WASHINGTON (AP) — California’s severe drought, stalled Middle East peacemaking and Syria’s civil war would appear to have little, if anything, in common, but President Barack Obama will address all three, and possibly other issues, on his first visit of the year to the nation’s most populous state.
Obama was traveling Friday to the Fresno area of central California, in the San Joaquin Valley, to draw attention to the state’s worst drought in more than 100 years.
Obama’s trip to California meant that he and his wife, Michelle, were spending Valentine’s Day apart.
The president was announcing 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. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the programs had lapsed but were renewed under the farm bill. He said Obama has ordered that they be up and running in 60 days.
The overall package includes smaller amounts for 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.
Before the announcement, he planned to visit a stricken farm and discuss the drought with farmers and others who have been affected.
Later Friday, Obama was meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, in Southern California, for talks covering the Mideast peace process, Syria and other issues.
The White House did not explain why the meeting was taking place in California, particularly when Abdullah spent much of the past week in Washington in separate meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others.
“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 at Sunnylands, which has a golf course that he is familiar with. Obama treated himself to a golf weekend at the estate last June after holding a two-day summit there with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
California’s drought follows a year of the lowest rainfall on record and has 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 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 two Democratic 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.
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