In an effort to hear the opinions and concerns of local agriculture leaders, Congressman Jeff Denham hosted a round table discussion Friday morning where he was joined by prominent Valley growers and their questions regarding farming issues.
“This is an opportunity for me to hear from you…so that I can figure out what we need to fight for this next session,” said Denham, who is currently in a heated race with Democrat Michael Eggman to represent the state’s 10th Congressional District. “It’s a good opportunity to hear from all of you and take that message back to Washington, D.C.”
Topics discussed at the round table included water, trade, immigration and future bills to benefit farmers, and representatives from local agricultural organizations were present to discuss their views, such as Duarte Nursery, California Women for Agriculture, California Fresh Fruit Association, Blue Diamond Growers and Land O’ Lakes.
The most-talked about subject was water, with Denham highlighting the New WATER Act – a water infrastructure bill that would provide long-term, low-cost financing for water resources infrastructure in reclamation states.
“It’s a good bill,” said Denham, who hopes to see the bill pass this November. “I think we finally have the leverage and the opportunity to get something done in November. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we’re in a better position to do something than ever before.”
While the present agriculture leaders were enthusiastic about the New WATER Act, they had another topic on their mind: the State Water Board’s recommendation to require 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers.
The State Water Board has proposed increasing flows to provide habitats for fish and wildlife upstream of the Delta from Feb. 1 to June 30 from three tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River and adjusting the salinity requirements to a slightly high level to reflect updated scientific knowledge and protect farming in the Southern Delta. Farmers in the Valley have taken opposition to the recommendation, and hope to keep the proposal from happening.
John Duarte of Duarte Nursery asked Denham if there was anything the federal government could do to intervene.
“Will this water bill or any of the federal regulations help preempt the State Water Resources Control Board from establishing regulations that counter some of the best practices that our local irrigation districts established?” said Duarte, citing research from both Turlock and Modesto’s irrigation districts that find the unimpaired flows unnecessary. “They (the State Water Board) are making inane proposals with no answers to our very sound science that we’ve invested heavily in.”
There is nothing in the New WATER Act, Denham said, that addresses the State Water Board’s proposal.
“This has caught us somewhat by surprise,” said Denham. “We have looked at amendments to what we’re currently working on, but it’s late in the process to do that.”
Denham went on to say that the best weapon those in opposition to the recommendation have is their voices. For now, he plans to continue to put pressure on the State Water Board, but emphasized the importance of making all information regarding the proposal available to the public so that they may make their scrutiny known.
“I’m frustrated with my state as well, with the State Water Board and some of the decisions the governor has made,” said Denham. “The positive thing, I would say, is that your congressional delegation does understand how big of an issue this is and we are working together to try and resolve it.”
Also discussed at the round table was the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a 12-nation pact that would relax tariffs among the participating countries and set higher standards for hours and wages, working conditions and environmental protection, among other provisions.
“I understand how big trade is to our community,” said Denham. “I believe these trade deals are a good opportunity for us to expand our growth and to create a fair playing field.”
Many of the growers in attendance were in favor of TPP, including Steve Van Duyn of Blue Diamond Growers.
“I think it goes without saying that as agricultural exporters in the almond business, we are definitely for TPP,” said Van Duyn. “If it were to pass, it would open up the almond world.”
According to Van Duyn, the passing of TPP would mean Blue Diamond would be able to move $1 million more worth of almonds than they do currently, and they would gain 480 new consumers. Ian LeMay of California Fresh Fruit Association echoed Van Duyn’s sentiment.
“With all the damage that the state house is doing with minimum wage and changes to overtime, the cost of doing business in California is only going to increase and domestic production, although it has grown, has not grown to a point where it will cover those costs,” said LeMay. “So, looking at new markets or how we can grow those foreign markets could help to at least sustain the agriculture industry here.”