President Barack Obama’s visit to the Westside was met with both excitement and skepticism from officials and residents here on Friday.
News had spread that the president would visit the farm of Joe Del Bosque, which straddles Merced and Fresno counties, on Friday afternoon. During his visit, the president also trumpeted his administration’s efforts to bring relief for the region’s most severe drought in 40 years.
Standing outside Los Banos Drugs around lunchtime, Debra Oller of Los Banos said she was excited to hear the president would make a stop on the Westside. She lives across the street from an almond orchard, and worries about the health of the agriculture industry and farmworkers. Oller hoped the president’s visit would bring some relief to the area’s economy, which relies heavily on the farmers and ranchers.
“We’re a small town, and it’s good that Washington (D.C.) sees this little town,” the 60-year-old said. “I’m optimistic.”
Air Force One touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with community leaders at San Luis Water Facility in Firebaugh before visiting the Los Banos farm on Eagle Field Road.
Another resident, Penny Glick, said she was also hopeful the president will do something for area farmers. She said when farmers are hurting in Los Banos, many others will feel the pain as well. The 62-year-old owns The Country Duck, a shop that sells home decor.
“If they don’t have the money, they aren’t coming in here,” she said, while standing in her shop on Main Street.
She said she had seen Facebook posts much of the day about the president’s visit, and most had a negative tone. “It’s a shame that more people aren’t taking pride that a president is coming,” she said.
California’s had three dry years in a row, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last month. Water suppliers said they would wait to hear the president talk about ways to fix the state’s water shortage.
Chase Hurley, general manager of the San Luis Canal Company, said he hoped the president would address federal regulations that sometimes impede water circulation. “I think what the local folks are looking for is what he can do to help move water around the state,” he said.
Central California Irrigation District General Manager Chris White said outside of his district land owners have no water allocation, and inside the district the allocation is 50 percent. “That’s the lowest it’s ever been,” White said. “I do think the visit by the president highlights the dire drought. The local economy is dependent on the farmers.”
White said by viewing the drought conditions he hopes Obama will develop an urgency to press for Congress to work together on solutions.
Ranchers and farmers have dealt with three tough years, and many have begun pumping well water sooner than usual.
Los Banos Councilman Scott Silveira, who operates a dairy, said he is cautiously optimistic about relief being delivered to farmers. “I’m optimistic but I’m not holding my breath,” Silveira said. “We’re in a real drought now.”
Silveira said farmers and dairymen are making tough decisions to conserve water. “We’ve become more and more efficient at what we do. At this point guys are talking about how much acreage they’re not going to farm,” he said. I’m concerned about water for my cows, which feed us, which feeds the country really.”
Less optimistic was grower Corky Sherwood, 67, who buys and sells grain. He called the president’s visit “symbolism over substance.”
Sherwood said three years ago was wet enough to last through today, but there was not enough space for the water. He also lamented the roughly 800,000 acre-feet that’s left in the Sacramento River yearly to maintain flows for the Delta smelt and other animals. “They’re telling us to conserve water?” he said. “Why don’t you build more storage? We’re not short of water in California, we’re short of water storage.”
As the president’s arrival drew near, dozens of onlookers gathered in their cars near the farm south of Los Banos. Some had found the location because of the police presence blocking the roads.
Sharon Coelho, however, said she had gone looking early in the day and called farmer friends on tips to find the president. The 51-year-old waited near the Eagle Field Road site for more than three hours in the hope that she would catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would have lost my home,” she said. “I want to see him so bad.”
Coelho said her Los Banos home was upside-down, and she was able to hold onto it after the president announced the Home Affordable Modification Program, a federal program that helps lower mortgage payments.
Coelho was on the side of the road when the presidential motorcade pulled into the farm, which grows cantaloupe, asparagus and other food, Friday afternoon to see the fallow land.
Obama brought with him new assistance for the drought-stricken area. By directing Agriculture Department staff to make livestock assistance a “top priority,” officials say they expect to provide California producers an estimated $100 million for 2014 losses and up to $50 million for losses in previous years.
Conservation assistance includes an estimated $5 million in new aid for California, and an additional $5 million in emergency watershed protection grants and $3 million in water grants for rural communities.
“While drought in regions outside the west is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy,” Obama said during remarks at the Del Bosque farm. “California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”
Interior Department officials are also being directed to operate federal water projects with “flexibility” to maximize water deliveries, and federal agencies are being directed to conserve more aggressively.
Much of the aid comes from existing federal programs, but is being provided with what administration officials describe as extra dispatch. This includes the intention to establish 600 additional summer feeding sites in the drought-affected region, under the Agriculture Department.
Feeding programs were widely used by Westside farmworkers beginning in 2008. About 200,000 people were affected when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in place policies to restrict the water pumped into Central Valley farmland. The policies protected the endangered delta smelt, but made work scarce for migrant farmworkers.
Obama said changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways: No.1 more rain falls in extreme downpours – so more water is lost to runoff than captured. No. 2 more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow – so rivers run dry earlier in the year. No. 3 soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round.
“The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” he said. “So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we're working off of.”