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Obama To Announce Federal Drought Relief With Fresno Trip

Feb 14, 2014

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Credit Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

President Obama will visit the Central Valley this afternoon to announce an aid package to help farmers, ranchers and communities hit hard by California's record drought. After landing in Fresno, the President is expected to attend a roundtable discussion about the drought in Firebaugh and tour a farm in Los Banos.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the President's message will be clear:

Vilsack: "He'll I think offer a message of hope, and a message that the federal government will do all that it can to try to alleviate some of the stress connected with this drought."

The announcement will include $100 million in support for the state's cattle ranchers and dairy producers, who have faced rising feed prices, another $10 million for things like soil and water conservation efforts, and an additional $20 million to help farmers with everything from pruning to improving irrigation efficiency.

The plan also includes support for communities hit hard by the drought, including $60 million for California food banks, the launch of 600 summer meal locations from the USDA, and $3 million in grants to help communities dealing with water shortages or water quality issues.

The President will be joined by California Governor Jerry Brown, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as Congressman Jim Costa, who says he hopes the sight of fallowed fields will help the Mr. Obama better understand the valley's challenges. 

Costa: "I think when he sees, 300,000 or 400,000 acres of land that this year will not [be farmed] because there is no surface water and they have no ground water, and the impact to those farm communities the unemployment, the hardship, the suffering the impacts on the school system, I think it will resonate."

Costa is a sponsor of the House version of a Senate bill introduced this week that calls for $300 million in drought relief programs, and: 

Costa: Operational flexibility in the way the federal and state projects are operated currently. That could mean as much as 500,000 acre feet of water this year."

A different drought bill, sponsored by valley Republicans passed the House last week. It would roll back Delta pumping restrictions and environmental protections for species like the Delta smelt. Secretary Vilsack says the administration opposes that bill, but hopes to work with Congress to advance drought legislation. 

Vilsack: "Rather than wait for congressional action, what we're going to try to do is try to put the resources that are available that we have control over, to work as quickly as possible."

One thing that is absent from the president's drought relief plan is an emphasis on long-term water storage. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy says that California has enough reservoirs, the problem  he says is the lack of rain and snow.

Holdren: "We just haven't had enough water flowing into those reservoirs, it wouldn't help to build anymore."

Holdren also says a key part of the President's message will be that global warming is making droughts more frequent and severe.

Holdren: "We know that scientifically no single episode of extreme weather, no storm, no flood no drought can be said to have been caused by global climate change, but the global climate has now been so extensively impacted by the human caused building of greenhouse gasses that weather practically everywhere is being influenced by climate change."

Congressman Costa admits that while he doesn't expect the President to solve California's water problems with today's trip, he says it's a good start. 

Costa: "He can't make it rain and he's not going to change the traditional political water fights that we've had in California. We know those fault lines are historic and they're deep. But he can provide support and can continue to work with the governor on both short term efforts in terms of the operations of the projects and the long term efforts to fix our broken water system."

After his trip to the San Joaquin Valley, Mr. Obama will leave Fresno on Air Force One and fly to Palm Springs, where he'll meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II.