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Water on minds of legislators
Ceres Chamber hosts Legislative Breakfast at HTC
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Congressman Jeff Denham addressed Friday's Chamber breakfast through a videotaped message.

The state's water crisis and possible remedies dominated the dialogue of area legislators who addressed Friday's Legislative Breakfast hosted by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

State Senator Anthony Cannella and Assemblyman Adam Gray appeared at the Howard Training Center event, as did Stanislaus County supervisors Terry Withrow and Jim DeMartini and Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. Congressman Jeff Denham did not attend but sent a video message.

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, Denham said Congress is working to increase water storage and that he supports new dams at Temperance Flats or Sites reservoirs.

Cannella said water continues to be a struggle "largely because we haven't invested in water infrastructure since Pat Brown was governor. We really have done nothing and then we're shocked when we have a drought and the whole thing falls apart when I would argue even when we have very heavy rains we're barely able to make it anyway."

Cannella called last year's $7.5 billion water bond passage significant for the Valley because it sets aside $2.7 billion for water storage projects. Initially Gov. Jerry Brown only agreed to $1 billion for water storage. Cannella and Gray both support building new dams at Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoirs on a fast track. However, the California Water Commission - which wields a lot of power - must approve those projects and the federal government must license them.

"It's good that we are going to be expediting some of these shovel-ready projects," said Cannella.

He said last year's state groundwater management bill was "not well thought out" and "it really undoes 100 years of water rights in the state of California and so a bunch of us are working to try to deal with that."

Valley lawmakers often find themselves fighting an uphill fight against those who fail to understand how important water is to Valley growers. Cannella said one man on the commission has been able to shut down pumps at the Delta to divert water to farms and away from fish.

"I'll be honest," said Cannella. "People in other parts of the state don't understand what we do and they don't necessarily care so we've been working very hard to educate our colleagues about our fragile economy, largely ag-based, and when we shut off the water it's lots of problems."

The water bond offers $700 million for levy repair and flood control. Cannella considers it ridiculous that the state is ready to hand out $50 million in "bottled water and food to people who don't have water and the people who are unemployed because there's no water for farming" when a better remedy would be turn on the Delta pumps. He said 90 percent of state agencies say the action would not harm fish populations.

Cannella said agencies need to use common sense and quit releasing so much water from dams and "kill our reservoirs."

During his videotaped appearance, Congressman Denham spoke on other issues including transportation. He said the Congressional Transportation Infrastructure Committee recently passed the Passenger Railway Authorization Bill which will allow American infrastructure to be upgraded. The bill will increase ACE train funding. The bill also streamlines environmental process to deliver projects quicker.

Denham said a highway bill is being worked on to improve infrastructure and bridges.

"The Seventh Street Bridge in Modesto is one of the ones I talk about all the time," said Denham. "It's rate 2 out of 100. When we won't even allow school busses to go across our bridges we know that they are in bad need of repair. But to do all this we are going to need greater funding. We currently have about two years' worth of funding in the trust fund and we need five to six years for the bill."

Denham wants to use new royalties from domestic oil production to be used for roads.

The Republican lawmaker from Turlock said he supports a guest worker program with a strong border security bill as a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

"If we don't have a guest worker bill as well to address our communities and our agricultural industry, we're going to fall further behind," said Denham.

To prevent "drive-by lawsuits" filed against businesses for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Denham said he supports remedies such as allowing businesses 60 days to respond to a complaint and 120 days to fix the problem.

"If these lawsuits continue we're going to see more and more businesses shut down," said Denham.

On energy, Cannella said the state's push to require 33 percent of the state's energy to be from renewable resources by 2020 - while failing to consider hydroelectric generation - is driving up energy costs. He said hydro-generated power costs 3 cents per kilowatt hour to generate while solar costs 12 to 14 cents. Cannella said as if that wasn't enough, the governor has set another goal before achieving the first goal - to have 50 percent renewable sources by 2030 and cut petroleum use by 50 percent.

"How in the world do you do that?" asked Cannella, who wonders how agriculture will be impacted.

