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Latest news, analysis and information from the 2024 presidential, state, and local elections by the KVPR newsroom and news partners.

US Senate candidates vying to fill Dianne Feinstein's seat stay largely quiet on issue of water

A section of the Friant-Kern Canal is shown in this file photo.
Ezra David Romero
A section of the Friant-Kern Canal is shown in this file photo.

The late Senator Dianne Feinstein was a champion for water, reaching across the aisle — and across the state — to compromise on major issues like water allocations for farmers. But the candidates competing to fill her Senate seat have been surprisingly quiet on the topic.

Politico reporter Camille von Kaenel has been following the candidates and spoke with KVPR reporter Kerry Klein. Von Kaenel explains how the candidates don’t seem to be following in Feinstein’s footsteps.

Listen to the segment in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

CAMILLE VON KAENEL: Well, it's not part of their stump speech. They're not talking about it much or bringing it up. Although, when they're asked about it, they all share the same sort of platitudes about how important it is and how they're dedicated to representing all of California and water’s critically important. Adam Schiff seems to have developed the most detailed play on water. He's been meeting with farmers and farm workers. He has the endorsement of the United Farm Workers. Katie Porter has toured the valley, too. She's a farm kid who grew up on a farm in Iowa, and she brings that up sometimes, too. Barbara Lee's big into nutrition and food access and she's also the only one to have actually taken a position on the Delta conveyance project. She said that she supports it. And then the last kind of top candidate, the Republican former baseball player Steve Garvey, he's been hitting kind of classic Republican talking points, but hasn’t given much details.

KERRY KLEIN: Right. So water isn't totally absent but the really big issues, like storage and availability during drought years—not getting much air time. And so why is that? How can these candidates get away without addressing this as significantly as Feinstein once did?

VON KAENEL: Well, the goal for the Democrats, especially, is to get enough votes to pass the primary runoff and they're making the calculation that you don't need the votes of people for whom water is a priority to make that cutoff and, as you mentioned, it's ironic, since water was such a signature issue for Dianne Feinstein. But 30 years ago when she was elected, you needed the Valley to carry a statewide race. And that was the calculus that Dianne Feinstein made. These days, with the urban growth and frankly increasing polarization, there are enough Democrat votes in coastal cities and those people in the cities have dozens of critical issues and water isn't, you know, top of the list. So there's no upshot really in going deep on water. And there's even a potential downside because, for a candidate to suggest that she or he wants to follow in Dianne Feinstein's footsteps on water, that could alienate environmental groups who make up an important voting bloc.

KLEIN: Right, and you have a particularly telling line in one of your pieces about this. You say that, according to their political calculus, “cities don't care, and rural areas don't count.”


KLEIN: So a lot of your reporting on this issue came out before the first candidate debate. Did that debate change anything, change this landscape at all?

VON KAENEL: Honestly, I don't think that it changed the landscape much but it confirmed what we had already reported, that Adam Schiff is making the biggest play on water and in the Valley. He brought up his visits with farmers and farm workers and I think one of the more interesting moments on this was when Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, who is snipping at his heels in the polls, went at it on earmarks. Porter's very anti-ear marks, Schiff is pro earmarks, Schiff said he wants to keep bringing money back to California and he brought up the example of Dianne Feinstein bringing back millions of dollars for water infrastructure as something that he wanted to continue.

KLEIN: Well, I can't wait to follow along as the election continues. Camille von Kaenel is a California environment reporter for Politico. Camille, thanks so much for talking about this topic with me.

VON KAENEL: Thanks for your interest.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.