Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday met with Valley farmers and water managers amid a growing push for him to declare a drought emergency.
The lack of rainfall -- and its impact on the region's farm-based economy -- is the overriding issue in the San Joaquin Valley, and Brown is being pressured by the agriculture industry, as well as politicians and business leaders, to make the declaration.
"I think today Valley leaders made a strong case that a drought declaration should be made, and I think the governor was listening," said Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat who was in the meeting.
But Brown -- who has the distinction of being governor in the previous historic drought year of 1976-1977 -- wasn't ready to make any such announcement. At least not yet.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"The bishops are advising us to pray for rain," he said later Monday at a Fresno City Hall news conference. "I am planning to go beyond that and do whatever we can in terms of water exchanges, working with local farmers and water districts to maximize the resources that we have. It is really serious and my staff and administration are preparing appropriate papers to do what is necessary."
Asked specifically if he would be declaring a drought emergency in the state, Brown said "not today, but we're certainly getting ready."
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa, both Democrats from California, last month called on Brown to immediately declare a drought and to request a broad emergency declaration from President Barack Obama, which would expedite some water transfers, provide financial assistance and suspend some state and federal regulations.
And on Thursday, the Nisei Farmers League, California Latino Water Coalition and others are planning a rally on the west steps of the Capitol in Sacramento to call for short-term action on water, as well as long-term construction of new infrastructure, to deal with the state's water issue.
Monday's meeting was held at the Westlands Water District offices in central Fresno. Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham declined to comment on the meeting, but did say that the governor's office asked Friday if Westlands would host the meeting.
It was the first of many meetings held by Brown as he blitzed Fresno just days after he released his state budget proposal.
Before leaving Westlands, Brown had a one-on-one meeting with Fresno State President Joseph Castro. He then headed to Fresno City Hall for other meetings on law enforcement, prison realignment, the proposed high-speed rail project, economic development and downtown revitalization. He even toured the Fulton Mall with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and, in the news conference, acknowledged several dozen anti-fracking protesters outside City Hall.
Castro said the governor was supportive of his proposal to grow the university's enrollment by 400 students next year.
The extra students, Castro said, will generate about $2 million, which are funds he said could go toward tutoring and other initiatives to boost graduation rates.
Brown also told Castro he hopes to keep tuition "flat or nearly flat" at California universities.
Castro said he and Brown also talked about technology on campus, including a proposal Castro is pushing to give more students access to iPads next year.
At City Hall, Brown met with Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, Chief Probation Officer Rick Chavez and Chavez's predecessor in the job, Linda Penner, who is now in Brown's administration.
The subject matter, Mims said, was Brown's prison realignment plan, which has sent low-level offenders from California's 33 prisons to county jails.
"We talked about how it has impacted Fresno County so far," Mims said. "We were able to give him some pretty good statistics."
Among those statistics: On average, statewide, more than 63% of individuals sentenced for non-serious, non-violent or non-sex offenses that came back to counties to be supervised by probation departments "showed to have a high propensity of reoffending for violent and serious property crimes," Mims said.
The four also talked about increasing capacity in state prisons.
"They still have to reduce their population," Mims said, "but the governor understood that he can't force more on to local jails, and that was good news."
Brown also met with Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jonathan B. Conklin, and then toured the Fulton Mall with Swearengin.
Asked about the mall, Brown said it reminded him of several parts of Oakland when he was mayor. Several of those areas are now thriving, he said.
"I think there's a lot of work to be done," he said. "I think its great that the mayor wants to revitalize that mall. We're going to do what we can at the state level" to help.
On another controversial issue, Brown gave another spirited defense of the proposed high-speed rail project, saying it will add to the state's quality of life.
"All in all, high-speed rail makes sense," he said. "We have the resources to begin, and I have the political will to make it happen. And while we have critics and opponents, they are not any different than the ones who tried to block the Golden Gate Bridge, the Panama Canal and the transcontinental railroad."
But while Brown made the rounds, it was clear that the "mega-drought," as Brown called it, was the top order of the day.
"I think the governor has been trying to get to the Valley for awhile and I think his timing is perfect, considering what's happening with the drought conditions here in the Valley," Perea said.