With Democrats holding a super majority of power in California since 2018, Republican Assemblymember Andreas Borgeas of Fresno is seeing the pendulum now swing in the other direction. Borgeas said the pandemic is creating frustration among voters at a time when the state needs bipartisan agreement on investments in water infrastructure.
“People are discontented,” said Borgeas, speaking with California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson during an Ag Day event last week. “That is finding its way into the governor's predicament politically.”
He was referring to the news that the group spearheading a petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to have gathered enough signatures to qualify for a vote in November, putting pressure on the governor to broaden his political support. Newsom said last week he has visited the Central Valley more than a dozen times in recent weeks.
“California is at a moment in time where the chickens have come home to roost,” said Borgeas, arguing that policymakers have “kicked the can” when it comes to financing the state’s deferred maintenance on water infrastructure and road repairs. “[Voters] want their politicians and their representatives to stay engaged with their community and to find solutions and to be pragmatic and work with their colleagues.”
Johansson—along with many in the agriculture community—was frustrated that little money from the Proposition 1 water bond passed in 2014 has been invested in surface water storage and conveyance systems. Last week the state finance department projected an additional $14 billion in 2020 tax revenue will add to the current budget surplus. California also stands to gain about $150 billion from the rescue package signed by President Joe Biden.
“What prevents us from investing?” asked Johansson. “We're about to go through another pretty depressing year, when it comes to water, at no fault of our own.”
Borgeas said agency boards and commissions acting as a separate branch of government beyond the governor and Legislature have been stalling the Prop. 1 funding.
“Even though the money was there, they find creative ways to make folks like us in the Central Valley continuously ineligible for these projects,” said Borgeas. “When the money stands there long enough, at some point in time, the wolves get hungry and then begin diverting it to other preferred projects.”
He cited the high-speed rail project as a “classic example” of this and said bond proposals are no longer a reliable source of funding for the valley as a result.
“If we were to have other initiatives pass forward, I would make certain the language is legally airtight,” he said, adding that it should be tied to a specific capital investment.
Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Sanger has doubled down on a bipartisan effort to gather state investments for water conveyance in the San Joaquin Valley. After Newsom vetoed her two-year bill for repairing the sagging Friant-Kern Canal, Hurtado introduced a new measure this year. Senate Bill 559 initially requested $400 million for the project, based on federal cost estimates. The new bill pushes for nearly $800 million and adds maintenance needs for the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct.
Borgeas has signed on to SB 559 as a co-author, his second turn at securing economic support for businesses this year. He introduced a measure in December that offered relief to small businesses and nonprofits and was later incorporated into an emergency budget bill and signed into law by Newsom.
“A Republican, with a $2.6 billion package, getting that fiscal amount through the Legislature—unheard of,” said Borgeas.
He held this up as an example of how Central Valley lawmakers of both parties need to create coalitions with coastal lawmakers to “have a seat at the table” and pass major legislation to support their region.
“Our valley delegation numerically is not sufficient,” he said. “We need to build bridges.”
Borgeas described the diplomatic hurdles this involves for the region’s most pressing issues.
“Some of the things that are intuitively the scariest are water and ag issues, because of their history,” he said. “They're complex, and they have a lot of political forces and cross currents that can create challenges.”
As a lawmaker, this requires a pragmatic approach that is well articulated, sensitive to the political landscape, works across the aisle, and has a strong certainty for passing through the legislative process, he explained.
“Being a flame thrower does not get anyone anywhere in the Capitol,” Borgeas said. “It is a form of discipline that is important for all policymakers and representatives to bring to bear.”
In talking with Johansson, CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld also recognized the importance of collaboration, especially as the state prepares for drought.
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“If we're not all understanding who's on first and how we all collaborate and work together,” said Blumenfeld, “we're not going to be able to get through this in a way that really reduces impacts on the [water] suppliers to businesses, farms and homes.”
Johansson emphasized that water issues are deeply connected to the administration’s goals relating to air quality, climate change, pesticide use and soil health. Planting cover crops, for example is difficult when water is scarce. These issues are interrelated, he argued, and can’t be compartmentalized within one agency.
“My goal in CalEPA,” responded Blumenfeld, “is to create more cohesion, more understanding of how all the different pieces work together. We've allowed government to get too siloed.”
While the administration may be taking more interest in rural concerns, agriculture is already facing a difficult year.
Along with the forecasted drought, the second round of plans are due for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in January 2022, and the Department of Water Resources is in the midst of assessing the viability of plans already submitted for the most critically overdrafted basins. Districts that have traditionally relied on groundwater pumping when managing past droughts are now in a difficult position.
Johansson said fixing the Friant-Kern Canal through SB 559 would have helped the valley to alleviate some of these groundwater issues. He was also frustrated to see three years of Democratic leaders proposing multiple variations of a climate resilience bond that contained no investments in surface water infrastructure. A new measure calling for a $5.5 billion wildfire and climate resilience bond would exclude conveyance from the bond.
Assembly Agriculture Chair Robert Rivas, who represents much of the Salinas Valley, has been working with the agriculture industry alongside environmental and social justice groups to craft a $3 billion food and agriculture bond proposal, which also includes provisions on climate resilience. Johansson asked Rivas at the Ag Day event if he would include any infrastructure funding to support communities implementing groundwater plans.
“We certainly made sure that we dedicated resources to all SGMA efforts,” said Rivas. “It’s certainly recognized that there's a lot of concern and a lot of support that's needed on the ground.”
The bill would allocate $50 million in grants to support local groundwater sustainability agencies, along with $12 million each for technical assistance and for smallholder and disadvantaged farmers. While the bond would support a broad range of infrastructure along the food supply chain, water infrastructure is again left out.
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