Targeted Valley air quality reporting and advocacy could have long-lasting value

I have heard and read – as have others – where the San Joaquin Valley of California has some of the worst air quality in the nation. I understand that Fresno, in the center of the Valley, is California’s asthma capital.

Each year since 2000 in April, the American Lung Association has released its annual “State of the Air” report. And, year after year major Valley metro regions consistently rank among the nation’s top 10 cities having the worst ozone or 24-hour or annual particulate matter pollution. Unsurprisingly, some California cities are ranked in the top 10 in all three categories.

I often watch the local broadcast news during which the weather report is given. Included in that is air quality reporting information. Related to this, it is not uncommon to hear reporting that goes something like this:

“All regions of the Valley will be in the moderate range for your Tuesday.” Accompanying the sound bites are typical visuals that include the numbers that correspond to the Air Quality Index (AQI) designation. And, of course, “moderate” indicates an AQI in the 51-to-100 range.

So, I have to wonder if this type of reporting is actually effective in terms of its impact potential, that is, as it relates to leading viewers to make lifestyle changes that will result in a general improvement in the quality of the Valley’s air. Or does this reported information simply fall on deaf ears?

That’s the reporting side, now let’s consider advocacy.

Since the San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air in the nation, one would think – maybe even expect – this region to have some of the most focused and frequent air quality advocacy in the country conducted over a broad coverage area to try to bring a greater awareness and recognition of such.

The two key pollutants of note or concern are ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10). Typically in the Valley, ozone is more prevalent (and visible) during the warmer times of the year while PM is more prominent during colder times.

Executive Director/Air Pollution Control Officer Seyed Sadredin of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in his Message in the “Annual Report to the Community,” wrote: “We have seen significant improvements in the Valley’s air quality, and clean-air strategies designed and implemented in the Valley now serve as the model for the rest of the state and the nation.”

Later on in the same report on page 5, presented is what is referred to as “Ozone Trends.” Regionwide since 1992, there has been a 34 percent decrease in exceedances of the 2008 federal 8-hour ozone standard and a 55 percent decrease in exceedances of the 1997 federal 8-hour ozone standard.

Additionally, the number of Unhealthy AQI Days in the eight-county Valley dropped from around 140 in 2002 to about 15 in 2012 while the number of Good AQI Days in the San Joaquin Valley air basin has fluctuated greatly from a low of about 250 in 2002 to a high of around 560 in 2010. The period covered is May through Sept. But, taken in the aggregate, it looks as though the number of Good AQI Days is on the rise.

This does not tell the whole story.

Between 2010 and 2012, the number of County Days of exceedances of the 2008 federal 8-hour ozone standard rose from roughly 285 (2010) to about 320 (for both 2011 and 2012).

Even though the number of exceedance days of the 8-hour standard overall has decreased, both the weather and the effect of post-Great Recession economic recovery in that more roadway traffic in 2011 and 2012 compared to 2010 resulted, the two taken together could quite conceivably explain the rise in the number of exceedance days between 2010 and 2011, suggesting the possibility of external influence, but it is difficult to know for sure.

Correspondingly, the number of Good AQI Days (May through Sept.) between 2010 and 2012 goes from a high of about 560 in 2010 to approximately 350 in 2012, there being a steady decline between those two years.

It will be interesting to see what the findings of next year’s “Annual Report to the Community” are.

Returning to my earlier point that the Valley has some of the nation’s worst air, and being topography, climate and land-use inefficiencies in the Valley reign supreme (and recalling the findings of the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report), if I had a say, I would change a few things advocacy-wise.

For starters, I would ask that Valley-based automobile salespersons promote ultra-low and zero-emissions vehicles first and foremost. Moreover, I would advocate for adoption of more efficient land use (getting away from the “sprawl-for-all” model) incorporating more housing choice, high- and higher-density, mixed-use infill development, with more reliance on alternative modes of transportation (e.g., walking, biking, public transportation) with living and jobs located closer together. Finally, I would strongly encourage residents/consumers to become environmentally more aware and find further ways to reduce environmental footprints even more. I know there is way more that can be done than what I have brought to bear, but this is as good a place to start as any.

In terms of air quality improvement, the San Joaquin Valley needs all the help it can get.

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Mar. 2, 2020 @ 7:12 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.