FRESNO, Calif. – President Barack Obama visited California’s Central Valley Feb. 14 and toured a drought-stricken region west of the city as part of announcing a multi-million-dollar drought-relief package.
Although some within agriculture called it a Band-aid approach, they also said it cast national, if not international, attention on the state’s plight.
“I think this is the first step,” said Paul Wenger, an almond and walnut producer west of Modesto and president of the Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau. “I think it’s got people’s attention, and I think we need to make sure we continue to have their attention.”
The relief package includes $100 million in livestock producer assistance, $60 million for food banks, $5 million in additional funding for agricultural conservation measures and $3 million for rural municipalities with water quality or quantity problems. It also establishes 600 summer meal sites in drought areas.
Wenger, who was one of about 18 non-government participants in a closed-door roundtable with Obama, said the state needs to better manage existing reservoirs as well as build additional storage.
During the last big rainstorm, for example, he said more than 250,000 acre-feet of runoff could not be pumped into reservoirs. Instead, it ran into the Pacific Ocean because of mandatory water flows to protect endangered fish the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Wenger said both political parties need to put their differences aside to address problems sooner.
“This is an unprecedented drought,” he said. “It’s going to have a huge economic and social impact to our state, and it’s going to affect a lot of people and the environment.
“The problem is the environment has dealt with drought before and survived,” Wenger said. “But will our social system and economic system that are dependent on a reliable supply of clean water survive? We don’t know.”
Earlier in the day, several American Pistachio Growers board members who attended a meeting on the drought and marketing said Obama’s relief package didn’t address the drought’s root cause.
“It’s just providing short-term money for something’s that is a long-term issue,” said Gary Smith, of Eriksson LLC, Visalia. “We have to start with a long-term focus. Short-term money doesn’t solve it.”
Smith and others said that additional reservoir storage is needed to capture water during rainy years and save it for dry years.
Rudy Hernandez, who manages pistachio ranches in Kern and Fresno counties, said he has seen the disparity between infrastructure investments and a lack of them.
The Westlands Water District west of Fresno, for example, has historically relied on federal surface water deliveries. Although individuals have sunk new wells since the past drought, the district as a whole hasn’t made large-scale investments in alternative water sources.
But the Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County began a groundwater banking program in the early 1990s during the state’s last prolonged drought. The program is designed to reduce groundwater overdraft and increase water delivery reliability for the 136,000 or so irrigated acres within the district.
George Soares, a managing partner of the legal firm Kahn, Soares & Conway LLP, Hanford, Calif., said five to six water bond measures are in various stages of development as possible 2014 ballot proposals.
An $11.9 billion water bond, dubbed the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act, was planned for a public vote in 2009.
It was withdrawn after supporters determined voters wouldn’t pass it. But Soares said he believed the time was right to present it to voters.