa, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, Nisei Farmers League CEO Manuel Cunha and Andy Souza, CEO of Fresno-based Community Food Bank.

California is in its third dry year, and this winter so far is one of the driest on record. Both state and federal water projects have told farmers to expect no water this year.

Before Obama’s arrival, the White House announced several steps that he will take to deal with the drought. The drought assistance includes speedier livestock disaster assistance for California producers, provided under a newly signed farm bill, as well as targeted conservation assistance, watershed protection funds, additional summer feeding programs and emergency community water grants.

By directing Agriculture Department staff to make the livestock assistance a top priority, officials say they expect to provide California producers an estimated $100 million for 2014 losses and up to $50 million for losses in previous years.

After the meeting, Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife, Maria, gave the president a tour of a field that will lie fallow because he doesn’t have enough water to grow a crop. Gov. Jerry Brown, who joined the president on the tour, last month announced a statewide drought emergency.

Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League, was among those who met with the president during the round-table discussion. Bedwell said Obama and Vilsack were clear that they were in the Valley to supply immediate relief. But the conversation also turned to finding long-term solutions including water storage and conveyance.

“There needs to be a cooperative effort to help solve this issue,” Bedwell said.

But three of the Valley’s Republican congressmen – Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, none of whom was invited to join the president – were far more critical of the president’s comments. Valadao said the president “chose handouts and a climate lecture over real solutions.”

Nunes was even more unsparing: “To blame the California water crisis on global warming is ludicrous. The state has an incredible irrigation system designed to supply water through five years of drought. But as a result of excessive regulations and lawsuits by environmental extremists, we cannot fully use this system, and billions of gallons of water have been flushed into the ocean that could have supplied drought-stricken farmers and communities.”

The three Republicans proposed legislation that would authorize dam construction, repeal the ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, authorize raising Shasta Dam and lengthen federal irrigation contracts to 40 years. The bill already has passed the House but faces long odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer – along with Oregon’s two Democratic senators – introduced their own drought bill. Their proposal would offer $300 million in drought aid, try to give more water to users in part by requiring flexibility in how federal officials manage pumping through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, allow water districts to delay their federal contract payments and speed up federal decision-making on water supply projects.

During comments at the Del Bosque property, Obama said his administration’s actions are similar to the Feinstein-Boxer legislation.

“And I hope that Congress considers the legislation that they have crafted soon,” he said.

Although Obama scheduled no public events, his landing aboard Air Force One drew crowds to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. At least 500 people gathered outside the airport to catch a glimpse of the special jetliner. Hundreds parked along the west side of the airport.

Obama waved to the cameras but did not stop to take questions before getting on Marine One for the helicopter ride to the west side.

Friday’s visit may have been the easiest part of the Obama administration’s response to the drought. Federal money is limited, and the commitments made will soon be tested on Capitol Hill and deep within the federal bureaucracies.

McClatchy Newspapers writer Michael Doyle contributed to this report.

Read more articles by John Ellis

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