Friday, February 14, 2014

President Obama Announces Millions In Aid During Visit To Drought-Devastated California

The President speaking at the Del Bosque farm in Los Banos, accompanied by the farmers, Gov. Jerry Brown, Sec. Vilsack, and California lawmakers
Applications for disaster assistance will be expedited; President also proposes $1 billion fund to combat climate change...
Fresno, CA - President Barack Obama on Friday afternoon flew into the parched San Joaquin Valley to "witness firsthand" the worst drought the Golden State has seen in a century.  He unveiled a proposal for a $1 billion fund to combat climate change, and announced a series of executive actions to rapidly rain millions in federal aid on devastated communities filled with struggling farmers, agriculture workers, and their families. 

"I want to make sure that every Californian knows--whether you’re NorCals, SoCal, here in the Central Valley--your country is going to be there for you when you need it this year," Mr. Obama said as he stood on the side of a dusty field in Los Banos, owned by farmers Joe and Maria Del Bosque.

An aerial tour of the valley with Rep. Costa and Sens. Feinstein and Boxer
During his first-ever visit to the valley nicknamed "the salad bowl of the nation," Mr. Obama was joined by California Governor Jerry Brown (D) as he toured the drought-devastated farm and held a roundtable with stakeholders at a water facility.  He also took an aerial tour aboard Marine One, joined by the California lawmakers who traveled with him from Washington: Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Rep. Jim Costa.

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agriculture bioregions in the world, but among the hardest hit in California's drought.  With 2013 the driest year on record, the primary crop is now blowing dust.  91.6% of California is experiencing "severe" to "exceptional" drought, according to the Feb. 11 stats from the federal Drought Monitor project.  

Brown officially declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, asking the state's 38 million residents to voluntarily cut water use by 20%.  The President is trying to expedite relief.

"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," Mr. Obama said.

Applications for the four disaster assistance programs included in the newly signed Farm Bill, which have not been available to producers since 2012, will be fast tracked.  The programs that previously would have taken 6-8 months to get running will be open for application by mid-April, and cash for farmers should be available "shortly after," according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who joined Mr. Obama for his visit.

Vilsack has already declared 27 California counties as primary natural disaster areas, making farmers and ranchers eligible for emergency loans.

"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," President Obama said.  

The conservation assistance will also be available for Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.

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

"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 project." 

California ranchers and farmers will also have access to $5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection Program assistance to help the most drought-impacted areas protect vulnerable soils and stabilize dry stream banks, among other projects.
There will also be $60 million to help California food banks in the driest areas feed impacted residents, and USDA will establish up to 600 summer meal sites to ensure children receive daily meals.

After first touching down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport at 2:40 PST, Mr. Obama boarded Marine One and headed to Firebaugh, a drought-stricken town 40 miles west of Fresno, for a roundtable discussion at the San Luis District Water Facility.  

Roundtable: POTUS is flanked by Sec. Vilsack and Gov. Brown
The roundtable discussion: President won't take sides in California's years-long water wars...
"I wanted to come here to listen," Mr. Obama told the 20 local farmers and agriculture industry leaders invited to the roundtable. 

"This is going to be a very challenging situation for some time to come." 

The issue has a personal angle, he told the participants: "As you know, Michelle wants us to use more of your products, not less.  In fact, I think her Let's Move! initiative has met with some of the producers to talk about how we can get our kids eating more produce, more nuts, more healthy foods."

With the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at 12% of normal, two weeks ago California's State Water Project announced for the first time in its 54-year history that it will deliver no water to agencies that serve 25 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland.  They will have to use water from other sources, such as the Colorado River, remaining groundwater and what is left in reservoirs.

Mr. Obama said he isn't going to take sides in California's years-long water battles, which have pitted north against south and agriculture regions against cities. 

"I'm not going to wade into this because I want to get out alive on Valentine's Day," he joked.

But, he added, "We can't think of this simply as a zero-sum game."

