Effect of drought may lead to more Valley air pollution from ag sources

This seems like the Catch-22. The granddaddy of all paradoxes.

I’ll explain.

320px-BurningOffFieldsInTheEveningInSouthGeorgia[1]Due to the prolonged drought, San Joaquin Valley, California, fruit and nut growers are feeling the pressure. There are many instances where the lack of water has necessitated orchard removal. With water being much more scarce, many a Valley grower has resorted to deeper and deeper well-drilling in order to stay afloat. Those who either cannot afford to or haven’t yet had this done (if they have the means), are, figuratively speaking, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place, no doubt hard-pressed to dispose of their orchard wood-waste in a more eco-friendly manner as opposed to burning it in an open field.

Biomass incineration – considered one of the more environmentally friendly ways of handling such wood-waste – is in decline in the Valley. According to information in The Fresno Bee, closed recently have been three biomass plants between Bakersfield and Stockton. Last year in western Fresno County, a facility in Mendota went offline.

With state natural gas production picking up steam, as it were, it is apparently getting more and more difficult for biomass and co-generation facilities to remain relevant in today’s energy-producing market.

Meanwhile, supplying most of the fuel is the grower, with other sources supplying lesser amounts. In return, payment is received for any and all accepted waste-material supplied.

During times when there is greater demand for biomass-generated electricity, there is need for an increased fuel supply. On the other hand, when conditions change as they appear to have done in the way that they have, the need for fuel is obviously less. It is this second scenario that is currently playing out and a turn of events – or, if you prefer, change in fortunes – such as this, in my opinion can in no way be good for the grower concern.

One other factor in this equation is that with the closed facilities, a smaller number of Valley-based biomass operations remain and without adding extra capacity, it may be difficult for them to take in more biomass fuel above and beyond what they’re already receiving. For waste that cannot be accommodated, suppliers will have to look for alternative means with which to have it disposed of. That could mean sending the refuse to landfills or burning it in open fields as was common practice in times past. If the material winds up in a landfill, bets are on that coupled to this will be added pollution in the form of methane entering the air, all stemming from wood-waste decomposition and, if burned, well, that part is pretty much self-explanatory.

As if this paradoxical situation weren’t enough. Add to this that California’s mid-section has the nation’s worst air quality, a fact echoed on Apr. 29th by the American Lung Association in its most recent “State of the Air” report for 2015, the association’s 16th.

Like in 2014, this year’s report names cities in California’s Central Valley as the nation’s worst polluting for 24-hour and annual fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and daily ozone (O3) emissions.

The San Joaquin Valley, incidentally, consists of eight counties. Whether in the north Valley or south, air quality has a lot to be desired. Even so, there is a bright side. Consensus seems to be that the quality of Valley air has improved some.

640px-California's_Central_ValleyBeing that 80 percent of all open-field burning of agricultural waste is now illegal, this, no doubt, has allowed for air improvement, at least, in part, anyway. For this we have California Senate Bill 705 to thank. There is more on this in the Air Quality Matters post: “Garbage disposal: Rubbish not just for burning and dumping anymore.”

Now, a new campaign in the form of state Assembly Bill 590, aims to designate funds from California’s cap-and-trade regime as a means to help remaining state biomass facilities to continue to operate. This is my understanding of the bill’s intent, anyway. Some may wonder whether allocating cap-and-trade auction proceeds to keep biomass operations running is wise, especially when disposing of the waste in more environmentally sound and viable ways exist.

For example, uprooted orchard trees can either be chipped in a wood chipper or shredded via a shredder; the chipped or shredded material can be returned to the soil in place of it being landfilled or field-burned. In the former application, the wood will decompose and, as it does, soils become enriched with no harmful pollutants being introduced into the air.

But how practical a solution is this?

In “Up In Smoke,” in the May 2003 Nut Grower Magazine issue, I presented viable ways of disposing of ag waste.

In a section sub-headed “Orchard Chipping and Shredding” I wrote:

“Stanislaus County [University of California Cooperative Extension] Farm Advisor Roger Duncan and now-retired Merced County Farm Advisor Lonnie Hendricks presented their findings related to chipping and shredding in Nut Grower Magazine back in November 2001. Their article Turning an Orchard Into a ‘No Burn’ Zone looked at studies that were undertaken to determine the efficiency of chipping and shredding. One of the conclusions Duncan and Hendricks reached was that each pass with a tractor and shredder costs approximately $10 per acre compared to approximately $7 per acre to push brush out and burn it. They concluded chipping and shredding was initially more expensive, but the added benefit of turning the shredded material into reusable compost and returning the organic matter to the soil would produce a ‘long-term agronomic value.’”1

For those growers owning neither chippers nor shredders, contracting companies are available for hire that do this sort of work.

As the drought lingers and no revenue is being generated from land taken out of production, will growers take the air into consideration by opting for the most environmentally sound method going in dealing with removal of trees from the orchard – chipping and shredding with compost being added to the soil; take a more air-unfriendly approach by transporting waste to landfills or to biomass plants (provided sufficient capacity exists to accept it); or push trees into piles and set ablaze? What will it be? Will it be a case of all three?

During such difficult times the choices made may not always be easy ones. Understanding this and in dealing with the situation, hopefully, a doable, workable solution that can be mutually agreed upon by those concerned can be found. Of course, the one that damages air the least would be preferable. Hence the Catch-22.


  1. Alan Kandel, “Up In Smoke,” Nut Grower Magazine, a Western Agricultural Publishing Company publication, May 2003, p. 6.

– Alan Kandel

2 thoughts on “Effect of drought may lead to more Valley air pollution from ag sources”

  1. Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley regularly registers in the unhealthy range. Reports never fail to record the ups and downs of the color-coded Air Quality Index. Moderate means it will be a good day.

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