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Valley congressman fighting for water rights, transit needs
GOP's John Duarte sits down to interview
Duarte interview
Congressman John Duarte, a Republican representing District 13, sat down with the newspaper staff last week to talk about his first months in office. - photo by Joe Cortez

Congressman John Duarte, a freshman Republican lawmaker who represents the new 13th District, which includes Ceres, as well as some surrounding neighborhoods, and reaches up to Lathrop, down through Patterson and Mendota, and into Coalinga in Fresno County, sat down for an update on his first months in office. 

In one of the closest and most-watched congressional races in the country, Duarte defeated Democratic challenger Adam Gray, 50.2% to 49.8%. 

Duarte answered questions about his committee appointments, legislative priorities and his thoughts on the nation’s debt crisis. Here are the highlights: 

Q: So, the first thing: could give us a little history about you and then what prompted you to get into politics? 

Duarte: Well, I’m a local farmer, businessman, native to California, native to Modesto. I’m a third generation (Californian) on my mom’s side and fourth generation on my dad’s side, so a long-time, long-time Valley resident. I raised my kids here. My wife Alexandra and I, we live on a farm outside of the city near Empire. I’ve been running Duarte Nursery for 33 years with my family. The last 15 or 20 of them as president and the company’s CEO. I got in this race because I really didn’t like the direction America was taking. I felt like we were dashing very quickly towards socialism. And if you look at the current administration, and the fact that there’s consolidated government, both the House and the Senate, even for some old-school Democrats, I think the lurch leftward was too fast and too much. And that’s why I really believed I could uniquely, as a Republican, but more importantly as a more traditional centrist businessman and farmer, could win this district, even though it had a heavy Democrat lean to it. 


Q: You have some really important committee appointments — Transportation Infrastructure, Agriculture and Natural Resources. Tell us about those.  

Duarte: With transportation infrastructure, it’s also important to know the subcommittees I’m on there, so in T&I I’m on the (Water Resources and Environment) subcommittee. But under there we do a couple of important things. One is we watch the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. So, as you might know, the Army Corps of Engineers and I and my family have had some go-rounds in the past. They seem to want to grab a lot of control over farmland and threaten our food system with their claims of jurisdiction over what they call Waters of the United States — what most farmers call prairie potholes in the Midwest, or small vernal pools or even drainage ditches and swales and irrigation ditches out here in California. This threatens our food supply. It’s what we stood up for back in 2014 through 2020 and it is an area I’ve got a lot of experience.

I’m really happy to be on the Waters subcommittee with Chairman David Rouzer from South Carolina.  

Then I’m also on the Highways and Transit subcommittee with transportation infrastructure. And there I’m the vice chair under Rick Crawford from Arkansas, and that is where we can start looking at some of the regional transportation issues we have here in the Valley. The Central Valley is, for everyone’s estimate, going to be the big population growth center of the state for the next couple of decades. Unfortunately, the state lawmakers have, in their infinite wisdom, passed a regulation against any new highway lanes. And, so, accommodating the growth of the Valley we see now and what we’ll see the next 20 years and making sure we have the transportation options and capacities that we need is very important, and I think for the Central Valley to be a great place to live. We’re going to have growth, that’s great. It’s jobs, it’s opportunity for many, but we’ve also got to have transit. And although we’re looking to mass transit systems, and I think there’ll be some upgrades on the Altamont (Corridor) Express and some of the rail systems around here, we have to have highways. And I will work hard to make sure that we have the roads and highways we need here in the district. 

Then also, I’m on the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee, and that’s where I can play a role in making sure that our freight capacity is where it should be. I know a lot of nut growers and other producers here in the Central Valley had real market destabilizing difficulty getting their product to market in the last couple of years during COVID. Well, one of the solutions to that is inland ports. So, I know Merced has worked for a long time on developing an inland port, which basically means a big railyard where we can move in many trucks a day and load them on containers on the rail and ship those rails down to the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast ports or to ports along California’s coast. And then there’s also an effort to double track both the Santa Fe line that we have on the east side of the district and the Valley here, as well as the Southern Pacific line that is on the west side of the district here. And once those are double tracks for both commuter and for rail, they’re going to have a lot more capacity. 

