(Updates with second drought event)
By Steve Holland
LOS BANOS, Calif. Feb 14 President Barack Obama
toured parts of California's drought zone on Friday and pledged
to speed help to the No. 1 farm state, but he said harsh weather
in the United States will get worse until more steps are taken
to address climate change.
California is coming off its driest year on record and a
recent winter storm did little to dull the impact of the drought
in the state that produces half the country's fruits and
vegetables. A recent drought monitor said 91.6 percent of the
state is experiencing severe to exceptional drought.
Obama walked past a below-normal canal in a dusty field that
would otherwise be producing asparagus and organic melons. In
remarks after the tour and during an earlier roundtable, the
message was sober: California, usually bountiful, is facing a
"Anybody in this state can tell you California is living
through some of its driest years in a century," he said,
standing with Governor Jerry Brown.
Since California is the biggest U.S. agricultural producer,
he said, "What happens here matters to every working American
right down to the cost of food you put on your table."
Obama announced plans to make available within 60 days up to
$100 million in aid to help California farmers who lost
livestock because of drought conditions. For livestock producers
across the country, about $1 billion will be available.
The assistance was contained in a $956 billion farm bill
that Congress passed and that he signed last week. Separately,
the administration said it plans new funding to address climate
At a meeting of the state's top water officials in
Sacramento on Friday the mood was grim, despite the welcome news
that federal aid was on the way.
Water resources secretary John Laird called the drought a
catastrophe that had not been mitigated by recent rains in the
Job losses among farm workers were expected to be so acute
that $60 million of the federal assistance was expected to be
used to shore up food banks.
"This is a disaster that crosses over into employment and
food," he said.
Laird said the state was moving quickly to help the
communities most affected by the dry conditions, sending
low-security prison inmates to lay pipe in the parched town of
Willits to improve access to water.
"We can't make it rain, but we're sending water where we
need it the most, saving what we can and asking everyone to
conserve," Laird said.
Obama said the federal government will help California as it
adjusts policies to conserve more water. But he said it will
take a lasting effort over the long haul to combat carbon
emissions blamed for global warming.
"We have to be clear: a changing climate means that
weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms,
floods are potentially going to be costlier and they're going to
be harsher," he said.
Droughts have existed for eons, he said, "but scientific
evidence shows that a changing climate is going to make them
more intense... Unless and until we do more to combat carbon
pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get
Given congressional gridlock over the issue, Obama might be
building a case to impose some measures this year against
climate change via executive order, part of an effort to take
action where he can with or without congressional approval.
Beyond California's drought, Obama's 2015 budget proposal,
expected in March, will include $1 billion to help communities
prepare for climate change, the White House said.
The so-called Climate Resilience Fund will pay for research
on climate change and fund technologies and infrastructure to
blunt its impact.
Obama stopped in the drought zone on his way to California
to meet Jordan's King Abdullah on Friday night at Sunnylands, a
desert retreat in Rancho Mirage.
Obama announced $15 million in aid to help farmers and
ranchers implement water conservation practices. This includes
$5 million for California and $10 million for hard-hit areas in
Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.
Among other measures, Obama said he directed federal
facilities in California to take steps to curb water use
immediately, including a moratorium on new landscaping projects
not deemed essential.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and
Mark Felsenthal and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Alden
Bentley, Andre Grenon and Ken Wills)