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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour in California's farm-rich Central Valley. President Obama is there today, meeting with farmers and others who are affected by the state's historic drought. The president is announcing millions of dollars in emergency relief. It's his first visit to the area, where the drought is reigniting a political debate about how to manage the state's limited water resources and who should take priority. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Todd Allen takes a hand off his steering wheel and points to a field of brown, baked dirt passing by the right side of his truck.

TODD ALLEN: Here's a plot of ground that I'm not going to be able to farm. That's 160 acres.

ROTT: Allen owns a farm about an hour's drive west of Fresno, in California's Central Valley. This is where half of the country's entire produce is grown. Usually, Allen's fields contain cantaloupe, cotton, tomato and wheat.

ALLEN: But now, because of the drought, I'm going to have leave it fallow.

ROTT: Fallow or unplanted. Allen says he's going to have to do that with 450 of his 600 acres, and he's not alone. The drought is forcing hundreds of thousands of acres in the Central Valley to go unplanted this year. And many farmers, like Allen, aren't just blaming Mother Nature for that.

ALLEN: 20 to 30 percent of our water is gone because of a little fish.

ROTT: That little fish is the delta smelt. You've probably never heard of it. But in California, it's representative of a decade's old clash over water allocation. Here's the basics. There's not a lot of water in California, and there are a lot of people who want it: environmentalists, farmers, city folk. The delta smelt is just a species caught in the middle of all that debate.

ADAM KEATS: It's a convenient boogeyman. It's a scapegoat.

ROTT: Adam Keats is with the Center for Biological Diversity. He says the smelt are a key part of a complex ecosystem. That ecosystem being the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where much of the Central Valley's water comes from. That's where it gets complicated. The smelt are also on the endangered species list and that means some of the delta's water that would go to farmers like Allen is, instead, allocated to the fish. The result if a farmer versus fish controversy that's been going on for years in California. This year, that political fight has enticed Washington.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: How you can favor fish over people is something that people in my part of the world would never understand.

ROTT: House Speaker John Boehner visited California a couple of weeks ago to support a bill introduced by California's House Republicans. Its aim, to get farmers more water by rolling back environmental laws like the ones that protect the smelt. Senate Democrats countered this week with a bill that would give money for drought relief and allow more flexibility around those environmental laws without gutting them.

TOM HOLYOKE: Politicians don't want to let a good crisis go to waste.

ROTT: Tom Holyoke is a professor of water and politics at Fresno State University. He says that's especially true with mid-term elections coming up. Just turn on the TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: We're facing a real water crisis here in Sacramento. Where's our representatives?

ROTT: Ads like these, which show Republican Doug Ose standing in the dried-out bottom of Folsom Lake, illustrate just how much the drought is going to be a part of this campaign season in California. Ose is trying to unseat a freshman House Democrat. Democrats are doing the same in vulnerable Republican districts, targeting the GOP's legislation that they say puts farmers' needs first.

MICHAEL HANEMANN: Saying we should re-allocate water to my constituents' doesn't require a whole lot of courage and is really an act of opportunism.

ROTT: Michael Hanemann is an agriculture and resource economics professor at UC Berkeley. He says that this type of grandstanding doesn't really accomplish anything. The state's key water users have made efforts to reconcile their differences in years past, but Hanemann says lawmakers haven't made the difficult far-ranging decisions that are needed.

HANEMANN: They have stayed away from it because it's an issue where there are going to be losers as well as winners. And the politicians don't want to touch it.

ROTT: But he says, sooner or later, they're going to have to. Barring a miracle March, this drought isn't going to go away. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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