Obama visits California’s drought country

The worst drought in the recorded history of the state is hurting farms and wildlife and threatening its drinking water

An abandoned farmhouse near Bakersfield, Calif., where grasslands that once supported cattle have dried up after three straight years of unprecedented drought.
David McNew/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama said Friday that the U.S. will have to make difficult choices about how it uses and conserves water as he paid a visit to California, which is suffering its worst drought in 100 years.

While visiting a water facility in Firebaugh, a rural area near Fresno, Obama said the United States can no longer afford to think about water as a competition between the nation's agricultural and urban areas. With overall water resources expected to diminish significantly in the future, he said, the country must find better ways to cooperate.

"The truth of the matter is that this is going to be a very challenging situation this year, and frankly, the trend lines are such where it's going to be a challenging situation for some time to come," Obama said while meeting with community leaders in Firebaugh.

Despite Obama's visit to the water facility and to a farm in the town of Los Banos, the impact of what’s expected to be the most severe drought in recorded history in California may still not be immediately obvious.

Not until someone points out the hundreds of thousands of acres that will not be planted this year because there is no water. Or the communities that may run out of safe drinking water in the next two months. Or the declining river levels that may keep Chinook salmon from returning to spawn.

“The real visibleness of it will be much more apparent two months from now,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that we’re going to see fallow acres resulting in very high unemployment rates.”

The hidden consequences — economic and environmental — of a drought of such magnitude will be felt for years to come.

Farmers are feeling the pinch now, but the impact on fish and waterfowl, commercial fisheries, recreation and consumer prices may not surface for months. If few cantaloupes and tomatoes are planted, for example, prices could rise for the ones that make it to grocery stores this summer.

“The impact of a drought is far-reaching, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. 

When there is less runoff from melting mountain snow flowing down to rivers, the water temperature rises, and water levels drop.

“That will impact aquatic vegetation and aquatic species,” Fuchs said. “There’s a ripple effect that some people will never see.”

Satellite images are showing vegetative stress in parts of the West, especially in California, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Crops are suffering, and the lack of forage is causing ranchers to cull their herds.

As of Feb. 4, almost half of the nation’s winter wheat, 40 percent of domestic cattle and 30 percent of corn acreage were in drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

California has been especially hard hit.

Obama visited the agricultural heart of the state and the nation, where farmers are making the tough decision to forgo cultivating seasonal crops and use the little water they have to save permanent crops. Fewer crops will mean fewer workers.

It’s a dire situation, one the White House will address with an expected $100 million in disaster assistance for California livestock producers, with relief going to other states facing similar problems. An additional $1 billion will help those who lost cattle during the 2012 drought that browned several states and the snow that hit the Dakotas in the fall of 2013.

The Department of Agriculture will accelerate the application process for disaster aid. Producers will be able to apply within 60 days, rather than six to eight months, and checks will go out shortly after an application is approved, said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Assistance will also include $60 million for food banks in California and the opening of 600 summer-meal program sites. “The president definitely recognizes that drought not only affects producers but families,” Vilsack said. “A lot of folks will not be employed.”

Obama also announced $15 million for conservation assistance, a third of which will help California farmers defray costs of new irrigation and other conservation practices they may adopt. The rest will go to Texas, Oklahoma and other drought-stricken areas. An additional $5 million will go to emergency watershed protection to reduce soil erosion and stabilize stream banks stripped of vegetation by lack of water.

If drought conditions continue, 500,000 acres — much of it open ground that would typically be planted with crops such as tomatoes, onions and other vegetables — will sit idle, said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Federation.

That’s just 6.25 percent of the 8 million irrigated acres in the state, but much of the impact will be concentrated in the western part of the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley in the north.

“It’s not going to be evenly distributed around California,” Kranz said.

After arriving Friday afternoon, Obama met with area farmers. John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said he “would also invite the president to meet with salmon industry workers to get the full effect. Tens of thousands of Californians and Oregonians rely on salmon to come out of California’s Central Valley. It provides a lot of work and a lot of food to a lot of people.”

Salmon live three years, and adult fish are already in the ocean.

“Salmon suffering from the drought are babies,” McManus said. “They’re hatching out of the gravel.”

A weak and warmer river flow will fail to flush the young fish out into the ocean, leaving them more prone to predators.

“Salmon are lousy swimmers,” McManus said. “We could see the impact next year, and 2016 is hanging in the balance.”

During California’s last major drought, in 1987 through 1992, the winter-run Chinook salmon population declined dramatically, with only 211 winter-run salmon returning to spawn in 1991, which led to the listing of the salmon as endangered, said Doug Obegi, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “Only a few years earlier, there were more than 50,000 winter-run that returned to spawn.”  

The fall run of Chinook salmon forms the backbone of the state’s salmon fishery.

California has four runs of Chinook salmon, with the fall-run Chinook forming the backbone of the state’s salmon fishery. The fishery was closed in 2008 and 2009, for the first time in the state’s history, because there were so few salmon, leading to hundreds of millions in lost income and thousands of lost fishing jobs, Obegi said.

He welcomes Obama’s visit to what many now see as simply drought country.

“The biggest need that we have is to get disaster relief to help stretch water supplies and to make sure we have safe drinking water,” he said. “There is so little water in the system right now that environmental laws are not restricting water delivery. It’s a real drought.”

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