State Sen. Melissa Hurtado and staffer Jacob Villagomez arrived at the room Sager Rotary uses in the city’s community center for its weekly luncheon prepared to give an update on her legislative activity and just listen to what members had to say.
After all, the site was familiar territory. Not all that long ago, Hurtado, a Democrat, was a member of the Sanger council and a long shot to unseat the established Republican incumbent.
“It feels good to be home,” Hurtado said.
She introduced Villagomez, a fellow Sanger High graduate, and mentioned how integral he is to her operation from his office in Fresno. Then Hurtado wasted no time going down the list of bills she’s proposed since her term began about six months ago. In June, she secured $3 million for Sanger water projects, the majority to solve the city’s pressure problems and additional funds to connect Tombstone to the city’s water system.
“I’ve been very busy trying to get things going,” she said. “All of our bills made it out of appropriation.”
Hurtado said her priority will be building support for issues important to the central San Joaquin Valley. Her district, which looks a little like an inkblot used in a Rorschach test for psychological interpretation, begins in the southern reaches of Fresno and spreads out southward to include Hanford, Lemoore and territory west of Interstate 5 along Highway 41 and down into Bakersfield.
So it makes sense that one of her primary pieces of legislation would be the restoration of the Friant-Kern Canal. Hurtado’s bill, SB 559, is advertised as helping secure California’s water supply by investing $400 million in general funds to restore “lost conveyance capacity” of the waterway.
The bill passed the senate 34-3 on May 23 and had its first reading in the assembly the next day.
The canal is showing its age, said Jim Erickson, a Madera farmer and Friant Water Authority board member, last summer. “The water’s the life blood,” he said.
One of the main culprits in the canal’s deterioration is subsidence, the gradual sinking or caving in of an area of land — in this case caused by excessive pumping of groundwater. When this happens along the route of the canal, the flow, which relies on gravity, is reduced. And in the case of the Friant-Kern Canal, the reduction amounts to about 60 percent, according to an authority report. “When the land elevation lowers, the canal must be operated at a lower flow-stage to ensure the water doesn’t overflow the banks,” the report said.
The 152-mile canal stretches from Millerton Lake north of Fresno and travels south along the eastern edge of the Central Valley to the Kern River near Bakersfield. It was completed about 70 years ago and cost $60.8 million. The canal was built “to ensure water users received a surface water supply from the San Joaquin River … to grow crops and recharge groundwater,” according to the authority’s website.
Proposition 3, which would have authorized $8.877 billion in general obligation bonds for water infrastructure, failed to pass in the Nov. 6, 2018 election. The measure would have allocated $750 million for the canal, which is a big reason Erickson and many others backed it.
Hurtado’s bill has earned the support of farm bureaus, counties, cities, water and irrigation districts and the Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal.
“That will substantially help farmers across the region,” Hurtado said. “We want to get full water (flow) restored going down the canal.”
The senator also has a request of $25 million appropriation in the 2019 Budget Act for water infrastructure, access and consolidation projects funding in the southern Central Valley. The request was to pay for water infrastructure, including $6 million for Sanger’s work on its water tank and well 16.
But water was hardly her only priority in the first of a four-year term. “Teen suicide,” Hurtado said. “I want to do more about addressing that concern.”
And her concern stems from the rates of youth suicide in the region, especially in Kern County, which, according to KidsData.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, may be the highest in the state with a rate of 11.5 per 100,000 in population. Fresno County also rated high with 7.4. A report by the United Health Foundation reported the overall California rate at 11.1 for 2018 and 13.9 nationwide.
Hurtado’s bill, SB 331, would require counties to create and implement a suicide-prevention strategic plan that “places particular emphasis on preventing suicide in children.” It would complement the California Suicide Prevention Act of 2000, which established a suicide prevention education and gate-keeper program to reduce the severity, duration and incidence of suicidal behaviors.
While no money is attached to 331, “There are mental health dollars available,” she said.
The freshman senator also said another bill, SB 513, would help those affected by lack of access to water across the district. The measure would provide grants for interim relief to “households in which a private water well has gone dry or has been destroyed due to drought, wildfire or other natural disaster.” This would include storage tanks, hauled water and bottled water.
Hurtado said joining the ranks of Sacramento politicians didn’t throw any surprises her way. “I knew what I was getting myself into,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is educate my colleagues in the senate … about my district and learn more about them.”
She said the senate had been more liberal but has turned more moderate since the election and “could potentially impact us.” In a good way.
“What I tell them is an investment in the Central Valley is an investment in California,” she said. “There’s opportunity to be able to provide District 14 with what we need.”
Hurtado said one of the biggest underlying issues for the region is poverty. “People want opportunities,” she said.
Judy Case, a former Fresno County supervisor, asked about transparency in health care costs. And Hurtado agreed that transparency is a good thing. She also said, “You want to be able to pay and provide for the health care you want to have.” She said the current system isn’t helping the industry or the consumer.
Hurtado said her district has a shortage of doctors. “But I haven’t seen the resources coming here,” she said. “I want us to get back to the way things were when health care was more affordable. With good jobs. We want the same things.”
To address poverty, Hurtado mentioned supporting economic development. “Make sure businesses here do well but move to bring new businesses here, too,” she said. She said Kingsburg appears to be getting a T-Mobile service center, bringing upwards of 1,000 jobs.
“We’re seeing progress in the Valley,” she said. “But if we’re not planning for it, we’re going to face a whole lot more issues than we’re facing now.”
Hurtado said she works across party lines, making sure her bills have bipartisan support.
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