Obama To See California Drought Conditions Firsthand

Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is less than 30 percent of what it should be, and that means farmers and ranchers will have to get by with much less water than they'd like come spring.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Much of the eastern part of the country is digging out from fresh layers of snow and slush. Much of the western part of the country is not.

MONTAGNE: Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is less than 30 percent of what it should be this year. That means farmers and ranchers will have to get by with much less water than they'd like come this spring.

INSKEEP: We've heard a lot on this program about the California drought and today we can say the Obama administration is promising aid. President Obama will make that announcement on a visit to California's Central Valley. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: What California needs more than anything is a whole lot of snow and rain. President Obama can't deliver that. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the president's visit to Fresno will help focus the government's attention on the historic drought that threatens to turn part of California, known as the nation's fruit basket, into a latter-day dust bowl.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: I think the president wants to assure the people of California, and particularly the producers of California, that we are paying attention, that we're here to help.

HORSLEY: The president is set to announce several emergency relief measures, including up to $100 million in livestock disaster assistance. Vilsack says that will help ranchers and dairy farmers whose grazing areas have dried up.

VILSACK: Sign-up would begin in April. And shortly thereafter, producers would be receiving checks that would provide them help and assistance to get through a difficult time.

HORSLEY: Audrey Bettencourt is facing her own difficulties. Ordinarily, she grows alfalfa for dairy cows and cotton on about 700 acres in Kings County, California. But this year she's letting 500 acres go fallow. She and other farmers have been warned to expect no irrigation deliveries from state or federal canals this year. So Bettencourt is rationing her limited supply of ground water in hopes of salvaging her valuable almond and walnut trees.

AUDREY BETTENCOURT: Some of our neighbors who only grow permanent crops are literally having to choose which trees to pull out of the ground. Because they don't have enough water to keep all of them alive.

HORSLEY: And that has ripple effects throughout the local economy. Bettencourt has already cut her workforce by more than 25 percent.

BETTENCOURT: We have no water to put the ground into production. Ergo, we have no crops to plant. Ergo we have no work for people to do.

HORSLEY: That means some of the people who normally harvest produce that's sold across the country will have trouble this year feeding their own families. Obama will announce $60 million in federal help for California's food banks. The government is also planning to open hundreds of centers to serve meals to hungry children throughout the summer.

Even as the stubborn drought turns pastureland in the valley brown, some lawmakers see an opportunity to make political hay. House Republicans have taken to calling this a man-made drought. And last week they passed a bill, sponsored by Central Valley Congressman David Valadao that would temporarily lift environmental limits, including the Endangered Species Act, so more water could be pumped for irrigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENT)

REP. DAVID VALADAO: Families, farmers, this water should have been going to you to grow crops, to feed families. We had a lot of water. We lost it all. It was dumped out into the ocean in the name of a fish.

HORSLEY: The Obama Administration has threatened to veto the GOP bill, saying it would jeopardize a decades-long effort to rebalance the way California divvies up its scarce water supply. This year, that supply is especially tight. And Secretary Vilsack says no amount of legislative maneuvering can change that.

VILSACK: I wish this were something as easy as somebody being able to turn on a faucet or a spigot and letting the water flow. But the reality is, you can turn it on and there just isn't anything to come out of that spigot.

HORSLEY: In addition to coping with the drought's immediate effects, the Administration is also setting up research centers in Davis, California and elsewhere around the country to look for ways to adapt to extreme weather. Vilsack says that's the smart thing to do, in case this year's drought in California is just the latest sign of a more lasting change in the climate. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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