Visalia Times-Delta: Sen. Alex Padilla talks water, infrastructure in first Valley visit since appointment

By Joshua Yeager

In his first visit to the San Joaquin Valley as a U.S. senator, Alex Padilla had three words for California farmers and rural communities: “Water, water, water.” 

The senator joined Valley politicians at the Dos Palos Water Treatment Plant in Merced County on Friday to talk up a proposed multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden hopes to pass with bipartisan support. 

During the visit, part of a statewide “Infrastructure Listening Tour,” Padilla pledged to bring federal dollars to benefit California’s underserved communities that he says have been overlooked for decades. 

“We need to act boldly. We need to invest in infrastructure in a way that ensures that all of our communities can count on safe water, not just today, but for the many, many years to come,” said Padilla, who is a son of immigrants and California’s first Latino senator.

Many towns and farms across the Central Valley are struggling as the west grapples with an intensifying drought exacerbated by climate change and aging, inadequate infrastructure. 

“Unfortunately, we see that the climate crisis has turned the drought into what seems like the new normal in communities around the state,” Padilla said. “All too often, climate change is compounded by the historical inequities of lack of investment in certain communities.”

The number of “chronically unsafe” water systems is 40% higher in communities of color while 80% of all water violations occur in small water systems, Padilla said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed Padilla to fill a vacancy left by Vice President Kamala Harris, has declared a drought emergency in 50 out of California’s 58 counties. The governor is also urging residents to cut back water usage by 15%.

“We need clean drinking water for every city in California and in the United States,” said Congressman Jim Costa (D-Fresno). “We’re the richest country in the world, and to have cities like Dos Palos and others, where their water system shuts down, or they can’t meet state or federal drinking water requirements, is simply unconscionable — period.” 

Last summer, Dos Palos declared a state of emergency during the height of the COVID-19 after algae clogged the town’s water pipes, suspending water service for three days.

Costa, along with Assemblyman Adam Gray and State Senator Ana Caballero, worked to secure funding for a new $11 million treatment plant, a process that took two years. Construction won’t be complete for another 18 months, a timeline that Valley leaders called unacceptable.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers called for the need to build new dams and expand the capacity of existing ones in order to better capture water during California’s increasingly sporadic wet seasons.

“California’s aging water infrastructure is really an issue here, and we’ve underinvested for really a generation” said Gray, who represents Merced and portions of Stanislaus counties. “In the 43 years I’ve been here in California, we’ve increased our water supply by 1% and doubled our population.”

The assemblyman pointed the finger at lawmakers.

“Too often, folks in Sacramento and Washington DC give lip service to clean drinking water,” Gray said. “The reality is, we all need to double down on our efforts to not just put in new treatment plants like we’re doing here, but, in fact, secure more supply for the future.”

Joel del Bosque, a grower in the Valley’s westside, said he was hopeful after Padilla’s visit. That’s despite “this year’s drought being one of the worst we’ve seen.” Already, the farmer has been forced to fallow fields and scale back operations, which means fewer jobs and opportunities in one of California’s poorest regions.

“I’m excited because we’ve been waiting a long time to try to get something done about this water situation. We’ve been struggling with shortages of water for decades here on the west side,” he said. “The federal government wants to do some investment in infrastructure, and we think, for California and the West Coast, it’s very important that we invest in water supply.”

Padilla said the Valley needs adequate water to grow the nation’s food, noting that one-third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California’s agricultural center.

Padilla said other infrastructure investment priorities include beefing up California’s power grid, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding broadband internet access in rural communities, as well as education, childcare and healthcare.

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