“It can't just be a matter of there’s going to be less and less water so I'm going to grab more and more of a shrinking share of water," Mr. Obama said.

"Instead what we have to do is all come together and figure out how we all are going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed.  And that's going to be a big project, but it's one that I'm confident we can do.”

After the roundtable, Mr. Obama took his tour with the Del Bosques, trudging through a dusty brown field at their Los Banos farm.  The son of a migrant worker, Joe Del Bosque first grew cantaloupes in other people's fields, but now owns his own large operation where he grows cherries, almonds, and cantaloupes.  Much of the farm is now unplanted due to the drought. 

In addition to the Del Bosque family’s precarious situation, people who are dependent on sales from his farm, including seasonal workers, will be without work and income this summer if there is no water, Mr. Obama said.

"While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer," Mr. Obama said.

"So what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table."

For fiscal year 2015 budget, a $1 billion "climate resilience fund"...
Mr. Obama insisted that the California drought is related to climate change, and said he will propose a $1 billion "climate resilience fund" in his fiscal year 2015 budget to help communities prepare for the effects of climate change and to fund research and technology to protect against its impact.  He is expected to deliver his budget to Congress in mid-March.

“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," Mr. Obama said.  

"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."

Climate change has led to the drought in three ways, said Mr. Obama:  Any rain that falls tends to do so in downpours, and thus much of the water runs off rather than gets saved.   The mountain snowpack has been reduced overall, and thus offers less water for use; and the generally warmer world makes water evaporate into the air rather than be retained for use.

“Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get worse," Mr. Obama said.  

"And the hard truth is even if we do take action on climate change, carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades. 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."

"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," Mr. Obama added.

Mr. Obama's $1 billion fund will allow the government to "better understand the projected impacts of climate change," encourage local action to reduce future risk, and fund technology and infrastructure that will be more resilient to climate change, according to the White House. 

The President has already ordered the Agriculture Department to create seven regional and three sub-regional "Climate Hubs," announced last week.  One sub-hub is located in Davis, California, he pointed out, and will be assisting with drought monitoring and relief efforts. 

As he ended his visit, Mr. Obama promised residents of the Golden State a steadfast federal partner. 

"But we're going to have to all work together in the years to come to make sure that we address the challenge and leave this incredible land embodied to our children and our grandchildren in at least as good shape as we found it," Mr. Obama said.

CLICK HERE for the White House fact sheet on the Administration-wide drought response.  CLICK HERE for the transcripts of the President's remarks.

Mr. Obama departed from the Fresno Yosemite International Airport at 6:08 PST, flying aboard Air Force One to Southern California.  He will spend the weekend at the historic Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, the former home of the late Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

The stay will include meetings with His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss a renewal of aid and the ongoing conflict in Syria.  The President is scheduled to return to Washington, DC, on Monday, Feb. 17. 

The Roundtable Discussion participants at the water facility included the following people, according to the White House: 

* Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
* Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Michael Connor
* California Gov. Jerry Brown
* Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
* Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
* Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
* Joe Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque, Inc.
* Maria Gloria Del Bosque, Empresas Del Bosque, Inc.
* Nancy McFadden, governor’s executive secretary
* Ann Notthoff, California director, Natural Resources Defense Council
* Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president
* Gabriel Agustin, farm worker
* Mario Santoyo, executive director, California Latino Water Coalition
* Martin McIntyre, general manager, San Luis Water District
* Steve Chedester, general manager, Exchange Contractors
* Ronald Jacobsma, general manager, Friant Water Users General Manager
* Thomas Birmingham, general manager, Westlands Water District
* Tony Campos, Campos Brothers, farm owner
* Don Peracchi, Peracchi Farms, owner
* Barry Bedwell, California Grape & Tree Fruit League, president
* Paul Wenger, California Farm Bureau Federation, president
* Tom Nassif, Western Growers Association CEO
* Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League CEO
* Janie Fleming, Ag and Industrial Supply owner
* Andy Souza, Fresno Community Food Bank CEO


*Top two photos by Pete Souza/White House; third by Rep. Costa