A Time to Think Big: Envisioning a Fair and Sustainable San Joaquin Valley

John Capitman, PhD

I recently accompanied a neighbor on his annual check-up. The results were predictable: the doctor asked him to lose weight, get more exercise, and get more involved socially.  My neighbor had only two questions, “Why are you being so negative?” and “Will Medicare pay for this?”

It seems that Valley leaders, environmental managers, and planners are much like my neighbor. Rather than focusing on what our region can do to improve equity and sustainability, we rail against environmental regulations and plead for federally-funded incentives.  Instead, in order to prosper as a region we need to work through some difficult questions about our possible futures:

  • How can we meet the demand for housing close to jobs and opportunities while minimizing loss of farms and green space?
  •  How can we dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?
  •  How can we alter our agricultural economic engine to produce better jobs and less pollution?

The Valley’s agricultural production is storied. And yet we continue to make news for producing among the worst life outcomes in California. The Valley’s gross domestic product per capita falls notably below other regions reflecting reliance on low wage jobs and failure to capture a larger share of agricultural value.

Compared to other California regions, income and wealth inequality are more severe, mothers face higher risk of adverse outcomes, children struggle with higher rates for asthma and other hospitalizations, adults have harder access to care, elders fewer years of healthy life, and substance abuse and intentional violence are more prevalent.  Further, there is mounting evidence for remarkable disparities by race/ethnicity, income, and neighborhood. The region produces poor and dramatically unequal life chances.

The Valley has achieved a 90% reduction in emissions of fine particles and related pollutants harmful for human health. Still our region remains among the nation’s most polluted. The San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) and the California Air Resources Board are currently exploring plans to meet the 2006 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter. Our past success suggests we can meet these goals through regulations, behaviors changes, and investments.

The SJVAPCD has indicated that Valley businesses and individuals who engage in environmental high-risk behavior (diesel farm engines, diesel trucking, underfired burners, recreational use of fireplaces, and driving heavy gas guzzlers) could adopt multiple salutary practices. The District proposes spending over $2 billion per year for a decade on incentives to coax polluters into making these changes. It does not expect that these efforts will be adequate to meet the air standards on time. Its policy is to seek changes in the Clean Air Act to eliminate the possibility of the region facing penalties for non-attainment.  Meanwhile our landscape is changing:  over-drafting of ground water propels land subsidence; concern grows about water quality; the mountains burn and habitats disappear. The region produces an unsustainable economy.

In exploring its options, the SJVAPCD set up and burned a straw man. It reaffirmed its conclusions to exclude further exploration of dramatically intrusive policies such as banning trucks and other driving or curtailing farming and construction on days impacted by unhealthy air.  In their crudest forms such policies would run afoul of many laws and produce havoc for residents and businesses for much of the year. And by themselves, they would not bring us to clean air, it argues. By rejecting these dramatic and intrusive policies, the District seeks to strengthen its case that timely achievement of healthy air is not feasible.

Immolating the straw man misses the point. Experience shows that Valley residents benefit economically from air quality investment.  We can be much more intentional in using these investments to help create a fair and sustainable region.  Thinking big and overcoming our challenges requires not only diverse technical expertise but also building a new consensus across neighborhoods and social groups about our values and goals. Are we willing to see lives curtailed and contributions missed through unequal opportunities and environmentally overburdened communities? Are we willing to exchange the health and well-being of our neighbors for ineffective regulation of industry or planning that value proponents’ profits over healthy communities?

 I think a broadly inclusive and creative discussion of how to create a fair and healthy San Joaquin Valley is needed now more than ever.