If an energy bill authored by Senate Pro Tempore Kevin De Leon passes, he said, "we're going to pay significantly more for everything."

Cannella agreed with Denham that more needs to be spent on transportation infrastructure, saying Gov. Brown has shut off the spigot during his first terms "and now we're suffering the consequences."

Paying for an estimated $150 billion needed in new projects and maintenance is being discussed in Sacramento. Cannella said the state shifted transportation tax dollars - such as the $1 billion per year in truck weight fees - for paying down the state's debt. He wants those fees to be spent on roads and wants a constitutional guarantee that puts those taxes to be used for their intended purpose.

Gray noted that the state's push toward tighter environmental policies often hurts the farming community of the Valley.

He also noted how 14 Valley legislators have formally banded together across party lines as a Central Valley Caucus to counter the power of legislators who represent the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego area.

"In L.A. you've got 30 something legislators, all Democrats, working together towards a common goal for their region," said Gray. "And here in the Central Valley we have a mixture - we've got some Republicans, we've got some Democrats and we have Latinos, and so it's all the more important that we stick together on our regional issues so that we get our fair share for our part of the state."

Gray touched on some of his bills in the Assembly to:

• Establish a medical school with UC Merced to benefit the Valley and its shortage of physicians through a $1 million planning effort and $1.85 million to expand enrollment (AB 174);

• Exempt veterans' military retirement pay from state income tax through AB 1275;

• Limit lawsuit abuse against businesses over ABA violations;

• Follow up on the Groundwater Sustainability Act "which imposes some significant challenges."

Gray said Sacramento needs to be about making the economy stronger and investing in infrastructure.

When asked about high-speed rail, both Cannella and Gray said the fight is over because the project is being delivered.

"I don't spend any time on high-speed rail - it's over for me," said Cannella who added that he doesn't expect to see it in his lifetime. "I think ACE train is a real opportunity we have to extend that into Modesto and Merced ... if we can make some movement on ACE train and get that built that would be a game changer for our area."

Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Terry Withrow gave an overview of his recent State of the County address, focusing on a new "Focus on Prevention" push at the county level.

"The county is doing good," reported Withrow. "The county is coming out of a recession here that was tough for everybody to get through but we did very good to get out of it."

He said the county's new push is to focus on "root causes of problems, not the symptoms."

He said that $750 million of the county's $1.1 billion budget is spent on treating symptoms, "basically putting Band-Aid on cancers which doesn't get us anywhere."

"We don't expect government to solve this problem at all," said Withrow. While the county has seeded the program with $1 million, he said the breakdown of the family needs to be addressed by the community, its faith-based groups, businesses, non-profit organizations and educators to tackle homelessness, early intervention, strengthening families and inmate recidivism.

"It's going to be a hard thing to do and it's probably going to take 10 years before we finally start seeing results," admitted Withrow.

The move has found resistance from many in existing agencies and organizations who feel threatened over job security, he commented.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini noted that the county is doing better financially and beefing up the number of sheriff's deputies to help counter cuts since 2009. He also noted that the expansion of the county jail west of Ceres will help keep from releasing inmates early.

On water, DeMartini - who is a Ceres area farmer - said the board stopped water from being pumped in the county and pumped out of the county. The county has also restricted well drilling for eastern county communities which do not have access to surface water.

"In situations like that it really doesn't any more sense to convert any more rangeland into permanent crops," said DeMartini.

To drill future wells, a property owner must show there is a sustainability of the water table.

He reflected on a recent visit to coastal Adelaide, Australia which uses desalinization plants for domestic use and farming. He suggested that it would be wiser if Los Angeles County developed plants to desalinate an endless supply of water rather than take water from Northern California which needs it for farming.

"These are the kinds of things we should be doing in the future," said DeMartini, who noted about 30 percent of all county residents are employed directly or indirectly because of agriculture.

Mayor Chris Vierra was the last speaker and touched on some city activities. He noted that the city is moving toward district council elections, seeking to raise the motel tax to 10 percent, develop a citywide parks master plan, updating the general plan, and planning the new $100 million Mitchell/Service/Highway 99 interchange.