Federal Drought Aid Coming to California; Long Term Solution Sought

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Continuing coverage of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Central Valley

Air Force One lands in Fresno Photo by Len Wilcox

Air Force One lands in Fresno
Photo by Len Wilcox

The severity and impact of California’s drought was brought home Friday during a visit to the Fresno area by President Obama and a contingency of California congressmen. The President raised the spectre of continued, even worsening water issues ahead, and challenged all Californians to work on solutions.

California Senator Jim Costa, who introduced emergency legislation to provide short-term drought relief, said that the impact this year would be “$10 billion or more out of a $47 billion farm economy” in California.

Pointing to the national implications of a devastating regional drought, President Obama promised quick action on the part of the Federal Government.

“California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table,” The President said, during his visit.

President Obama talks with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin  AgNet West photo

President Obama talks with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
AgNet West photo

The President landed in Air Force One at Fresno, then flew by helicopter to a west side farm owned and operated by Joe and Maria Del Bosque. Landing in a cloud of dust from the dry soil, he toured rich farmland now laying fallow due to lack of water.

The President spoke about the farm tour.

“Joe has got an incredible story. The son of a migrant farmworker, farm work is how he put himself through college. He’s been a farmer for most of his life. He started by going around to other folks’ land and saying, I’ll grow some cantaloupes for you as long as you pay me for what we produce, and over the years was able to develop this amazing business and not only start growing cantaloupes, but almonds and cherries and all kinds of other good stuff.”

Obama continued, “But today, we’re here to talk about the resource that’s keeping more and more California’s farmers and families up at night, and that is water — or the lack of it. As anybody in this state could tell you, California’s living through some of its driest years in a century. Right now, almost 99 percent of California is drier than normal — and the winter snowpack that provides much of your water far into the summer is much smaller than normal. And we could see that as we were flying in.”

After the farm tour, President Obama joined a round table discussion with farmers, water managers, community leaders, and labor representatives.

“I wanted to come here to listen,” the President said. He said he was aware of the volatile water politics in California, and wants to stay out of that fight. “I’m not gonna wade into this. I want to get out alive on Valentine’s Day,” he joked. The President added that there is a tendency historically to think of water as a zero sum game, with agricultural interests vs. urban needs, and northern California against the south.

“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.”

The President then talked about how climate change could be leading to costlier droughts, floods and other natural disasters in the future.

“Scientific evidence shows that the change in climate is going to make them more intense.”

The President also said the changing climate is going to make everyone “rethink how we approach water for decades to come.”

“We have to be clear: A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher. Droughts have obviously been a part of life out here in the West since before any of us were around and water politics in California have always been complicated, but scientific evidence shows that a changing climate is going to make them more intense.”

The President continued to hammer home his message that global climate change has serious implications for California’s water supply.

Weather patterns are changing, and land management methods could be changed to adapt to these new patterns. These changes indicate a need for increased water storage – more reservoirs, for example.

President Barack Obama in Fresno AgNet West photo

President Barack Obama in Fresno
AgNet West photo

The President pointed out three changes predicted by scientists.

“Number one, more rain falls in extreme downpours — so more water is lost to runoff than captured for use. Number two, more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow — so rivers run dry earlier in the year. Number three, soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round.”

With the reality of these changes due to continued global warming, the President says that “The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come. So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of.

“And everybody, from farmers to industry to residential areas, to the north of California and the south of California and everyplace in between, as well as the entire Western region are going to have to start rethinking how we approach water for decades to come.”

The President announced specific measures to deal with the current drought crisis.

“First, we’re accelerating $100 million of funds from the farm bill that I signed last week to help ranchers. For example, if their fields have dried up, this is going to help them feed their livestock.

“Second, last week, we announced $20 million to help hard-hit communities, and today, we’re announcing up to $15 million more for California and other states that are in extreme drought.

“Third, I’m directing the Interior Department to use its existing authorities, where appropriate, to give water contractors flexibility to meet their obligations.

“And fourth, I’m directing all federal facilities in California to take immediate steps to curb their water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new, non-essential landscaping projects.”

Obama cautioned that a quick injection of federal aid was not the answer to the long term water issues faced by California.

President Obama flew in Marine One to the west side are for a farm tour.  AgNet West photo

President Obama flew in Marine One to the west side area for a farm tour.
AgNet West photo

“Let’s make sure that we’re getting some short-term relief to folks, but also long-term certainty for people who are going to be harmed by this drought.”

Article by Len Wilcox
Formerly a journalist with California Farmer, Len is a freelance writer/photographer from Sanger, CA.