Andreas Borgeas is a freshman Republican senator representing a largely rural district that stretches from Death Valley, along the eastern swath of the Central Valley and across the Central Sierras, up to Sacramento, touching on 11 counties.
Sen. Borgeas was previously a Fresno City councilman and later served on the County Board of Supervisors. He was also a professor of international law and security affairs.
Just two hours before this conversation, Borgeas’ Senate Bill 559, to fix the Friant-Kern Canal and restore its capacity, passed the Natural Resources and Water Committee. Borgeas spoke with Agri-Pulse on that bill and the challenge of getting large water infrastructure packages passed today, along with his hopes for the new governor and about being in a minority party among a supermajority of democratic lawmakers. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
As a member of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, you had reservations on SB 45, the Wildfire, Drought, and Flood Protection Bond Act. You said: “It’s hard to support a bond unless I can demonstrate to the folks I represent we’re not going to be overlooked this time.” Can you describe the sentiment behind that?
The reason why I had such strong reservations is because we tend to be told that legislation is an evolutionary process and that all the compelling needs will be looked at and seriously considered.
What we experienced in the past — whether it was during Senator Cogdill’s days or Senator Berryhill’s days, my predecessors in the Valley area — means that we can no longer have a gentleman's handshake when it comes to water infrastructure and agricultural infrastructure in the Valley. We have been burned too many times.
In order to avoid that, it would be prudent of not just me, but all Valley representatives, to make certain that there's an absolute articulation, wherever possible, of where the intended dollars will go. Now, that may not bode well for everyone. But for our purposes, I think it would be extraordinarily helpful.
The Prop 3 water bond last year would have provided funding to fix the Friant-Kern Canal. Why was it so hard to get this legislation passed?
Well, that would have been just under a $9-billion bond. It failed at 50.65 percent (voting against the measure).
So the idea of groundwater sustainability and safe drinking water has kind of been thematic, especially during this legislative session. It really has been hitting home with the new governor. Governor Newsom and I have met a couple of times in the district, which is very rare. I'll be the first to tell you that it's not common for a California governor to spend so much time and attention in the Valley. He's heard our issues loud and clear.
We hosted an event for him in Fresno in December. Farmers are not known for holding back. They're very candid, up front people. And they were very clear that they had been dissatisfied with some of the comments, ideas and philosophies that were coming out of the (State Water Resources Control Board), with one individual in particular. I think the governor took that to heart and decided that maybe new leadership would be a more effective path forward. Bringing in Joaquin Esquivel to that leadership role (at the board) also sends a strong message to the Valley that (Newsom) wants to move the needle in the valley.
From his standpoint, there are so many opportunities — because the area has been left behind by many metrics — that if he wants, he can achieve more substantive change in the Valley. Now, we may not always agree what those ideas are. But the fact that he has an open dialogue is extraordinarily helpful.
What would you like to see Governor Newsom accomplish in the coming years?
I would certainly like to see him lend support to AB 559 for the Friant-Kern Canal. In the district, this has become such a rallying cry. Having him express some interest and looking upon the project as achieving the goals he's already stated — clean drinking water, sustainable surface water, groundwater recharge — these are things that he's talked about doing, along with lifting up impoverished and underperforming communities. This falls in line with one of those common denominators that transcends party politics. Democrats and Republicans can agree water infrastructure is so desperately needed that we can't plan for the future without acting today.
What are your concerns now that we’re seeing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) being implemented, with the San Joaquin Valley having to follow at least 500,000 acres to meet the requirements?
When SGMA was put into policy, it was put out there so that you could achieve local control and exercise a significant amount, but should you fail, the State of California would exercise its rights to come in. And that kind of carrot and hammer approach, when I was on the board of supervisors (for Fresno County), prompted us to snap to attention to start figuring out how these different groups were going to be compliant with SGMA.
It is one of those things where it is going to unfairly impact certain communities. And we opposed on principle any unfair application of extraction rates, when at the same time both the feds and the state had dramatically reduced the supply.
So the Valley has been doubly punished, in my opinion. Not only have we had significant reductions in actual surface water availability, with the lack of infrastructure upgrades, but by forcing some folks to extract groundwater and deplete that at a higher rate than is appropriate, it's been double jeopardy.
With the current political climate in California, what are some challenges going forward for your party?
I've approached representing my district with a healthy degree of pragmatism. I am here to advocate on behalf of not only Senate District 8, but to make certain that California is in a position to restore what we call that California dream.
Being a Republican in a minority status, as we are, I think we need to be mindful of not getting sucked into controversies or philosophical differences that are outside the jurisdiction that we are elected to participate in. If we build upon those common denominators, we can find those areas of mutual interests for Republicans and Democrats. And that is what is going to be compelling. The voters want Republicans to stand up for their principles and beliefs. But they also want to move California forward. So it's incumbent upon us to find those areas of mutual interest that move California in the right direction. That is the challenge and that is the goal.
Anything else you would like to add?
When it comes to water issues — because you have a sophisticated audience — one of the things that I'm proud of is the reason why I moved to Fresno. It was to clerk for a federal judge, a nationally renowned water judge, Oliver Wanger. I went to law school back in D.C. but came to Fresno to clerk. During that year, I was immersed in delta smelt, CEQA, Endangered Species Act, and any number of the alphabet soup of litigations involving agriculture, water and whatnot. That gave me a healthy respect for the complexity of water in California politics. In one of my first meetings with the judge, he made this joke that whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting. That set the tone during my tenure as his judicial law clerk writing his opinions. These are very serious matters and need to be treated with respect.
From a national security standpoint — which is the lens through which I view agriculture — food production, food security, water availability are part of our national security platform. If you wage war on production, and discourage industries from continuing and thriving, we will find ourselves dependent — as we have seen in many other areas of industry — relying upon other players to supply our chain. That is a dangerous and unsustainable position for America. So when people start talking about the environment and global positioning and California’s role in leadership in the nation as well as overseas, this is an essential part of what we should care about. Letting other California legislators appreciate this fundamental pillar of our national security platform is essential.