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by Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's visit to Fresno on Friday will shine a spotlight on California's long-running drought and underscore its impact on the Central Valley, one of the worst-hit regions in the state.

Obama is scheduled to discuss his administration's response to the arid weather and additional steps that can be taken to cope with the drought, which threatens to inflict more economic pain on California this year.

Last year "was the driest year on record in California. And 2014 is not looking much better. It's looking worse so far," Doug Parker, director of the University of California system's California Institute for Water Resources, said Monday.

"California has always had droughts. It's always had floods as well. We just have very varied weather. What's unusual about this one is mainly the duration of it because we're really entering into what might be our fourth year of drought," Parker said.

California is projected to have the nation's driest weather in 2014, with most of the state experiencing an "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint effort between the federal government and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Recent rains in the Central Valley and the central coast and snow in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains were helpful but Californians "need three or four more of those just to get back to normal," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. "They've fallen that far behind when you look at the historical data for California."

There's still time for the state to catch up and it's too early to call the current drought California's worst ever, Svoboda said. It snows through September in the Sierras -- a major supplier of the state's water -- and other California mountain ranges, and major snows could solve the problem, he said.

If the precipitation doesn't pick up, the Central Valley and small communities along the northern coast will face the worst effects of the drought, Parker said.

Southern California and urban regions, which have spent heavily in recent years on projects to increase local supplies and store water brought in from far-off sources like the Colorado River, will fare better than rural, agricultural regions that haven't spent much on such infrastructure, he said.

A stubborn high-pressure system is sending moisture-laden winds high above California and into the eastern U.S., which is experiencing an unusually wet and cold winter, Parker said. This phenomenon usually lasts a day or two and breaks down. But, for reasons unknown -- climate change may be a factor -- the weather pattern has persisted for months, he said.

California's livestock owners are facing feed shortages and are selling off their animals or spending a lot more than usual to feed them.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown's drought emergency declaration last month, Californians are urged to step up efforts to conserve water. Brown's budget for fiscal 2014-2015 seeks nearly $619 million to boost water conservation, restore wetlands and watersheds and for groundwater and flood-control projects.

The state's agricultural industry is bracing for major losses this year, with some estimates showing farmers won't grow fruits, vegetables and nuts -- California's main crops -- on as many as 500,000 acres this year, according to Parker. California has about 25.4 million acres of farm land.

If that happens, prices in U.S. supermarkets for everything from broccoli to almonds would soar in the months to come.

This month, the Obama administration offered California some help: $14 million to California water districts and farmers for water-management projects and $20 million for water-conservation projects. Federal officials also pledged to allow for faster water transfers to especially parched regions.

Obama's visit to Fresno comes the week after the GOP-led House voted along mostly partisan lines to approve a Republican bill that sought to increase the water supply for Central Valley farmers.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and other Republicans representing the agricultural region sought to redirect water sent to the San Francisco Bay Delta under the Central Valley Project that is used to improve the habitat for Delta smelt and other fish. All but one California Democrat -- Rep. Jim Costa, who represents the Fresno region -- opposed the bill.

The White House threatened to veto the legislation, which also faced opposition from California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats.

Obama's visit is aimed at counteracting the GOP's message that the president and congressional Democrats care more about fish than farmers. Meanwhile, Feinstein and Boxer are expected to unveil their own California drought-relief bill soon.

Contact Raju Chebium at rchebium@gannett.com; Twitter: @rchebium

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