President Obama checks out Del Bosque farm near Los Banos

tmiller@merced sunstar.com cpride@losbanosenterprise.comFebruary 14, 2014 

Los Banos residents Penny Glick and Debra Oller talks about President Obama's visit to Los Banos on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (Thaddeus Miller/tmiller@mercedsunstar.com)

MERCED SUN-STAR

— President Barack Obama’s visit to the West Side was met with both excitement and skepticism from officials and residents here on Friday.

News had spread that the president would visit the farm of Joe Del Bosque, which straddles Merced and Fresno counties, on Friday afternoon. During his visit, the president also trumpeted his administration’s efforts to bring relief for the region’s most severe drought in 40 years.

Standing outside Los Banos Drugs around lunchtime, Debra Oller of Los Banos said she was excited to hear the president would make a stop on the West Side. She lives across the street from an almond orchard and worries about the health of the agriculture industry and farmworkers. Oller hoped the president’s visit would bring some relief to the area’s economy, which relies heavily on the farmers and ranchers.

“We’re a small town and it’s good that Washington (D.C.) sees this little town,” the 60-year-old said. “I’m optimistic.”

Air Force One touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with community leaders at San Luis Water Facility in Firebaugh before visiting the Los Banos farm on Eagle Field Road.

Another resident, Penny Glick, said she was also hopeful the president will do something for area farmers. When farmers are hurting in Los Banos, she said, many others will feel the pain as well. The 62-year-old owns The Country Duck, a shop that sells home decor.

“If they don’t have the money, they aren’t coming in here,” she said, while standing in her shop on Main Street.

She saw Facebook posts about the president’s visit, she said, and most had a negative tone. “It’s a shame that more people aren’t taking pride that a president is coming,” she said.

California has had three dry years in a row, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last month. Water suppliers said they would wait to hear the president talk about ways to fix the state’s water shortage.

Chase Hurley, general manager of the San Luis Canal Co., said he hoped the president would address federal regulations that sometimes impede water circulation. “I think what the local folks are looking for is what he can do to help move water around the state,” he said.

Central California Irrigation District General Manager Chris White said landowners outside of his district have no water allocation, and inside the district the allocation is 50 percent.

“That’s the lowest it’s ever been,” White said. “I do think the visit by the president highlights the dire drought. The local economy is dependent on the farmers.”

White said he hopes Obama, after seeing the conditions here, will develop an urgency to press for Congress to work together on drought solutions.

Many ranchers and farmers have begun pumping well water sooner than usual.

Los Banos Councilman Scott Silveira, who operates a dairy, said he is cautiously optimistic about relief being delivered to farmers. “I’m optimistic, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said. “We’re in a real drought now.”

Silveira said farmers and dairymen are making tough decisions to conserve water. “We’ve become more and more efficient at what we do. At this point guys are talking about how much acreage they’re not going to farm,” he said. “I’m concerned about water for my cows, which feed us, which feeds the country, really.”

Less optimistic was grower Corky Sherwood, 67, who buys and sells grain. He called the president’s visit “symbolism over substance.”

Sherwood said three years ago was wet enough to last through today, but there was not enough space for the water. He also lamented the roughly 800,000 acre-feet that’s left in the Sacramento River yearly to maintain flows for the delta smelt and wildlife.

“They’re telling us to conserve water?” he said. “Why don’t you build more storage? We’re not short of water in California, we’re short of water storage.”

As the president’s arrival drew near, dozens of onlookers gathered in their cars near the farm south of Los Banos. Some had found the location because of the police blocking the roads.

Sharon Coelho, however, said she went looking for the site early in the day and called farmer friends to get tips on how to find the president. The 51-year-old waited near the Eagle Field Road site for more than three hours hoping that she would catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade.

“If it wasn’t for him, I would have lost my home,” she said. “I want to see him so bad.”

Coelho said her Los Banos home’s mortgage was upside down, and she was able to hold onto it after the president announced the Home Affordable Modification Program, a federal program that helps lower mortgage payments.

She was on the side of the road when the presidential motorcade pulled into the farm, which grows cantaloupe, asparagus and other foods, Friday afternoon.

Obama brought with him new assistance for the drought-stricken area. By directing Agriculture Department staff to make 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.

Conservation assistance includes an estimated $5 million in new aid for California, and an additional $5 million in emergency watershed protection grants and $3 million in water grants for rural communities.

“While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy,” Obama said during remarks at the Del Bosque farm. “California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”

Interior Department officials are being directed to operate federal water projects with “flexibility” to maximize water deliveries, and federal agencies are being directed to conserve more aggressively.

Much of the aid comes from existing federal programs but is being provided with what administration officials describe as extra dispatch. This includes the intention to establish 600 additional summer feeding sites in the drought-affected region, under the Agriculture Department.

Feeding programs were widely used by West Side farmworkers beginning in 2008. About 200,000 people were affected when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in place policies to restrict the water pumped into Central Valley farmland. The policies protected the endangered delta smelt, but made work scarce for migrant farmworkers.

Obama said changing temperatures influence drought in at least three ways: more rain falls in extreme downpours so more water is lost to runoff than captured; more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain rather than snow, so rivers run dry earlier in the year; and soil and reservoirs lose more water to evaporation year-round.

“The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” he said. “So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the baseline that we’re working off of.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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