Presidential Plumbing

Obama’s Drought Visit Sidesteps Political Water Wars

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Article Tools
Print friendly
E-mail story
Tip Us Off
iPod friendly
Share Article

Last week, President Obama choppered into Fresno, ground zero of California’s Biblical-sized drought, to mouth political platitudes and strike a pose near a farmer’s cracked and bone-dry fallowed fields.

Two hours later, he was wheels up in Air Force One, heading to the Southern California desert for a weekend of golf on two luxury courses kept green and glistening with about 30 million gallons of water annually — enough to supply a family of four for 80 years.

Jerry Roberts

So are the perplexing paradoxes and surreal sights of the allocation, distribution, and use of water in the Golden State.

“Now, water politics in California traditionally, I know, has been pretty easy,” Obama said, going for and getting a cheap laugh at a photo-op during his brief Fresno stop.

“And I told the Governor I’m not going to wade into this because I want to get out of here alive on Valentine’s Day.”


A ZERO-SUM GAME: While Obama fulfilled his wish of escaping the Central Valley one step ahead of the posse, he failed to provide much leadership in the simmering, drought-fueled statewide battle over water.

In the Central Valley, the local news of the presidential visit was that the feds would send $100-million-plus to supply food banks for unemployed farm workers and to buy more feed for starving cattle. Most newsworthy elsewhere was Obama’s notable, if perfunctory, statement linking “this issue of water in the West with the broader issues of climate change that are having an impact all across the country in different ways. There’s a connection between drought in the West and hurricanes along the Atlantic and coastal erosion.”

Beyond that, the president’s main contribution to addressing what is California’s worst drought in 500 years, according to the calculations of at least one UC Berkeley scientist, was a bunch of why-can’t-we-all-get-along happy talk:

“Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game… We can’t afford years of litigation and no real action.”

Figuring out “how to play a different game” about water, of course, is precisely what many of California’s political leaders have been trying without success to do, at least since Governor Jerry Brown’s father had the job half-a-century ago.

ELECTION-YEAR WATER POLITICS: Far from consensus and cooperation, all sides in the water debate are digging ever deeper into their own positions, in a year when Brown and every member of the House is on the ballot: House Republicans, led by California GOP members, are embracing emergency legislation to boost deliveries of water pumped to the Central Valley through Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta; Senate Democrats, led by California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are sponsoring a counter-measure that could provide marginally more water to the valley, while still strictly enforcing restrictions on pumping to protect the Delta’s environmental integrity; Brown’s long-shot GOP rivals are attacking him for alleged failures to prepare for the drought as he trumpets a $25 billion, twin-tunnel plan to make Delta-Central Valley transfers more efficient.

Urban water districts in Santa Barbara and elsewhere throughout the state, meanwhile, are urging tough conservation measures on their customers while trying to piece together patchwork contracts for increased supply. Amid all this short-range economic and political maneuvering, however, the unquenchable reality of drought and water in California is shaped by two, incontrovertible facts:

• About three-fourths of the supply of surface water historically falls as rain and snow in Northern California, but more than three-fourths of demand comes from the southern part of the state.

• About 80 percent of state water is used by agriculture to grow more than 300 crops, often on naturally arid land, with many of the most-cash worthy - like almonds and cotton – requiring vast amounts of water.

Simply put, this means that California’s population and economy are utterly dependent on a complex and tangled system of massive water transfers that serves and satisfies economic demand when it rains. When it doesn’t, not so much.

As a practical matter, this means that “California’s current water situation is not sustainable,” according to Peter Gleick, a water expert and President of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research and analysis organization.

“We don’t use water well,” Gleick told the progressive political writer David Dayen, in Politico Magazine. “We don’t manage it well, and demand exceeds supply.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

"Let's be Perfectly Clear", he is a dead President in Office, No new term, No tasking for reelection, No real incentive to do anything in this Nation but to smile a whole lot and get photographed for our monies delivered to him in the form of a paycheck, what difference does it make whether he cares if California has a drought or a flooding,; he'll be vacationing in Hawaii, after pulling this Country down the road of failure...

dou4now (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 6:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Fresno never had water in the first place, so how can it be the site of a "biblically proportioned drought". The San Joaquin Valley agriculture has always been based solely upon artificial water supplies since day one. Oil development in this region is real; but agriculture is not.

