San Joaquin Valley, California residents are breathing much easier thanks to the dedicated and hard work of the area’s many constituent interests who have not only taken the time already, but, in going forward, are committed to making a positive-air difference. The results we are seeing would not have been possible without this kind of resolve. It is this sort of news that should give all of us who live in, work in or frequent the Valley hope.
At the same time, the Golden State’s central interior with regard to air-cleanup progress is lagging behind, enough that the Valley consistently ranks as one of the U.S.’s worst air-offender regions: It has some of this country’s unhealthiest air to breathe.
In its 2021-’22 “Annual Report to the Community,” the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District boasts of the tremendous air-cleanup strides made. In his “message,” Air District Executive Director and Air Pollution Control Officer Samir Sheikh wrote, in the last three decades, “through multiple clean air plans developed in partnership with the California Air Resources Board, and hundreds of adopted clean air measures, the San Joaquin Valley’s air pollution has been reduced dramatically, and Valley residents are now breathing much cleaner air than just several years ago. These measures have not come cheaply and must be commended, with Valley businesses, agencies, and residents investing tens of billions of dollars in clean air technologies, vehicles and processes to help improve our Valley’s air quality.” (p. 1) There is more, though, that must be done.
The Air District writes: “With stringent planning requirements and shortened attainment timeframes under the Clean Air Act for PM2.5, additional NOx reductions from federal mobile sources will be vital for the Valley to meet its attainment goals. To ensure that the Valley can meet its air quality goals, the District is pursuing a number of time-sensitive opportunities for achieving significant additional emissions reductions from mobile sources, including commenting on new national heavy duty truck standards, and advocating for increased federal resources through infrastructure and ‘climate smart’ funding packages.” (2021-’22 “Annual Report to the Community,” p. 42).
According to the Air District, more than 80 percent of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions in the Valley are mobile-sourced. (2021-’22 “Annual Report to the Community,” (p. 29) What’s more, the Air District relates, “In addition to having the most stringent air regulations in the nation, the District also operates the most effective and efficient incentive grants programs, investing over $4.5 billion in public/private funding towards clean air projects to date that have achieved over 222,000 tons of emissions reductions. (2021-’22 “Annual Report to the Community,” p. 5)
Staying the course
There is still much work that remains, however, if only because population in the Valley continues its upward ascent (there are now more than 4 million residents), as is the growth in vehicle travel miles each year. That means the pollution numbers are constantly being added to. So, in a manner of speaking, we can’t let our foot off of the air-mitigation-and-remediation accelerator, just yet.
The growth in Valley housing, meanwhile, is seemingly continuing unabated, meaning, significant tracts of farmland or other land not previously zoned for residential development use is being converted for such purposes. When this happens, any number of additional responses follow such as the prompting of additional driving which leads to proximity air pollution levels becoming further elevated.
Adding to this plight is the ancillary commercial development that typically materializes within the various housing projects, there to serve the retail, grocery, automotive and home repair, lawn and garden and other needs of nearby homeowners and/or occupants. All of which prompts increased driving miles and therefore leads to even more airborne emissions releases.
As a means to keep roads from getting congested, wider thoroughfares are fashioned which, in reality, only serves to drive more traffic, or existing roads are expanded to alleviate bumper-to-bumper movement, but this too, in time, will lead to the very same outcome, a consequence otherwise known as “induced demand.”
Depending upon where in the Valley such growth occurs, to a large extent determines how problematic the associated air pollution becomes. That which happens in the north Valley, is less negatively impacting versus what a comparable amount of development would cause in the south Valley. While the northern Valley is more open and air-cleansing breezes are a more frequent fixture there helping the pollution to disperse more readily, large swaths of the southern portion tend to retain its pollution longer due to it being hemmed in by high-land geographical features (meaning mountains) which inhibit the pollutants being scattered and instead become more concentrated.
Unless and until these seemingly entrenched Valley patterns are turned around leading to fewer miles being driven – driving itself being the main contributor to the Valley’s unhealthful air-pollution situation – further air-quality improvement gains will become more difficult to attain, that is, without various intervention strategies to address the matter being put into force, intervening action like enforcement protocols put in place to change behavior like the rationing of water does as a means of conserving this precious resource. Or, identifying and applying technological fixes which are successful in lower emissions emanating from tailpipes. Or, changing building paradigms, switching from a horizontal growth model to one that is more vertical in orientation. Or, employing a variety of transit – both rail- and road-based – as a means to accomplish the same thing.
And, on and on the list goes. That’s what’s it’s going to take.
– Alan Kandel