I’m on the Agriculture Committee, and I’m on the (General Farm Commodities, Risk Management and Credit) subcommittee. OK, so this is a very important committee for this area because it’s part of what governs the ag lending rules and some of the special farm programs that let young farmers get into farming, that let some disadvantaged farmers get access to getting into farming. So, in this area, that’s great because we have a huge population of families that work in agriculture, but don’t yet own the dirt. Then we have the market access, specialty crop grants, as well as crop insurance. A lot of the bigger farm families in this area that really make a lot of jobs aren’t eligible for some of the disaster relief programs. So, we’ve got to make sure that the crop insurance programs are relevant to their needs. And when there are natural disasters, big families get hit just the same as smaller farm families when there’s natural disasters and market disruptions. We got to make sure that the crop insurance participation keeps increasing and that it’s available to big and small farmers. So, I’m really happy to be on that committee.

I’m also on the (Conservation, Research and Biotechnology) subcommittee under James Baird. In that committee we look at some of the plant health programs like I work in the nursery with foundation plant services at Davis. We work with some of the university researchers very closely, but I think I bring a unique perspective to that community. It’s not the most glamorous committee or the biggest committee within the Ag farm bill, but there’s not that many agricultural nurserymen who’ve worked in biotechnology and plant health and plant protection and invasive species issues the way that I have. I think those are huge issues for this area.

And then I was also asked to join the Forestry subcommittee chaired by Doug LaMalfa up north and that allows us to take a look at some of the forestry issues we have here in the Sierra Nevada. Now, sustainable forest management includes logging, it includes grazing, it includes keeping the understory of the forest floor healthy so that it doesn’t cause a fire hazard, so we get optimal wood production and fiber production out of it. That’s economic, because the best way to log a forest is have somebody making money logging the forest, under good sustainable guidelines and restrictions so that the forest can be maintained at a low cost to the government and in a very healthy state. We’re not doing that now. We’re grossly under-logging our forests. They’re getting too dense. They’re getting overgrown. We’re restricting the cattle grazers more and more, and that’s causing a lot of fuels in the understory that have led to some of these big, catastrophic fires. I don’t believe that the primary driver of these catastrophic fires is climate change. I do believe that it’s forest management practices. We also get more water yield. The watersheds for our districts up and down the Valley are greatly derived from the forest lands that we have. And when those forest lands are overgrown, they yield less water. The excess trees suck it up. Then when they get scorched by fires, the snow melts before it can be soaked into the ground. So, sustainable forestry is a big deal. I’m really glad to be on that subcommittee. 

In the Natural Resources Committee, I am on the Water Subcommittee which is Water, Wildlife and Fisheries and that’s where we deal with endangered species issues, we deal with water policy. We just pushed to pass David Valadao’s WATER for California bill, which is very important. I sit on that committee with Tom McClintock and Doug LaMalfa, again from up north, and in that committee we will really have it out. The Democrats in that committee tend to be to the left and a lot of the Republicans in that committee tend to be from rural areas. We’re making an argument that some of this extreme environmental policy — I call them the lords of scarcity — they’re imposing scarcity on working families when we don’t drill American oil, when we don’t mine American resources, when we don’t sustainably manage our forests, when we don’t get water on the farms. This all drives up the cost of housing and the cost of food. It limits job availability, it limits economic growth. It causes us to import more from abroad, some from our enemies, often.

We’ve all heard about the cobalt mines in Africa. We’ve got cobalt reserves here in America that we can mine with high paying mining jobs that would support families, here in America. American environmentalism has gone too far towards this, causing enormous environmental strains in other parts of the world. And for most of us, the environment’s kind of the environment. Whether it’s this part of the globe or another, it’s important to protect all of it and it’s really costing Americans jobs, it’s costing Americans affordability and we’re having that argument in Natural Resources and I’m really happy that we’re having that argument. 


Q: What are your thoughts about WOTUS (Waters of the United States) and President Biden recently vetoing a congressional resolution that would have overturned protections for the nation’s waterways that you and other Republicans have criticized as overly intrusive?

