Politics & Government

Strange bedfellows: Harder praises Trump, Denham for work to keep water for farmers

Congressman Josh Harder talks water issues at La Grange Dam

While touring La Grange Dam Friday morning January 18, 2019, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock talked about hopes that Republicans and Democrats will band together to defend local water rights.
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While touring La Grange Dam Friday morning January 18, 2019, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock talked about hopes that Republicans and Democrats will band together to defend local water rights.

When it comes to water, the lifeblood of the Central Valley, Democrats don’t have all the answers.

So says freshman Representative Josh Harder, suddenly one of the most powerful Democrats in these parts.

“Water is not a Republican or a Democratic issue,” Harder said Friday, with the La Grange Dam — where some of the Tuolumne River is diverted into canals for both the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — as a picturesque backdrop. The relatively tiny dam and its nearby big brother, Don Pedro Reservoir, represent “the foundation of water infrastructure in the valley,” he said — a symbolic place to discuss water policy as he begins a two-year congressional term.

“We need to make sure we’re all working together to advance the agenda of the Central Valley,” continued Harder, 32, of Turlock. “I was very encouraged to see some of the measures the Trump administration put forward on water.”

Donald Trump, Jeff Denham aren’t all wet, Harder says

Harder referred to Donald Trump in October issuing a presidential memorandum aimed at helping thirsty California farmers, and a few days later, signing legislation by Harder’s opponent, former Representative Jeff Denham, providing funding for water projects. Both were viewed as last-ditch efforts to boost Denham’s re-election bid, but Harder said they have merit.

Earlier in the hard-fought campaign, in August, some interpreted Harder’s absence from a popular rally at the State Capitol in Sacramento as disinterest in critical water issues. About 1,500 people from the Valley, including Denham, had gathered to protest the state “water grab,” a proposal that would sacrifice farm water to benefit fish as well as thirsty users from points down south.

Any perception that Harder isn’t into water “couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Harder said. “It’s going to be one of the biggest areas I’m going to focus on. How do we re-imagine the water paradigm in the Valley, and make sure we’re moving things forward?

“Water challenges in the Central Valley are immense,” he continued. “We’re not going to solve them through the same age-old fights between environmentalists and farmers. We actually have a chance to redefine the way we do water in California.”

Harder leaned on his friendship with another powerful Democrat, Governor Gavin Newsom, to advocate on behalf of local farmers and all who depend on the region’s economic health, he said. The state water grab was “very poorly informed, and didn’t take into account all available science, and didn’t take into account the economic catastrophe that would result,” Harder said. The governor was “receptive,” he said, and both hope state negotiators reach a settlement with water agencies rather than resorting to lawsuits.

Congressional leaders only two days before had appointed Harder to serve on the House Committee on Agriculture. The panel oversees federal policy affecting farmers, such as agricultural research and development, plant and animal health, forestry, and international trade. Earlier in the week, Harder also was assigned to the House’s Education and Labor committee.

Harder launches town hall meetings

His first town hall meeting while in office begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth St. It’s billed as the opener in a continual listening tour, and Harder is expected to speak about the ongoing federal government shutdown resulting from a political dispute over funding for border security.

“The worst possible way to run a government is not to run it at all,” Harder said. Aside from 800,000 employees forced to work for no pay — including Transportation Security Administration airport security screeners, border patrol agents and Coast Guard workers — many Valley farmers can’t apply for grants and loans, Harder said.

“I’ve now voted `yes’ on eight bills to reopen the government,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re fixing this before it gets worse.”

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Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.