Obama's Fresno trip to address drought full of political challenges

The Fresno BeeFebruary 11, 2014 

President Barack Obama can't make it rain, and that may be the only surefire way to solve California's complex water crisis.

The state has three of the nation's largest urban centers, home to tens of millions of thirsty residents. It has some of the most productive farmland in the world. There's a fishing industry that depends on healthy rivers, and an environmental movement that sees itself as the steward of the entire ecosystem.

All are angling for the precious water supply in the latest round of a war 150 years in the making. It's a fight that has grown even more contentious as a crippling drought engulfs the state -- and has resulted in high-profile pushes for the upper hand in the battle.

House Speaker John Boehner was in Bakersfield last month to push a Republican-sponsored water bill. Now President Obama is coming to Fresno, just days after four Senate Democrats introduced a drought bill.

These central San Joaquin Valley trips underscore the importance of dividing up California's limited water supply. But they also highlight the challenges of doing something truly extraordinary.

"The good thing for Obama is the expectations for him have dropped considerably," said Claremont McKenna College government professor John J. Pitney, recalling the president's 2008 campaign speech about slowing sea level rise and healing the planet. "Nowadays nobody thinks Obama can make it rain."

Still, Obama will no doubt feel the pressure from those competing water interests when he arrives Friday to discuss the drought.

He'll be accompanied on Air Force One by California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who on Tuesday -- along with Oregon's two Democratic senators -- introduced drought legislation.

The proposal would offer $300 million in drought aid, attempt to give more water to users in part by requiring flexibility in how federal officials manage pumping through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, allow water districts to delay their federal contract payments and speed up federal decision-making on water supply projects.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, Westlands Water District and Western Growers, a Fresno-based association representing growers in California and Arizona, all praised the legislation.

John Laird, California's Natural Resources secretary, said the bill offers "common-sense solutions" for the state.

But Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican, offered a different take.

He thanked the Senate for offering up a water bill "at long last," and then added that he sees it as "a basis for the House and Senate to negotiate an action plan to bring Californians relief from this man-made water crisis."

The Farm Bureau , Westlands and Western Growers all hinted at similar possible compromises in their reaction to the Senate legislation.

Already, the House has passed a bill that looks much different from the Senate's proposal. It would authorize dam construction, repeal the ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, authorize raising Shasta Dam and lengthen irrigation contracts to 40 years.

It's why some environmental organizations were relieved by some aspects of the Senate bill, while they also are nervously wondering if some sort of compromise legislation could emerge in any negotiations with the House.

"At first blush, the approach is one we'd like to see, as opposed to Nunes' approach," Trent Orr, an attorney with the Bay Area environmental group Earthjustice, said of the Senate bill in comparison to the Nunes-backed House bill. His organization has been involved in legal fights for a small fish, the Delta smelt.

"The devil is always in the details," said Orr. "There will be some things we, at a minimum, will have questions about."

But for the most part, the expectations are not high for anything major coming from Obama's visit.

Orr said he is "still scratching my head" over the visit.

"In this political climate, it is kind of like going behind enemy political lines," he said.

Obama, Orr said, will likely use the Valley to put forth a message geared more toward a statewide and national audience. That message: The drought is affecting the entire nation and the federal government will do all it can to get people through it.

Another reason for the visit could be purely political.

Stanford University political science professor Bruce Cain said there is little hope that Democrats will recapture control of the House of Representatives this fall, but Obama "certainly does not want to make a bad situation worse by undermining Central Valley Democrats by being unresponsive to the needs of agriculture."

He said that putting Boxer and Feinstein out front on a proposal that addresses supply flexibility without undermining the Endangered Species Act or San Joaquin River restoration "is a good counter move" -- even if "being too flexible on these matters can create more problems on his liberal flank, a section of the party that is already distressed over privacy, immigration and inequality issues."

University of California at Merced political scientist Nathan Monroe said, from a purely electoral politics viewpoint, there's really not much incentive for Obama to intervene in California's drought crisis.

"He's obviously no longer worried about his own re-election, and California is firmly in the hands of Democrats in all of the major statewide offices," Monroe said.

But on the matter of internal House politics, Monroe said Obama could use the support of moderates from both sides of the aisle.

"If that is the case, then he might be likely to try to intervene in favor of agricultural interests, since moderates in California disproportionately come from agricultural areas," he said.

What almost everyone seems to agree on is that any real water policy reform proposal or other such earth-shattering move from Obama is unlikely -- if not politically impossible.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who has been involved with California water for decades and has talked to Obama about the current drought, said the issue has vexed state leaders for decades.

He said every governor in recent memory has put forth an effort to fix the state's complex water issues.

The last one to come close to success was the current governor, Jerry Brown, who won legislative approval for the "peripheral canal" around the delta. But that plan was defeated in a 1982 referendum that saw a strange alliance of San Joaquin Valley farmers and environmental groups team up.

It shows just how difficult real water reform is in California, Costa said.

"The political fault lines in California on water are deep and historical and regional as well," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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