High temperatures, wildfire smoke and drought: The politics of climate change in one California congressional district

The summer temperatures are consistently higher than they used to be. The smoke from nearby wildfires fills the sky, obscuring the sun and speckling his mandarin trees with delicate ash. And, most concerning, the water he needs to run his 150-acre farm has become so scarce that Carranza, the son of farm workers in California’s Central Valley who grew up picking and pruning every weekend, is worried about encouraging his own children to take over the farm he and his brothers founded two decades ago.

“That uncertainty of the water situation, it’s like you can’t feel that happy about them trying to come back to the family business,” said Carranza, who considered selling his farm during the last drought in 2014 and 2015. “And that is a bad feeling.”

He added: “There’s probably four or five different things that could kill our business. But if we have water, we can work on the others. If you don’t have water, these trees will die.”

These realities have made the area politically unique, too: There are few congressional districts more impacted by climate change, on a day-to-day basis than California’s 21st, a sweep of farmland from Bakersfield to Fresno that has become one of the most contested districts in recent history. The district, which some studies finding is well over 70% Hispanic — backed Joe Biden over Donald Trump by nearly 11 percentage points in 2020. It is currently represented by Republican Rep. David Valadao, making the district the most Democratic to be represented by a Republican in Congress. But Valadao has been in a constant fight to keep his seat – first being elected in 2013, before being ousted in 2018 and winning his seat back in 2020.
Republican Rep. David Valadao represents California's 21st Congressional District, a sweep of farmland from Bakersfield to Fresno.

Valadao laughed when asked about the fact that he is seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country. His decision to vote in favor of impeaching Trump earlier this year, making him just one of 10 Republicans in the House to do so, drew the ire of the right and won cheers from the left. A Republican rancher is now challenging Valadao almost entirely on that vote, with rumors of other Republicans planning to get in the race. A slew of Democrats, many of whom applauded his impeachment decision, have also lined up to knock off the Republican congressman, citing his record on a host of issues, including climate change.

Valadao took a more nuanced view of climate change as he spoke with CNN at a walnut farm in Fowler, California, acknowledging that he “is a person who thinks that the climate is changing” and admitting that his party could do more to push on the issue. But Valadao also argued that drought has long been a common situation in the Central Valley and that the nearby fires are stronger because of the way forest in the state are managed, not necessarily because climate change is making them worse.

“We’ve always had drier years and wetter years. Do I think that there’s a possibility that it plays a role? I’m sure that the climate changing is going to play a role in the long term,” he asked. “What can we do to fix that?”

‘Talk is cheap’

Democrats and Republicans throughout the Central Valley agree that water is likely the most pressing issue there.

It’s how to address the issue that splits the parties.

Valadao has primarily focused on how to mitigate the water issues, stressing the need to renew the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, a bill that looks to address water issues, and spend the needed money to increase storage of surface water. He, like many of his Republican colleagues in the district, also blames strict environmental policies regulating endangered fish in the California Delta for part of the water issues.

“A lot of us see a lot of hypocrisy on the issue,” Valadao said. He pointed to San Francisco getting most of its water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir but environmental activists, primarily those who live in the Bay Area, castigate any plans for more water storage to benefit the Central Valley. “They live in a totally different world and they’re doing exactly what we’re trying to do for ourselves.”

Doug Verboon, the Kings County District 3 Supervisor, is photographed among walnut trees at his property in California's Central Valley.
For him, the issue is personal: He was born in Hanford and his family had been in the dairy industry for much of Valadao’s life before the family business went bankrupt. Standing with Doug Verboon and Craig Pedersen, two Kings County Supervisors, Valadao recalls floating down a now entirely dry Kings River on the outskirts of town. As congressman, he deals with water issues constantly — he says any time he has a tele-town hall, 30 to 40% of the questions involve water — and a lot of that involves the web of contracts that farmers have with a mix of federal, state and local groups.

