Amid one of the driest years in the state's recorded history, President Barack Obama visited California's agricultural heartland Friday to meet with community leaders, farmers and others and announce initiatives to help the drought-stricken Central Valley.
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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."
Obama met with farmers, a group that has accused the federal government of putting protections for rivers and fish above their crops and livelihoods, and who criticized the Commander in Chief saying financial assistance does not get to the heart of the state's long-term water problems.
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, told the Associated Press he hopes Obama comes with both immediate relief and a long-term strategy for helping California in its third straight dry year.
The president proposed the following after arriving Friday afternoon:
- $100 million in livestock-disaster assistance for California ranchers.
- $60 million for food banks to help families hurt financially by the drought.
- $5 million for conservation assistance in the hardest-hit drought areas.
- $5 million for watershed protection.
- $3 million in emergency grants for rural communities with water shortages.
"It's now wait-and-see what President Obama is bringing, or if anything is going to come of the visit," Jacobsen, who is not among those meeting with Obama, told the AP. "We're talking life and death when it comes to permanent crops down here."
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The Central Valley produces nearly one-third of the nation's fruits and vegetables, and Fresno County leads the nation in agriculture.
The drought prompted Democrats and Republicans in Congress to propose dueling emergency bills. Led by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the House passed one that would free up water for farmers by rolling back environmental protections and stop the restoration of a dried-up stretch of the San Joaquin River that once had salmon runs.
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Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer proposed their own version that pours $300 million into drought-relief projects without changing environmental laws. The bill would allow more flexibility to move water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms in the south and speed up environmental reviews of water projects.
Members of least one environmental group converged on Fresno to voice their positions on California's divisive struggles over water. Members of Restore the Delta, a grassroots environmental organization based in Stockton, oppose Gov. Jerry Brown's multibillion-dollar twin-tunnels proposal for diverting water around the delta for use on farms.
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Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the group's executive director, said her group didn't come to protest, but rather try to educate the president.
"President Obama should not be misled," she said. "We implore him not to support this boondoggle."