Conferees fail to reach consensus at San Joaquin Valley clean air workshop

Nothing like a lively debate to get the heart racing and blood pumping.

On November 7th, I attended a Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) public workshop for the county of Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The purpose of this gathering, attended by a hundred or so people, was to discuss and present ideas about how to shrink the area’s carbon footprint. During the meeting’s proceedings there was discussion galore. And that’s putting it politely.

Thirteen teams in all – with anywhere from seven-to-nine people per team – participated.

On the team that I was part of there was general agreement that future development should be contained within, in this case, Fresno County cities’ spheres of influence (SOI) and that no further development should occur outside SOI limits. On a goodly proportion of county land on the Valley floor not already developed for residential, commercial or industrial use one will find farm- and ranchland (on the latter of which are sometimes built ranchette-style homes) and as-of-yet undeveloped land, some of which may perhaps have been set aside for future residential and/or commercial development.

In terms of land use and transportation planning and ultimately with regard to emissions reductions as it relates to the region’s future development, what is key is first pinpointing pollution or emissions sources and then implementing measures to reduce or eliminate said pollution outright. And it was with respect to trying to come to consensus regarding the future-land-planning-and-development-public-workshop-participant input that debate over such took center stage – at least in the group that I was part of, anyway.

Due to meteorological and topographical conditions, pollution that’s created in the San Joaquin Valley – or that which blows in from other areas – frequently gets trapped. Mountain barriers to the west, south and east can effectively corral pollution and this is often what happens. Since much pollution entering the air can be attributable to transportation, industrial, residential and agricultural-related activities, there are effective ways to mitigate this pollution. Efficient use of land such as in limiting new development to locations within existing SOI boundaries can have a huge impact. Practically all within the working group I was part of concurred. Beyond this, there were differences of opinion running the gamut from use of electric cars with batteries charged by of all things, windmill generators, to the recommendation that an existing and presently used active railroad line be converted to a hiking, biking and walking trail. I must admit, though, that those two suggestions were at most, highly unlikely and at least, “not gonna happen.”

Even if that were to happen in this case, what would remain in the original rail line’s absence would be a vacated right-of-way that would require conversion to a trail mainly to be used for recreational purposes. Please note the rail line in question has remained active and in continuous use since the late 1890s. That’s better than 100 years and personally I don’t believe that particular railroad segment is going anywhere else anytime soon.

The other suggestion involving electric motor vehicle operation has the potential to lower emissions but powering batteries using locally placed windmills, I’m not convinced. The reason the Valley is notorious for having bad air quality in the first place has as much to do with a lack of cleansing winds as with other contributing meteorological or topographical factors.

Meanwhile, changing land use patterns from one of horizontal, expansive growth (read: “sprawl”) to more urban core-centered vertical, condensed, mixed-use building, enables the redirection of development away from precious agricultural lands to, say, downtowns, where there is strong potential to breed new life into such places making them highly appealing to Generation Y’ers or Millenials and empty nesters, as such neighborhoods are often a draw due to their more pedestrian-oriented – “walkable,” “bikable,” and “public-transit-friendly” – qualities. And that these neighborhoods typically are this way, the demand to drive is typically lower, vehicle travel miles are thus less and consequently fewer pollutants are pumped into the air. Approaches on this order have proven quite effective in this regard in communities in and around California’s San Francisco Bay Area and in the state capital region of Sacramento and are now even beginning to gain broader and broader acceptance in places like the Los Angeles basin and environs where over the decades, legions of Angelenos have witnessed seemingly limitless sprawl.

For what it’s worth, emissions-reductions targets called for in the Sustainable Communities Strategies plan for the entire eight-county San Joaquin Valley region stretching some 250-plus miles from north to south, have been set at five percent and 10 percent (relative to baseline year 2005) for years 2020 and 2035, respectively, according to one source I spoke with.

For an area that is known for its notoriously bad air, I am of the belief the Valley should have one of the most aggressive campaigns to fight air pollution, but instead, has one of the tamest by comparison.

That consensus in my view hasn’t been reached in the slightest I am most looking forward to Sustainable Communities Strategy Fresno round two.

California's agriculturally rich but often air-pollution shrouded San Joaquin Valley
California’s agriculturally rich but often air-pollution shrouded San Joaquin Valley

This post was last revised on Apr. 20, 2020 @ 7:34 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel