Amid partisan bickering, Obama to tour drought-affected areas

A stream of water trickles on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California January 21, 2014. California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January, and the dry year of 2013 has left fresh water reservoirs with a fraction of their normal water reserves. REUTERS

As Democrats and Republicans fight about the best way to deal with California’s historic drought, President Obama is traveling to the Fresno area, Friday, where he’ll take part in a roundtable with those affected by the drought. 

During his visit, the White House says, Mr. Obama will lay out a laundry list of efforts his administration is taking to help those affected, including:

  • $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for California producers
  • $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for the most extreme and exceptional drought areas, including $5 million in additional assistance to California and $10 million for drought-impacted areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico
  • $5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection Program assistance to the most drought impacted areas of California to protect vulnerable soils 
  • 600 summer meal sites to be established in California’s drought stricken areas
  • $3 million in Emergency Water Assistance Grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages

The president’s visit comes as the drought has become somewhat of a political football.  Last week, House Republicans passed a bill to divert water to California's parched Central Valley farms, water that now flows to preserve rivers and endangered fish.

   On a recent visit to California, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the drought's devastation a man-made disaster, saying, "How you can favor fish over people is something that people in my part of the world would never understand."

In response, Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., called the Republicans' actions an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California's efforts to manage this severe crisis.

The bill would reallocate water from the San Joaquin Delta to farmers south in the Central Valley and stop efforts to restore the San Joaquin River, which now runs dry a short distance west of Friant Dam.

In response, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, proposed legislation that would pour $300 million into emergency aid and drought relief projects, upgrading city water systems and water conservation.

Political scientist John Pitney said, "This is a partisan water war. The Republicans are siding with farmers. The governor is siding with environmental interests."

Brown, whose administration supports the bill proposed by the Democrats, said he is doing what he can to find middle ground, rather than exploiting the drought as a chance to throw "cheap rhetorical missiles" at the other side.

"Look, if anybody can get it done, I can get it done," Brown said Wednesday during a visit to Tulare, Calif., in the heart of California’s Central Valley – the state’s agricultural heartland. "I'm working night and day to achieve it." He did not elaborate on those efforts.

He added that bickering among federal lawmakers over drought aid accomplishes nothing.

"They like to fight, and now they're fighting," Brown said. "That doesn't help farmers, doesn't help California, doesn't help the country."

Brown said the president will view devastation brought on by the drought and recognize the need for the federal government to invest in water projects, improving water quality and technology.  The White House said the president will be joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as well as Brown, Feinstein and Boxer.

Brown said the farmers he met with in Tulare expressed their frustration, which he shares. 

"When you're in a drought, you're in a drought," he said. "From biblical times there are plagues and there are droughts, and we have to learn how to live with them."

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