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FIREBAUGH, Calif. — Conveying the concern of the entire nation, President Barack Obama said Friday the U.S. will have to make difficult choices about how it uses and conserves water as he paid a visit to drought-stricken California.
No longer can the U.S. afford to think about water as a competition between the nation’s agricultural and urban areas, Obama said. With overall water resources expected to diminish significantly in the future, he said, the country must find better ways to cooperate.
“The truth of the matter is that this is going to be a very challenging situation this year, and frankly, the trend lines are such where it’s going to be a challenging situation for some time to come,” Obama said while meeting with community leaders in Firebaugh, a rural area not far from Fresno.
California is in the midst of its worst drought in more than 100 years. After arriving here Friday afternoon, Obama was to meet with area farmers and announce more than $160 million in federal financial aid, including $100 million in the farm bill he signed into law last week for programs that cover the loss of livestock.
The overall package includes smaller amounts to aid in the most extreme drought areas and to help food banks that serve families affected by the water shortage. Obama also will call on federal facilities in California to immediately limit water consumption.
The president also was announcing that the budget he’ll send to Congress next month will include $1 billion for a proposed “climate resilience fund” to invest in research and pay for new technologies to help communities deal with the impact of climate change. The proposal is likely to face stiff resistance from lawmakers wary of new spending and divided on the subject of global warming.
Obama drew a connection between the water issues California is facing and the broader impact he said climate change is having around the country, pointing to hurricanes along the Atlantic and coastal erosion. He said the entire nation is concerned about the drought because of California’s enormous economic output.
“We are going to stay on top of this because it has national implications,” Obama said.
Later Friday, Obama was meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II at Sunnylands for talks covering the Mideast peace process, Syria and other issues. It’s unusual for Obama to host world leaders outside of the White House, though he did hold a two-day summit at Sunnylands last year with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Obama’s meetings with Abdullah will be much shorter — just a brief meeting Friday night, followed by a working dinner. The White House wouldn’t say why the meeting was taking place in California, particularly given that Abdullah spent much of the past week in Washington and met with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others
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“The king is also going out to California. The president and the king can meet there and will meet there as part of this trip,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Obama was expected to spend Presidents Day weekend on the golf course at Sunnylands. He’s traveling without first lady Michelle Obama.
The White House has been closely watching the California drought, which follows a year of the lowest rainfall on record. The drought has also brought to a head political warfare over the state’s water resources that feed major cities, the country’s richest agricultural region and waterways that provide habitat for endangered species of fish.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17. Obama telephoned him several days later for an update on the situation.
Farmers recently learned they will not be receiving irrigation water from the State Water Project, a system of rivers, canals and reservoirs. They anticipate a similar announcement later this month from federal authorities who operate a similar system called the Central Valley Project.
Federal officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, earlier this month pledged $34 million to help farmers and ranchers conserve scarce water supplies, improve irrigation methods, head off erosion of unplanted fields and create better ways to water livestock.
The Republican-controlled House recently voted to address the drought by rolling back environmental protections and temporarily halting the restoration of a dried-up stretch of the San Joaquin River, work that is designed to restore historic salmon runs. Farmers would prefer to have the water diverted to their crops instead.
Boehner recently showed his support for the bill by visiting a dusty field in Bakersfield and saying fish shouldn’t be favored over people.
Environmentalists and Democrats oppose the bill, and the White House has threatened a veto, arguing that the measure would not alleviate the drought but would undo decades of work to address California’s longstanding water shortages.
In response, California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, joined fellow Democrats in proposing legislation that would pour $300 million into emergency aid and drought relief projects, upgrade city water systems and water conservation and speed up environmental reviews of water projects, among other steps.