Time to end this massive mechanical distortion of Nature and get back to basics. Go MidWest, young man and farm where Nature intended you to farm. Middle Europe is rich with under-used ag lands - invest in Romania and Bulgaria if you want global food production.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The answer is simple. We should not be growing water intensive crops in a desert. No more cotton in the Central Valley. Perhaps almonds either. The way to do this is simple, increase the price of water that the farmers receive. And no more 40 year contracts for water, either.

Tigershark (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

For the full story of california, Water, Agriculture and Real Estate check out kevin Starr's book "Material Dreams".
The West has always been sold as a fantasy of sorts by different business people, mostly real estate but ag too: a shangri-la in which everything is plentiful and everyone is forever young and robust.
Schemes to turn the deserts into verdant fields have often met with catastrophic consequences throughout the history of the SouthWest.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:39 a.m. (Suggest removal)

A comment I came across yesterday:

"As difficult as the drought is for California, it’s wonderful to know that President Obama cares and is helping out…

"On Saturday, Obama played at the Sunnylands estate, built by the late billionaire Walter Annenberg...

"The following day he golfed at billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s 19-hole Porcupine Creek.

"On Presidents’ Day, Obama hit the links at Sunnylands once again.

"The 124 golf courses in the Coachella Valley consume roughly 17 percent of all water there, and one quarter of the water pumped out of the region’s at-risk groundwater aquifer, according to the Coachella Valley Water District."

JohnTieber (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Rice farmers are one of the biggest water users in this state, but then they also get to go duck hunting on their own subsidized property at the same time. A twofer.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 12:50 p.m. (Suggest removal)


Dr. Kevin Starr is the man on everything historical in California, thanks for reminding me to re-read this book.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 5:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As a two time Obama voter I am truly disappointed in his governance and can't wait to move on with new leadership. Who advises him on this kind of stuff anyway? Glad handing in Fresno and golfing on lush billionaires golf courses in the desert in the middle of a drought. Makes Bush look smart , and that's damn hard to do. "Doing a damn good job Brownie" takes on a whole new context.
Now it's all over but the yelling on Keystone XL and he will approve that effing disaster this summer. Can't wait to see him in the rear view mirror.

geeber (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 6:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Let me be perfectly clear". -Richard Nixon- (A quote he often used)

billclausen (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 6:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

foofighter wrote, at February 19, 2014 at 9:10 a.m.:
"Go MidWest, young man and farm where Nature intended you to farm..."

Good point (move the people, not the water).

Much of my family is still in Michigan, and though I've been in Santa Barbara for fourteen years, I've told them I'll watch California dry up and blow away before I'll support sticking a giant straw into the Great Lakes (there have been proposals, even prior to this drought, I believe originating in Arizona).

JohnTieber (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Still, if they can build a pipeline to ship oil, why can't they build a pipeline to transport some of that excess water in the Northeast and Midwest?

We need a modern day William Mulholland.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
February 19, 2014 at 9:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)


There is no excess water in the Great Lakes ecosystem and, though I don't know for certain, I suspect not in the Northeast either.

Water levels on the Great Lakes have been declining since 1998, and currently are at the lowest levels ever recorded.

It will take much more than a particularly snowy winter or two to make up this deficit.

Reduced evaporation due to greater ice cover (such as this winter) will make little difference, especially considering that much of the usual winter evaporation, combined with winter winds, results in "lake-effect snow" being deposited within the Great Lakes watershed (as in Buffalo, NY, for instance), from where it drains back into the lakes.

Most importantly: once a giant straw has been stuck into the Great Lakes, can anyone be confident it will ever be shut off, regardless of what it might be doing to the Great Lakes ecosystem, sacrificing Phoenix, Las Vegas, California agriculture, etc, considering there's so much more political power in the southwest, due to the population migration out of the midwest.

JohnTieber (anonymous profile)
February 20, 2014 at 1:03 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Obama's visit to Fresno was simply a quick stopover on way to his 3 day golf adventure. He pledged $100 million to California farmers & farm families & then arrives in Palm Springs and graciously pledges 10 times this amount ($1 billion) to his buddy - the King of Jordan. Something wrong with this ..........

califguy66 (anonymous profile)
February 21, 2014 at 8:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

event calendar sponsored by: