Amid one of the driest years in the state’s history, President Obama visited the the Fresno area Friday to announce $100 million in livestock-disaster aid, $60 million to support food banks and another $13 million toward things such as conservation and helping rural communities that could soon run out of drinking water.
Obama told reporters in the rural town of Firebaugh, where he met with community leaders, that he wasn’t about to wade into California water politics. Yet the president gently warned California’s leaders to find common ground rather than thinking of water as a “zero-sum game.”
“We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game,” Obama said. “If the politics are structured in such a way where everybody is fighting each other and trying to get as much as they can, my suspicion is that we’re not going to make much progress.” The president was joined by Gov. Jerry Brown and the California’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha spoke with Scott Shafer about the visit.
Khokha: Well, really, the big-ticket item, Scott, is $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers in California. And the USDA is saying that it’s going to expedite that money by trying to get the program geared up to accept applications in 60 days, which apparently is much faster than they’ve been able to get money to farmers and ranchers in past disasters. There’s also some money to help farmers implement conservation practices to save water, there’s some money for rural communities in California experiencing water shortages that are worried about water quality. And here’s something interesting: as part of the package there are $60 million available to California food banks to help families affected by the drought.
Scott Shafer, Host: And I am sure all of that is appreciated, but of course what farmers really need is water. And not the president, not the governor, not any of us can make it rain. But I’m wondering, did he or anyone from the administration weigh in on some of the bigger issues like water storage, dams, that kind of thing.
Khokha: You know, I think they were very carefully avoiding talking about those long-term political issues. I caught up with Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Fresno airport before Obama’s plane landed, and he said the administration’s goal right now is immediate help. And that really means getting those dollars in the hands of farmers and ranchers whose livestock is dying, or whose tree crops might die if they can’t water them. You know, interestingly Vilsack also told me that despite the magnitude of this drought, he isn’t predicting that consumers are going to feel a big jump in food prices. He said looking at past droughts and the diversity of what’s grown around the nation, there might be slight spikes in prices or short-term crunches, but he doesn’t really anticipate a big squeeze on consumers. I thought that was pretty interesting.
Shafer: Yeah, kind of a little bit of good news there. As we said, the president toured a farm, Sasha, he had a community meeting and met not just with agriculture leaders and growers, but also with the United Farm Workers Union and a farmworker. What’s the significance of this, do you think?
Khokha: I think that’s really a recognition of the domino effect of this drought. If, as some agriculture organizations are predicting, farmers leave more than half a million acres fallow, don’t plant those acres this year, that could have a huge economic impact on jobs, not only for farmworkers, but for truckers, for people who work in packing houses …
Shafer: And, of course, Sasha, this has become a real political football partisan issue. House Republicans, as you know, are blaming Democrats for the drought, and they passed a bill to relax environmental restrictions, get some water to farmers, but the president says he’s going to veto that. So that’s kind of a nonstarter. I’m wondering what do people in The Valley make of being at the center of this political donnybrook?
Khokha: You know, I think people here in The Valley, particularly farmers, are happy that politicians of any stripe are paying attention to their issues. I mean, you know, the most powerful agriculture lobby here, the Westlands Water District, is supporting Democratic Sens. Feinstein and Boxer’s bill because I think they believe it’s the best and most reasonable compromise. They recognize that the GOP House bill, or any bill challenging environmental protections would die quickly in the Senate. And these are farmers that are die-hard Republicans.
Shafer: And just quickly, Sasha, I know that Gov. Jerry Brown has been in The Valley this week. He attended a farm expo down in Tulare County. How are people feeling about him?
Khokha: You know, I think people are happy for the attention from the governor. He’s clearly focusing on The Valley, he’s made a number of trips down here recently. And he’s trying to reassure growers that he is the governor to take into account all of these competing interests in different parts of the state. He’s the one who will bring people together on conservation, on asking Washington to ease restrictions on water transfers; he’s pushing for this massive tunnel system to move water around the state. And I think growers are pleased that’s he’s showing more of a willingness to make alliances with agriculture than he did back when he was governor in the 1970s. Some of them have concerns over the cost of the tunnels, and they’ve also got their ear open to some of the Republican candidates coming through, like Neel Kashkari. He was also at the World Ag Expo this week and he’s explicitly pushing for more dams and reservoirs. And the growers like that.