Duarte: We expected WOTUS to get vetoed. We passed the Congressional Review Act, and it went through the House with bipartisan support and went through the Senate with bipartisan support. Of course, not veto proof support and Joe Biden vetoed it. It’s unfortunate. It is a big land and power grab on the part of the federal government that wasn’t authorized by Congress. And one thing everyone who’s concerned about the natural environment and good sound policy should be aware of under this WOTUS rule, the overreach that the Clean Water Act is brought, the huge government overreach, trying to control my planting wheat in the wheat field that was never afforded power afforded by Congress in the Clean Water Act. It threatens our ability to solve problems in the future. We will have ecological and environmental problems to solve in the future. Whether it’s nanotechnology or some new chemical compound class or something we don’t see coming today, technology will provide environmental issues for us to deal with in the future. And, if we can’t write durable legislation and trust that the administration will stay faithful to the to the original intent of the law, and bring back to Congress their perceived needs for additional legislation and additional powers, we’re not going to have the good faith we need to solve problems in the future. So, I think all Americans should be concerned with what’s become of the WOTUS rule and, honestly, what’s become of the Endangered Species Act. So, we’ll continue to have those battles. We all want good, sound environmental policy but we want to make sure that it’s through congressional constitutional process. 


Q: How’s it going with the WATER for California bill?  

Duarte: We passed David Valadao’s bill. Tom (McClintock) carried it through Natural Resources last week, and we passed it out of committee and it’s going to the floor this next week, I believe. It’ll go to the floor of the House, and it will be passed there and I think it’s got a chance of passing in the Senate, if there’s not a filibuster attempt against it. This is a good year to get sensible legislation through the Senate because there are 23 Democrats up for re-election this cycle. And a lot of the rural Democrats are saying, “You know, we’ve got to make sense. We’ve got to compromise or negotiate or send some of these bills to conference, but we do need to address some of these water bills.” So, I’m hoping that it gets to the Senate. We’ll at least get something back that we can then go to conference on and negotiate a bill that can pass both houses. Then it goes to President Biden. We’ll see what he does.


Q: We’ve been in a drought for years and years and we then had this amazing winter. Groundwater is still a problem. And then we’ve got all this snowpack up there and what’s going to become of that? What do we need to do?

Duarte: Well, we have the long term needs, of course, and we need more dams. Dams are flood protection — we’re all acutely aware of right now. Dams are also sustainable groundwater. The best groundwater program is the surface water program. Our groundwater began getting widely overdrafted when we quit making the surface water deliveries to the farmers. The best way to address groundwater — it won’t happen with one wet year; it’ll be improved this year, and we’re all kind of waiting to see how much, but it won’t all be cured this year — but, getting better management of the infrastructure we have is critical. We have flushed 10s of millions of acre feet of water out of the Delta, year after year. That’s not cumulative, that’s each year we’re flushing tens of millions of acre feet of water out of the Delta. 

They’ve done that for 40 years now, 20 at devastatingly high levels. Actually since the early 90s, almost 30 years now at devastatingly high levels, we’ve flushed your water out to the ocean. They can’t even detect a smelt on the Delta right now. So, they haven’t restored the Delta smelt. And the salmon numbers haven’t improved. So, for 30 years, we’ve devastated our aquifers, we’ve devastated our towns, our jobs, our economies, and we’ve really delivered nothing for it. So, I would argue that we’ve got to change routes. If we’re not getting results this way, can we use habitat enhancement, some of the floodplain restoration stuff? They make a lot of sense. Can we look at predator control? You know, we’ve got non-native bass in the Delta that are just eating the salmon fry. We’ve got the Marine Mammals Protection Act. I mean, we like otters. They’re fluffy, they’re fuzzy. They’re cute, you know, watching them down on the harbor. Everybody loves an otter! We love seals, but you know, these are predators. And if you don’t manage these populations, there will be strains on other species. It’s just that simple.

So, we’ve got to look seriously at all of these issues if we actually are committed to restoring the salmon, protecting the smelt. And we haven’t done that. We’ve had a very single track.  I think we’ve just kept doubling down on the water strategies and realized, as we’ve flushed more water out of the Delta, we’ve removed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of acres, of irrigated landscapes throughout California. You know, we’re drying out parks. We’re xeriscaping neighborhoods. We’re drying up farms. We have record respiratory illness problems down in the south Valley. We’re causing a respiratory epidemic with a dust bowl down in the Fresno area. …This is really bad policy, given that we’re not getting anything for it. We’re not recovering the targeted species and we’re still causing all these strains on humans in our environment.

So, I’m there to argue against these things. And you’ll find me fairly consistently and vociferously arguing that our current water policy in California is governed by the lords of scarcity. And at some point if policy consistently delivers scarcity and depresses jobs, trashes our environment, trashes our farms and pushes working families up against the very edge of deprivation with inflation and a lack of opportunity, I’ve got to call it out.


