President Obama calls California drought plan 'climate resilience'

A sign over a highway in Glendale, California warns motorists to save water in response to the state's severe drought, February 14, 2014. US President Barack Obama is visiting drought-stricken California today and is expected to announce more than $160 million in federal financial aid to help California recover from the crippling drought that is threatening the state's agriculture industry.

President Obama met with farmers today in Fresno, California. He's promised to help them deal with the drought that plagues the region. Short of making it rain, though, there's not a whole lot the federal government can do to help farmers who don't have enough water.

What Obama is promising is money. Some is for disaster relief, but the big-ticket proposal is a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund, which he has included in his 2015 budget.

So what is "climate resilience"?

When floods devastated much of Northern Colorado this past fall, several waste water treatment plants were closed. Just how quickly they were able to get back online is a perfect example of climate resilience. It's a community's ability to recover from a natural disaster.

"Drought in California, hurricanes on the eastern seaboard, wildfires in the Rocky Mountain region," all of these disasters, says Elizabeth Albright, an assistant professor of environmental policy at Duke, will intensify in the future. The president's proposed climate resilience fund would provide money to help regions bounce back quicker from these disasters.

The fund would also support research.

"One of the most important things we can do is try to get a better understanding of the magnitude of floods, hurricanes and droughts that we might face," says Glen MacDonald, director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

One of the keys to creating resilience is being able to accurately predict just how bad a disaster will be. For example, scientists are coming up with new ways to study aquifers -- natural underground reservoirs -- to better predict the severity of future droughts.

"We can actually measure the loss of ground water through satellites," says Dr. Juliet Christian Smith, with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Using satellites, scientists looked at the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest. They found that depletion of the aquifer is changing the gravitational pull of the earth, "because we are extracting ground water at such a great rate," says Christian-Smith.

In addition to research and disaster preparedness, the proposed $1 billion would also fund new technologies to build more climate resilient infrastructure.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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