“In looking at the political environment that we live in today, all of the years of efforts in trying to explain to folks that water equals food, and it takes people and communities to grow that. And we have gotten nowhere, nowhere,” said Pedersen, arguing that because the political power in California rests in Southern California and the Bay Area, little attention is given to the Central Valley. “Our infrastructure hasn’t changed — developed for 15 million people, here we are at 44 million people. There’s going to be winners and losers. And right now, we’ve continually been on the losing side of things.”

And many in his district aren’t hiding their disdain for a water policy that benefits cities. Farmers are desperate for more water storage and large signs along highways in the Central Valley rage against what they see as a lack of action by the federal and state governments. Some are overtly political, like one that borrows from Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” slogan: “Build More Damns, Stop Man-Made Droughts”.

Signs about the drought are seen along highways in the Central Valley.

Valadao attempted to get more amendments dealing with water into the infrastructure bill currently being debating in Congress. The current bill has somewhere around $40 billion for water infrastructure, Valadao said. “It’s never enough,” he said, and hasn’t decided to yet on whether to support it on final passage.

“There’s no such thing as a silver bullet,” he added, but said the two things that could be done is “smarter policy on the way we manage our water with our current infrastructure and then growing the infrastructure. Those two are the easiest solutions.”

To his Democratic opponents in 2022, Valadao’s language is hollow. The congressman currently faces three Democratic opponents in the midterm elections — Bryan Osorio, the 25-year-old mayor of Delano; Angel Lara, a 26-year-old former aide to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein; and Nicole Parra, a former state assemblywoman — and multiple Democratic sources say that state assemblyman Rudy Salas, someone long seen as a top recruit to run against Valadao, is planning to run for the seat. Salas did not respond to CNN’s request for an interview.

“The legislation put in place by the current Republican incumbent doesn’t address climate change,” said Lara, a Bakersfield native whose mother was a farm worker. “In order to have to have stability, that root cause of climate change needs to be addressed. Talk is cheap. The legislation hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s stagnant.”

Angel Lara is a Bakersfield native running as a Democrat for California's 21st District.
The impacts in California have been dramatic. Reservoirs across the state are perilously low, threatening the hydroelectric energy that flows directly to the state’s major cities and the surface water that can be used by farmers. In August, regulators with the board that oversees water allocations in California voted to halt diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a major step that will directly impact those using water for agriculture. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked residents to cut their water usage by 15% in response to the drought.
Because drought is gripping much of the Western United States, these issues are far from unique to just California, with water authorities across the country having to take action to protect delicate watersheds. The most significant came in August when the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time, triggering mandatory water consumption cuts for states in the Southwest.

Osorio described an environment where even the slightest shift in water scarcity impacts every person in the community, from the farmer who may have to switch crops to the farm worker whose well may become contaminated to the city officials who worry about the economic impact and the stability of their own municipal wells. All of this, he said, stems back to climate change.

“On the issue of water and drought, it is very important to acknowledge climate change and I don’t think Valadao has done a very good job in doing that,” he said. “We have to mitigate the impacts of the drought, but we also have to look at what is causing the drought. This starts with acknowledging the impacts of climate change.”

Bryan Osorio, the 25-year-old mayor of Delano, is also challenging Valadao.

Two Californias

Water is a constant concern for many who live in Valadao’s district — and it isn’t just about quantity.

Because surface water has been so scarce in recent years, farmers and towns have had to lean more on ground water, pumping it from vast underground aquafers that have long been a reliable back up plan for the dry years in the Central Valley. With so many dry years coming back-to-back, however, more and more wells are coming up dry — creating a scenario where the vast network of farm workers in the district are spending their days working on water-starved farms and are coming home to concerns about contaminated water.

Scientists who have studied the climate impacts on farm workers in the Central Valley have found complex reactions. J. Pablo Ortiz-Partida, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Angel S. Fernandez-Bou, a researcher at the University of California, Merced, found in their work that while water concerns are pressing, many feel air quality and heat are equally concerning.

