FRESNO, Calif. — President Obama arrived in the heart of California’s parched farmland on Friday afternoon to offer tens of millions of dollars in federal assistance to the state, where the lack of rain and snow this winter has led to the severest drought in its modern history.
Meeting with farmers and ranchers around Fresno — where electronic signs along highways flash entreatingly to drivers, “Serious drought. Help save water” — Mr. Obama pledged $183 million from existing federal funds for drought relief programs in California. Though the announcement won cautious support in this region, Mr. Obama also pressed ahead with the more difficult task of enlisting rural America in his campaign on climate change by linking it to the drought.
The president was accompanied on his tour by the state’s top Democrats, a show of solidarity that underscored the emerging partisan battle over the management of the drought in the nation’s most populous state and the source of half of the country’s fruits and vegetables.
Seated at the center of a horseshoe table at a water district building where he met with community leaders, Mr. Obama spoke of the difficulties of dealing with the drought in the face of California’s intricate water politics, which have traditionally cleaved along regional lines and have often become mired in epic court battles.
“Water has been seen as a zero-sum game: agriculture against urban, north against south,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to play a different game.
“We can’t afford years of litigation and no real action,” he added.
Mr. Obama also spoke of climate change, drawing links to the drought as well as hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Obama announced that he would ask Congress for $1 billion in new funding for a “climate resiliency” program to help communities invest in research, development and new infrastructure to prepare for climate disasters.
Visiting the farm of Joe and Maria Del Bosque, where one field that would have normally been planted with melons now lies fallow, Mr. Obama said, “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods are potentially going to be costlier and they’re going to be harsher.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, who accompanied the president, declared a drought emergency a month ago. But many communities had already imposed water restrictions, and more than a dozen remain at risk of running out of water within a couple of months. For the first time in its 54-year history, the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, said it is unable to provide water to local agencies, including farmers.
Water scarcity has forced cattle ranchers to sell portions of their herds. Farmers have left hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land go fallow.
Democrats and Republicans have been dueling with separate drought bills. Much of that rivalry has focused on the Central Valley — not only because it is California’s breadbasket, but it also represents, in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, a rare battleground between Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and a Fresno Irrigation District board member, said that Mr. Obama’s announcement was “a great start, though it won’t fix long-term issues.” The Central Valley, he said, needs major upgrades in water infrastructure and needs the federal authorities to release more water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, north of here.
“Mother Nature is not the only reason we’re in this mess,” he said, expressing skepticism about linking the drought to climate change. “California has gone through dry periods in its history, and instead of focusing on something that is questionably tied to this or not, we just want to focus on the immediate drought.”
After Speaker John A. Boehner met with farmers in the Central Valley last month, House Republicans passed emergency legislation that would provide more water to the valley by allowing federal and state officials to keep pumping water out of the environmentally fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.
Democrats say the bill was a water grab and would hurt environmental protections. Early this week, California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, proposed an emergency drought bill that would offer $300 million in aid, including provisions that would simplify the purchase of water from other areas and that would allow the diversion of more water from the delta to farmers.
Friday’s announcement was the Obama administration’s second effort in two weeks to sell its climate policies to rural America. Last week, after passage of a sweeping farm bill, the White House announced the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” aimed at helping farmers and rural communities respond to the risks of climate change.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who joined Mr. Obama here on Friday, announced the move at a White House news conference. The Obama administration is increasingly deploying Mr. Vilsack, a farmer and former Iowa governor who wears cowboy boots and speaks with a Midwestern twang, as an emissary to bring the climate change message to farm country.
Despite Mr. Vilsack’s appeal, selling climate change to rural red-state lawmakers may be an uphill battle. Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents Fresno, was not invited to Friday’s event. He attributes California’s water crisis not to weather, but to interference by the federal government.
“Global warming is nonsense,” Mr. Nunes said. He criticized the federal government for shutting off portions of California’s system of water irrigation and storage, and diverting water into a program for freshwater salmon. “There was plenty of water. This has nothing to do with drought. They can blame global warming all they want, but this is about mathematics and engineering.”
Of Mr. Obama’s proposal to create a $1 billion climate resiliency fund, Mr. Nunes said, “We want water, not welfare.”