Q:  Are you optimistic we’re going to get something done on the debt ceiling? 

Duarte:  I’m optimistic that we’re going to have a compromise that isn’t just another blank check to the president to go spend more money. A lot of money has been spent. If spending money alone from the federal government on the public credit card improved lives, Joe Biden would not be at record-low approval ratings. The spending that he is engaged in since he got into office has been over the top. It’s been inflationary. It’s been increasing our national debt at a level that’s not sustainable and it’s not going towards the things that will improve working families’ lives. You know he’s put up a trillion dollars in subsidies for green energy that makes Central Valley working families’ electricity more expensive. The more tax credit is given for windmills and solar panels and electric vehicles, the higher the road taxes are for those people who drive gas vehicles here in the Valley. … A lot of the cost of electricity hitting working families these days is because they’re carrying the brunt of a lot of these green energy policies. … I want to champion for the working families. It’s not fair. And so that’s one thing I want to stand up against. That’s in our debt ceiling bill … the Limit, Save and Grow Act. And then you know, we’re worried about a lot of things in America. We’re worried about Social Security. We’re worried about Medicare, we’re worried about veterans benefits. We’re worried about all parts of the budget. … If we don’t grow the economy, if we don’t grow, drill American oil. if we don’t get water on the farms, if we don’t mine American minerals and energy, we are going to shrink our economy. We will not only not create those jobs in those specific industries, but we won’t have the resource base that affords us to industrialize our economy. … So, a lot of the policies that we’re pushing back on are not only just spendthrift government policies, but they’re also policies that allow us to grow the American economy in a way that affords a lot of the great programs that we want. And if we don’t grow the economy, we won’t be able to afford these programs that take care of Americans the way we want to. 


Q: Based on the last 24 hours, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about gun control in this country. What needs to be done? 

Duarte: We see a surge in gun control, and it’s not because of guns. Americans have a huge mental health crisis emerging. On the heels of COVID, with the fentanyl with the open borders, with a lack of economic growth, Americans are hurting. And that’s being played out in the streets. Gun violence is one way, drug use is another, overdose, suicide – all of these things are on the increase right now. About every social pathology in America is on the increase. And unless we make America a place where folks can get ahead, pay their bills, have opportunities, be safe from crime, unless we control the border and keep drugs out of our communities, we’re going to continue to see all of these pathologies continue.

A lot of us would think, hey, why not have national background checks? In California we have background checks. But can we trust activist governments in the future not to use the background-check system as a way to limit gun access for law-abiding citizens? Right now that trust isn’t there. Right now, it seems odd to connect this to the WOTUS dialog we were having a few minutes ago, but the suspicion is, will what seems to be common sense solutions to a problem today be abused in the future to provide someone an outcome that the Congress never really afford it?


Q:  What are your legislative priorities? 

Duarte: One is to make some changes in the farm bill; to the crop insurance scheme so that it’s more relevant to more farmers and helps them through economic catastrophes or natural disasters. It helps all families through those a bit better without reliance on the disaster relief titles. And, I’m working on the bill to use some of the technologies that help us better monitor the snowpack, the river flows, and the channel constraints. We have a lot of drainage channels here in the Valley that have been vegetated. As these floods have come through, they’ve been silted up even worse. We haven’t been maintaining our flood-control channels anywhere close to what we should be doing. And I’ve got a bill that’s going to look at flood control, both from forestry management and runoff management. We’re going to look at integrating some of the new atmospheric river sensing technologies in drones to get better near-term weather forecasting for flood control. Also, flood channel improvement. … I call it the easy water in California, things that you know aren’t building a whole new dam, which I’m very in favor of, but barring that happening, or that happening over the next 20 years, these are things that we can actually deliver on in the next five or 10 years that would increase water flows to the Valley and help sustain our aquifers. So, that’s a big a big deal to me. And then another one I’m doing: I’ve got language back on a bill called Foreign Retaliatory Agricultural Tariffs Supplement (FRATS). Every time America stands its ground on a trade dispute — like, currently we’re standing our ground on a steel-dumping dispute with India — the farmers get the brunt of it. So what FRATS would do … say, if India tariffs our almond growers or walnut growers, we’ll use the revenues from the steel tariffs to backfill the tariffs on the almonds so the almond growers can keep shipping in India at the rate so they were, and doesn’t back up the market.