Mike Dunbar

Yes, we’ve got problems. But we’ve got problem-solvers, too

Rep. Josh Harder (right) is pictured with Michael Frantz of TID (left) and John Mensinger of MID last month during a tour of La Grange Dam on the Tuolumne River.
Rep. Josh Harder (right) is pictured with Michael Frantz of TID (left) and John Mensinger of MID last month during a tour of La Grange Dam on the Tuolumne River. jlee@modbee.com

Our Valley has no shortage of problems.

Jobs here don’t pay as well as jobs elsewhere. We’ve got water, but between those who covet it and those who think we waste it, it’s a constant struggle to keep it. Our air is the worst in California (maybe the nation), and the Trump administration intends to make it even more foul by allowing vehicles – the No. 1 source of asthma-causing compounds – to spew even more poison.

Immigration? Some people fear immigrants will overrun us; others fear not enough will arrive to help harvest our crops, cook our meals and build our houses. In between, no one has offered a solution for the Dreamers, brought here as kids and desperate to stay.

You can either throw up your hands in despair … or dig deeper to find a better way.

Several people in high-profile jobs are doing just that. It’s too soon to celebrate many victories, but they’re on the right track.

Start with Rep. Josh Harder, who joined Congress in January representing Stanislaus and south San Joaquin counties. No, he’s not as famous as some who arrived in Washington at the same time. His name isn’t on the “Green New Deal,” aka Green Dream, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t busy.

“I’m working on what I call Page 2 policies,” Harder told The Bee’s editorial board on Thursday. “The Page 1 stuff is the really polarizing issues that you see on the front page of newspapers every day.” The Page 2 issues are those that get less coverage but actually matter to people living here – water infrastructure, better careers, healthcare, immigration.

“I’m not spending my time on national news because I’m spending my time with you guys,” Harder said. He’s been coming home at every opportunity, conducting town halls, having one-on-one meetings and sitting with small groups to learn what people here think and want.

And instead of drawing “a partisan dividing line,” he’s trying to erase it.

Harder is one of 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans who meet for breakfast weekly, calling themselves “The Problem Solving Caucus.” When he and 29 other Democrats signed a letter in January urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to give President Trump a vote on his wall, many liberals were angry. As reported by Roll Call, the Democrats weren’t signaling support for the wall but urging Congress to have an open debate so the shutdown could end.

The letter didn’t go anywhere, but it demonstrated a pragmatic independence. Such independence will serve Harder well going forward.

Bill Lyons is another one who just jumped into the trenches. A developer and farmer from Modesto who once served as secretary of agriculture, he was asked to join Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office as a liaison for the Valley.

What, exactly, is a Valley liaison? We’re not sure; it’s a job created just for Lyons. He’ll advise the governor on water and agriculture – our valley’s biggest necessity and largest industry. He’ll also weigh in economic opportunity, one of his specialties.

Suddenly, it seems the Valley is not such an afterthought.

Maybe Gov. Newsom sees us as low-hanging fruit, a region so neglected that any glimmer of attention feels like a spotlight. Maybe he’s right.

“I think he sees the Valley as an area where he and his administration can make a real difference,” said Lyons. “It’s one of the reasons I accepted this appointment. … I think he’s going to provide unique leadership on some very complex issues.”

Lyons points to others working to elevate Valley issues – Adam Gray and Anna Caballero in the Assembly; Cathleen Galgiani in the Senate and Lenny Mendonca, whom Newsom appointed to oversee high-speed rail’s evolution.

“The Valley has to be at the table,” said Lyons, “and with these legislators and several of the governor’s appointments – DeeDee D’Adamo (water board), (Merced’s) John Eisenhunt (air board) – we’ve got some really excellent representation and leadership.”

Gray, in particular, has some thoughts on where to start. He’s been in constant contact with the governor’s office on our water issues, insisting the state use the “best available” science to make its decisions – a requirement the State Water Board forgot in its December decision to double or triple flows away from our region. But Gray’s got other priorities.

He remains frustrated the state will not recognize hydro-electricity as renewable or “green” energy – though it uses utterly no fossil fuels to create.

California, meanwhile, requires every utility to provide increasing amounts of renewable energy. Irrigation districts, like those in our region, create substantial hydro-electricity, but they get no “renewable” credit for it. That means they have to buy electricity from solar and wind generators at a much higher cost. Those costs gets passed back to their customers – i.e., most of us.

If hydro-electricity is ever accepted as green, people in our Valley will benefit.

And that brings us back to Harder, who met with Gray recently to talk about a range of topics – including painting hydro-electricity green.

This Valley has no shortage of problems. We’re glad there is no shortage of problem-solvers.

Mike Dunbar is the Editorial Page Editor of The Bee. 209-578-2325.