Just before announcing she was switching her quest for reelection from one state Senate district to another, Melissa Hurtado appears to have thrown up a flag announcing her conservative bona fides in what could become a contest of the most right-leaning Democrat.
On Feb. 17, Hurtado, who currently represents Sanger, introduced Senate Bill 1219 to dissolve the state Water Resources Control Board and replace it with a new commission, staffed by members of various state agencies and members of the Legislature.
The move was a bit of a head scratcher with most experts saying it would create more questions than solutions if – and most agreed it was a very big if – the bill gained traction.
Then on Feb. 21, Hurtado announced she would exit the race for the newly reconfigured District 14, which would have pitted her against state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Merced) who is widely expected to receive official backing from the state Democratic party, and instead run for the newly reconfigured District 16.
District 16 covers parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties and all of Kings County, a traditionally conservative region.
Hurtado will face several other candidates vying for the District 16 seat. David Shepard, a Porterville farmer, is the lone Republican who has filed so far. The others are all Democrats including Imelda Ceja, a project specialist with the Kern County Public Health Department; Rob Fuentes, a civil rights attorney from Porterville; and former Assemblywoman Nicole Parra.
Parra, who served in the Assembly from 2002 to 2008, is well known in Kern County and has a history of supporting more conservative valley views. She had a running, well documented feud with Democratic State Sen. Dean Florez, often thwarting his legislative efforts at enhancing clean air and food safety regulations.
She was famously friendly with then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and accepted his appointment as director of the Regional Development Initiatives when she left the Legislature in 2009. She later worked on races for several Republican candidates including gubernatorial candidate Carly Fiorina.
Meanwhile, Hurtado has been burnishing her own conservative valley cred as a staunch supporter of major water conveyance projects including pushing for hundreds of millions to fix the sinking Friant-Kern Canal. A 33-mile section of the canal has sagged because nearby overpumping has caused the ground to collapse beneath it. That sagging section reduced its carrying capacity by more than 50%.
Hurtado’s bill SB 559 that would have allocated $785 million to fix the Friant-Kern and Delta-Mendota canals as well as sections of the California Aqueduct, was passed in August 2021, but the amount was pared down to $100 million and amendments put the Department of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife in charge of releasing the money under specific guidelines.
Her latest water bill, SB 1219, may be another shot fired in defense of valley agriculture, but could cause more problems than solutions, according to experts.
“The bill would essentially blow up the box of the state Water Board on a specific date with a short time available to propose a new water regulatory structure,” wrote Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, in an email. “Water users throughout the state rely on the firm and reliable administration of water rights and environmental regulations, even as they often complain about its details. Proposed reforms of water management institutions often risk becoming more troublesome than dissatisfactions with current institutions.”
Hurtado expressed frustration with the state Water Board and its handling of water management during the current drought in a press release. She described the state Water Board as “antiquated” and said it is failing to manage water for future generations.
“We need to focus on better water management, and true accountability. And modernizing our water system will do just that,” said Hurtado in the press release. “By eliminating the State Water Resources Control Board, we are giving power to those who their policies most greatly impact, and are reimagining water management in the 21st Century.”
“I have no idea if it’s intended to be a real effort or if it’s instead an attempt to plant a flag in the sand and say that certain constituencies have a real problem with the state Water Board,” said Michael Claiborne, directing attorney for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “What I do know is that it’s a bad idea.”
Leadership Counsel works to develop access to safe and affordable water, groundwater protection and water infrastructure throughout the San Joaquin Valley and the East Coachella Valley.
Claiborne said the state Water Board is a critical agency overseeing many challenges, including implementation of California’s groundwater sustainability management law. Dissolving that agency in the midst of a drinking water and drought emergency, is not the right approach, he added.
And while the state Water Board has its problems, said Claiborne, ultimately he said he appreciates the fact that it’s an agency served by an accessible public board. His prediction was that SB 1219 is unlikely to get anywhere.
“I’ve been wrong before and I can’t always predict what the legislature’s going to do,” said Claiborne. “But I don’t think this has legs.”
Candidates have until March 16 to file for state Senate District 16 as no incumbent is running.
The primary will be June 7.