FRESNO -- President Barack Obama took a whirlwind tour of the central San Joaquin Valley's drought-damaged farm country Friday, getting a look at fallowed dirt and hosting a round-table discussion with farmers, industry representatives, environmentalists and politicians.
On his first-ever trip to the Fresno area, the president spent barely three hours in the region before flying on to Southern California, where he met with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage.
Taking a seat at a horseshoe table inside a cavernous metal San Luis Water District maintenance building on the west side of Fresno County, Obama tried to assure round-table participants that California's importance as a farm producer makes the state's water problems a national concern.
"I wanted to come here to listen," the president said during brief opening remarks before the event was closed to reporters. "We are going to stay on top of this because it has national implications."
The president said he's been well-warned about the history of water politics in California -- politics he said he did not want to get mired in "because I want to get out alive on Valentine's Day."
Turning serious, the president added that longer-term solutions to water would be required.
"Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south," Obama 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."
In remarks later in the afternoon, the president expanded on that theme, saying climate change would make weather events like drought and downpours more extreme. That, he said, will require rethinking how to meet the needs of all water users -- farmers, city residents, industry and the environment, and not just in California.
"California is our biggest economy. California is our biggest agricultural producer," he said, "so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table."
About 25 people were invited to the discussion. Participants included a range of people -- from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Jim Costa to United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, Westlands Water District General Manager Thomas Birmingham, Nisei Farmers League CEO Manuel Cunha and Andy Souza, CEO of Fresno-based Community Food Bank.
California is in its third dry year, and this winter so far is one of the driest on record. Both state and federal water projects have told farmers to expect no water this year.
Prior to Obama's arrival, the White House announced several steps that he will take to deal with the drought.
The drought assistance includes speedier livestock disaster assistance for California producers, provided under a newly signed farm bill, as well as targeted conservation assistance, watershed protection funds, additional summer feeding programs and emergency community water grants.
By directing Agriculture Department staff to make the 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.
Following the meeting, Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife Maria gave the president, dressed in slacks and rolled-up shirt sleeves, a tour of a field that will lay fallow because he doesn't have enough water to grow a crop. Gov. Jerry Brown, who joined the president on the tour, last month announced a statewide drought emergency.
Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League, was among those who met with Obama during the round-table discussion.
Bedwell said Obama and Vilsack were clear that they were in the valley to supply immediate relief. But the conversation also turned to finding long-term solutions including water storage and conveyance.
"The message we wanted to convey is that this is an issue that is impacting not just one region, but the whole state and that there needs to be a cooperative effort to help solve this issue," Bedwell said.
But three of the valley's Republican congressmen -- Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare, David Valadao of Hanford and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, none of whom were invited to join the president for any part of his stop -- were far more critical of the president's comments.
Valadao said the president "chose handouts and a climate lecture over real solutions."
Nunes was even more unsparing: "To blame the California water crisis on global warming is ludicrous. The state has an incredible irrigation system designed to supply water through five years of drought. But as a result of excessive regulations and lawsuits by environmental extremists, we cannot fully use this system, and billions of gallons of water have been flushed into the ocean that could have supplied drought-stricken farmers and communities."
The three Republicans proposed legislation that would authorize dam construction, repeal the ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, authorize raising Shasta Dam and lengthen federal irrigation contracts to 40 years. The bill already has passed the House, but faces long odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- along with Oregon's two Democratic senators -- introduced their own drought legislation.
Their 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.
During comments at the Del Bosque property, Obama said his administration's actions are similar to the Feinstein-Boxer legislation.
"And I hope that Congress considers the legislation that they have crafted soon," he said.
Feinstein and Boxer, along with Costa, joined the president on his flight to California and his tour of the valley.
After Obama left Fresno, Costa told reporters he was grateful Obama had come to "ground zero" to see the devastating effects of the drought, and the potential disaster ahead if the rains continue to stay away.
"I think this drought could get more difficult before it gets better," Costa said.
Improving the state's water storage is pivotal to a long-term solution, he said. This would help smooth consumption from wet to dry years. The raising of existing dams or the construction of new dams must be on the table, he said. The effort must be bipartisan.
But if storage proponents can't hammer out a compromise now, when water supplies are critical, the opportunity could be lost if the rains return next year, he said.
Although Obama scheduled no public events, his landing aboard Air Force One drew large crowds to Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
At least 500 people gathered Friday afternoon outside the airport to catch a glimpse of the special jetliner. Hundreds parked along the west side of the airport on Chestnut Avenue, between Dakota and Shields avenues.
Some Fresno groups also showed up, including Peace Fresno and Central Valley Tea Party.
The president's plane landed at Fresno Yosemite International Airport about 2:40 p.m.
Obama and his entourage were greeted at the bottom of the stairway by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who tried to make the most of her three minutes with Obama.
Swearengin had said earlier this week that she wanted just five minutes with the president to make her case for more federal help in fighting poverty and unemployment in Fresno. The absence of anyone else in the receiving line enabled her to get a few uninterrupted minutes before the president made his way to Marine One for the helicopter ride to the west side.
Obama waved to the cameras but did not stop to take questions. Swearengin was surrounded by reporters once Obama was gone.
The drought "clearly is an issue of national significance. I welcomed him and thanked him for his attention to this issue," Swearengin said.
"But I also made sure to point out that we have long-standing issues of poverty and unemployment in the city of Fresno even when we have plenty of water. The drought makes everything worse. But we also want to deal with long-standing chronic issues that face us in the valley."
Obama "committed to helping us," Swearengin said. "He certainly wants to be part of the solution here in Fresno. I asked for help from his cabinet secretaries. I asked him to say yes to Fresno."