“Farm workers that have been experienced these conditions are conscience of the changes,” said Ortiz-Partida, who noted many farm workers who have worked fields for decades have physically felt the heat rise and the air quality diminish.

“And these extremes are exacerbated by climate change,” Fernandez-Bou said.

The United Farm Workers, the union that pioneered the rights of farm workers in the United States in the 1960s, has also criticized Valadao for focusing more on the impact the drought has on farmers and less on their workers.

“Valadao represents workers too, and to our knowledge he hasn’t talked with workers at all about water policies,” said Elizabeth Strater, a strategist for the union. “He’s talking to their bosses, sure. But he’s not talking to the workers. They’re living in the communities facing the harshest symptoms of climate change drought conditions.”

Nicole Parra, a former state assemblywoman, stands next to a dried-on-the-vine raisin orchard.
To Parra, these water issues are second nature — the congressional candidate dealt extensively with water during her time in the state Assembly. She was also punished for pushing the issue, she recalled, getting physically booted from her office in the California state Capitol to a building across the street after she failed to vote for her own party’s budget over water and agriculture concerns.

Parra, who prides herself in being a moderate, said she would be willing to do the same over water issues if she were elected to Congress, and echoed a more-Republican sentiment that the Central Valley is getting the short end of the stick to California’s urban area.

“It just seems like this is two Californias when it comes to those who are making the rules and regulations regarding air quality issues, climate change and when we are talking about the drought,” Parra said. “Climate change is making the events we are seeing as more extreme and for a longer duration. … It’s making them longer, more extreme and mother nature is not happy and we need to do thing about it.”

‘You have to fight for something’

What makes Valadao so unique in Congress is that he is a Republican in a Democratic district who, because of his vote on impeachment, is also getting attacked from the right of his own party.

Chris Mathys, a former city councilman in Fresno, is mounting a campaign against Valadao by pledging to “do everything in my power to defeat Congressman David Valadao who voted to impeach President Donald Trump.” Mathys’ odds are long — Valadao has a deep well of support in a district that leans left — but he could create problems for the congressman by firing up a pro-Trump base that already raged at Valadao in the wake of his vote.

Chris Mathys is a Republican running against Rep. David Valadao because of his vote to impeach President Trump.

“It was a betrayal of conservative Republican principles,” Mathys said, standing next to his truck that both touts his campaign and makes clear he is “running against Valadao.”

“President Trump helped David Valadao get elected and a week after he wins, he votes to impeach him and calls him un-American,” he said.

Where Valadao voted for impeachment, Mathys has backed the baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and Biden is not the rightful president. While Valadao acknowledged climate change, Mathys would not, making clear that he believes the water issues facing his would-be constituents stem from poor leadership, not the changing climate.

“I strongly believe climate change is not an issue of the world changing. I think it’s an issue of a natural progression,” he said. “What’s making their lives harder is not climate change, but it’s the poor leadership that we’ve had in the valley.”

Valadao was largely dismissive of Mathys and stood by his vote for impeachment, despite the blowback he received at home.

“If someone is going to run in a district like this based off of one vote on a person that lost the district, everyone who supports that type of mentality has literally given up the opportunity to win a seat and put someone in a spot that could actually fight for them and do what’s right for the district,” Valadao said. “If their only issue is one vote, that’s a pretty short-sighted mentality.”

Serrato, a raisin farmer, is the former general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District.

Valadao, because of the political make-up of the district, knows he is in for another fight come November. He has seen his Democratic opponents line up and tie him to Trump, the man he voted to impeach. And he has seen his Republican opponents argue he wasn’t loyal enough to Trump.

For this calculation to work, Valadao needs supporters like Gary Serrato, a dried-on-the-vine raisin farmer and former general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District who vote for him in 2020. But he worries that Valadao is a man without a party — targeted by both Democrats and Republicans — and therefore will be ineffective in the coming years.

“I like Valadao and Valadao is out there doing what he can for the valley, but he’s a target,” Serrato said. “And we need somebody that’s going to be able to make change today. Today. We can’t wait for another four years, another five years.”