FRESNO -- President Obama swept into the dusty San Joaquin Valley on Friday to discuss California's historic drought, open the federal government's checkbook and make tens of millions of dollars in aid available to struggling farmers and communities.
Obama, whose plane touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport at 2:40 p.m., came bearing a $183 million aid package that includes money for ranchers in California who have lost livestock, communities that are running out of water and farmers that need help conserving scarce water resources.
After a brief stop at the airport, the president boarded the helicopter Marine One and flew to Firebaugh, a drought-stricken town 40 miles west of Fresno.
"I wanted to come here to listen," Obama said at a round-table meeting at the San Luis Water District with about 20 local farmers and agriculture industry leaders. "This is going to be a very challenging situation for some time to come."
Obama joked that he wasn't going to take sides in California's endless water wars that pit farmers, environmentalists and cities against each other.
"I'm not going to wade into this because I want to get out alive on Valentine's Day," he joked.
Afterward, farmer Joe Del Bosque and his wife, Maria, gave Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown a tour of fallowed fields he owns in the area. Del Bosque is the son of a migrant farmworker who first grew cantaloupes on other people's fields. Now he has cherries, almonds and a huge farm.
"What happens here matters to every working American," Obama said, "right down to the food that you put on your table."
In discussing the severity of the drought, he noted that climate change exacerbates dry conditions.
"One thing is undeniable," he said. "Rising temperatures influence drought."
By dusk, Obama flew back to Fresno by helicopter, then flew on Air Force One to Palm Springs, where he had meetings planned with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
The visit was not the first time a president has come to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. On Aug. 18, 1962, President John F. Kennedy joined then-Gov. Pat Brown, the father of Jerry Brown, for the ground breaking of the massive San Luis Reservoir outside Los Banos.
Today, that reservoir is 31 percent full, amid the worst drought in California history.
Some farmers in the area said they want federal laws changed to allow more pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a critical source of water for cities from San Jose to Los Angeles -- and a key habitat for salmon and other fish.
Paul Pafford lives in Firebaugh and farms 1,300 acres of pistachios, almonds and pomegranates. He also plants cotton and corn, but not this year. He doesn't have enough water to grow them, he said.
Had Pafford not invested in a new $500,000 well a few years before the drought set in, he would have been forced to walk away from his pistachio crops altogether, he said.
Pafford called Obama's visit to the valley "a lot of show."
"This land is a tremendous resource. We have a microclimate that can't be duplicated anywhere else in the world, and with that, we've fed the world and California's economy for many years," Pafford said. "What we really need right now is not a presidential visit. We need someone to ease-up on some of these restrictions and get us some water."
He said the president's drought aid package is akin to welfare that farmers like him don't want or need.
"It's really frustrating not to be able to do business out here," said Pafford, who added that he'll be forced to lay off some workers who help him harvest his crops unless the area gets some water, either from the skies or the Delta pumps.
Nearby, signs dotted some of the fields with messages like "No water, no farms, no jobs. Save California Agriculture." Another placard posted near an irrigation ditch warned that "No swimming" was allowed, but the bottom of the ditch was dry and cracked.
One local GOP congressman slammed the visit.
"President Obama briefly visited the Central Valley today and promised to spread all kinds of money around our communities," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "What he didn't promise was any meaningful action to restore our water supply. When we asked him for 'water,' he apparently thought we said 'welfare.'"
But U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who accompanied Obama on the trip, said the president was delivering a "message of hope" to Californians and assuring them that the federal government will do all it can to alleviate stress brought on by the drought.
"We are here to help to the extent that we can," Vilsack said.
Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics. Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN
During his visit to the Central Valley on Friday, President Obama announced a drought-aid package for California:
Starting in April, Central Valley ranchers will be able to apply for $100 million in livestock disaster assistance funding. They can use the money to replace livestock who have died or purchase feed.
California ranchers and farmers will both have access to $5 million in U.S. Agriculture Department funds to implement water conservation programs, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields and improve the access of livestock to water.
Projects to stabilize dry stream banks will get $5 million in federal funds, and small community water districts set to run out of water in the next 60 to 120 days will be able to apply for $3 million in grants.
Another $60 million in Agriculture Department funds will be made available to food banks in California's driest towns.