President Obama visited drought-stricken California last week and promised Golden State farmers and ranchers millions of dollars in aid, but not a drop of water.
In an event with farmers and other ag interests near Fresno, Obama on Feb. 14 promised $100 million in livestock-disaster aid. He also offered $60 million to support food banks, and $13 million for conservation projects and assistance to rural communities.
California farmers said the money is appreciated, but what’s wanted is more water — water now allocated to endangered salmon and smelt.
The drought is real, but California’s long-term water woes are as much man-made calamity as natural disaster. The demands placed on California’s water resources are a human construct.
In the long run, California farmers and ranchers need more storage capacity, and want some of the water now diverted for endangered species to fill new reservoirs for use in future droughts.
Last month farmers learned they wouldn’t be getting their allocations from the State Water Project. It’s unlikely they’ll get much, if any, from the federally operated Central Valley Project.
As a result, California farmers are expected to leave fallow up to 500,000 acres this season. Producers will use what water they do have on the most high-value crops.
Obama acknowledged the politics are difficult.
“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.”
Environmental interests, part of the president’s base, litigate any and all attempts to reduce allocations for endangered species. Obama has signaled his call for compromise doesn’t extend to changes in environmental policy.
Earlier in the week the White House said Obama would veto a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would relax environmental protections for the endangered fish and provide more water for farmers.
We agree with the president that the California drought will have implications across the country.
Any national concern for California’s water woes are more hyperbole than reality at this point. But consumers will take notice when their favorite foods become more expensive, or are increasingly imported from South America. Will they see the value in allowing the nation’s salad bowl to wither?
California farmers have made great strides in water conservation, and have demonstrated every interest in pushing further. They’re also willing to look at every proposal, and hammer out a deal that saves a $30 billion industry while serving other interests.
Obama says it’s time for a different game in California. He’s right. But that means everything has to be on the table, including the water allocations for endangered species.