Obama's California drought tour: Will it help?

FRESNO, Calif. - Sometimes the backdrop in politics really does tell the whole story. And at every turn in President Barack Obama's visit to Fresno, Firebaugh and Los Banos, the images made it crystal clear: California is dry. Bone dry. And in need of some help.

Yet while the President's visit, a little more than three hours in all, made it clear that something needs to be done, exactly what that 'something' is – well, that's the tough part.

The Obama visit included all of the basics for a good political sightseeing tour - top officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown and California's two United States senators; hard working locals who can show the real story; and a problem so clear the traveling press pack mentioned it at every turn.

"As helos were landing, huge wind from rotors covered waiting reporters with dirt," wrote one of the journalists in his email dispatch from the Central Valley. "Terrain here dry, dusty, parched."

The presidential fix, at least on this trip, is temporary: a long list of short-term assistance programs for California and other dry parts of the West. From help for ranchers who can't afford to feed their herd, to money for emergency food bank and meal services for those out of work and unable to provide for their families.

But the President's message sounded like something stronger, at least to the ears of his California hosts.

"Your country is going to be there for you," he said in Los Banos, standing beside a fallowed field belonging to local farmer Joe Del Bosque.

The Obama visit also included a trip to a place where the same 'we're in it together' message was delivered almost 52 years earlier: the San Luis reservoir and water facility that was christened by a visit in 1962 from President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy made it clear that such projects didn't come easy.

"It is hard for us to agree on any course of action," he said of Americans. "We always have some different ideas on how that course of action can be made more perfect."

Fast forward to 2014 and those words ring pretty true.

With an historic drought in play, California and national leaders are divided on how to respond when it comes to divvying up what water there is. The Obama administration's plan rolled out for this trip includes what it calls "operational flexibilities" for water managers to use their inventory in ways that the rules might not otherwise allow. But the President's plan insists that environmental safeguards must remain in place, which usually means protection of fish species and estuaries when it comes to water.

And when asked to be more specific on this visit to the Central Valley, the President quickly realized he was swimming in the deep end.

"I'm not going to wade into this, because I want to get out of here alive on Valentine's Day!" he said to the press when asked about dealing with water supplies.

Later, the President said he sees his thinking on the issue as in line with the plan pitched this week in the U.S. Senate by senators from Oregon and from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Palm Springs.

Of course, that doesn't jibe with some of the President's loyal Democrats in California's congressional delegation, who called the Senate plan "troubling" on its potential environmental impact.

Republicans think it's all too little, not too much.

"President Obama briefly visited the Central Valley," blogged Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Fresno, "and promised to spread all kinds of money around our communities. What he didn't promise was any meaningful action to restore our water supply."

But there's also some bipartisan sense that any effort is better than none. Gov. Jerry Brown, who toured the various venues with the President, was quoted as telling Obama that "this isn't politics, this is serious."

And that sounded, too, like the message from Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who greeted the President on the tarmac as he arrived on Air Force One.

"I'm looking for solutions," the Republican mayor said, "like most everyone on the ground who doesn't tend to get caught up in the partisan battles."


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