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Obama Visits Drought-Stricken Fresno, Calls For Congressional Action

Feb 14, 2014

President Obama visited the valley today in a whirlwind tour, delivering a speech this afternoon at the Los Banos farm of Joe Del Bosque to announce his proposal for emergency drought relief. He says that while the lack of rain and snow is a concern to the Central Valley, it’s also a national issue:

Obama: “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 arrived in Fresno at around 2:40 p.m this afternoon aboard Air Force One. He was accompanied by Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein as well as Fresno Congressman Jim Costa. After landing at Fresno Yosemite International Airport and meeting briefly with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the President and his delegation boarded helicopters and flew to a water facility near Firebaugh.

There the President took part in a roundtable discussion with local ag leaders, farmworkers, and environmental groups. He says while the state’s water politics are complicated, the drought has brought consensus about one key issue.

Obama: “One of the great things about that town hall that I just came out of -- not everybody agreed on anything -- (laughter) -- except people did agree that we can't keep on doing business as usual.” 

As part of the Presidents drought relief package $100 million will be made available to valley ranchers who are struggling to feed their herds. Another $60 million will go to area food banks, and the USDA will launch 600 summer lunch sites for Valley kids. The President will also direct around $20 million to help farmers with everything from water conservation to soil erosion protection. The administration also is directing federal agencies to allow what it calls “greater operational flexibility” in the way California’s water projects are managed.

That’s a similar concept to what’s proposed in a bill by Senators Boxer and Feinstein, which would also bring $300 million in aid to the valley.

Obama: “I hope that Congress considers the legislation that they have crafted soon, work through some of the concerns that have been expressed -- 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.”

One key part of the Presidents message today centered on climate change:

Obama: “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. Scientists will debate whether a particular storm or drought reflects patterns of climate change.  But one thing that is undeniable is that changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways.”

They include more rainfall in extreme downpours, and change in the mix of precipitation resulting in less snow and more rain, and more evaporation.

That move drew criticism from Republican members of the House who passed their own drought relief bill earlier this month. It would relax delta pumping restrictions and roll back rules protecting the endangered delta ecosystem. The White House opposes that bill and it most consider it “dead-on-arrival” in the U.S. Senate.

In a written statement, House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield says the President’s proposal won’t help valley farmers receive water they’ve already contracted for, and the focus on global warming is misplaced.

The president closed his speech with a call for bi-partisanship, and recalled past efforts at building water infrastructure in California by referencing President John F Kennedy, who in 1962 traveled to Los Banos to speak at the groundbreaking of the San Luis Reservoir, with current Governor Jerry Brown’s Father, Governor Pat Brown.

Obama: “If we were able to do that then, we should be able to do it now.  It's just a matter of us making sure that we're not putting politics ahead of trying to get things working.”

After leaving Fresno, the President flew to Palm Springs to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.