The World Health Organization Report of 2015 statistics recently announced that the San Joaquin Valley has the worst air quality in the nation and also has the highest childhood asthma rates. Year after year in authoritative reports the San Joaquin Valley is named the dirtiest air basin in the nation. The pervasiveness of the trend can be partly explained by the fact that the industries that thrive in the Valley – agriculture and fossil fuel production – are our lungs’ worst enemies.
Since 2003, the Central Valley Air Quality (CVAQ) Coalition, a group of about 70 member organizations throughout the San Joaquin Valley has joined forces to strengthen air quality regulations at all levels, especially at the local air district. CVAQ members work to improve air quality because they are witness to the adverse health impacts on overburdened communities, brought on by air pollution.
This April, CVAQ convened its members for the annual Coalition meeting. Each year the goal is to discuss the latest air quality issues, share technical information and political strategies, and also to talk about collaborative strategies for creating clean air in the Valley. Topics included sustainable agriculture, the Clean Air Act, and Community Choice energy.
CVAQ members discussed how they can advocate for sustainable agricultural practices and address air pollution from dairies and agricultural waste. Reducing agricultural pollution provides air quality and climate benefits, environmental justice issues that stand to benefit the poorest and most rural communities in the Valley. The group also discussed the potential to generate energy from the biomass industry for agricultural waste, in line with the State’s push for installing digesters and creating biofuel from dairies. CVAQ’s goal is to find solutions that help agriculture prosper while providing livable conditions for the four million residents of the eight-county Valley.
Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act is currently under attack. The San Joaquin Valley Air District has launched a comprehensive campaign to change the rules to make it easier to meet air quality standards. Unfortunately, this won’t clean our air, nor will it turn the tide on our escalating childhood asthma rate. Creating political will proves the biggest challenge in clean air work. Valley leaders, including the fifteen city councilmembers and county supervisors that sit on the Valley Air Board, are heavily affiliated with the polluting industries. Agriculture and the oil & gas industry either fund their political campaigns or comprise a majority of their personal investments. There is no clear-cut path to move past this hurdle, but we continue to apply pressure and find new angles from which to approach the problem.
A rapidly emerging response to air pollution and the climate crisis was introduced to the Coalition by Woody Hastings, Renewable Energy Implementation Manager for the Center for Climate Protection. Community Choice is an energy model that, among other things, brings the sourcing and pricing of electricity under local control, and offers consumers a choice about their electricity service. Several communities in California that have launched Community Choice programs are enjoying significant local economic benefits as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions. All of them have higher percentages of renewable energy in their power mixes and lower greenhouse gases than the big utilities, with goals to continue the trend. Over time, the shift from fossil to renewable power will reduce the air quality impacts from fossil fuel extraction in the Valley. Furthermore, Community Choice agencies are currently exploring ways to support the electrification of the transportation system, eliminating tailpipe emissions.
In an interactive map of California depicting the various stages of Community Choice development across the state, CVAQ members noted the distinct lack of action in the Valley. Woody offered himself as a resource to help Valley leaders and residents learn more about Community Choice. Members were pleased to hear the Valley was not overlooked in the growth of this concept, as it can be in many progressive environmental projects. Other members saw the concept of Community Choice as an opportunity to address the neglect of unincorporated communities. Many advocates in the Valley have served as a voice for unincorporated communities, which lack access to basic services, such as natural gas or drinkable water, or are disproportionately charged for such services.
“It won’t be a cake walk,” was Hasting’s initial response when advocates asked how we can overcome the challenge of political will in the Valley. The group was assured there will need to be a strong coalition of supporters, a lot of community education, and strategies that speak to the needs of each municipality.
More information and resources about Community Choice can be found on the new, Clean Power Exchange website. CVAQ is excited to begin a partnership with the Center for Climate Protection in this endeavor and we appreciate the Center’s commitment to remain inclusive and sensitive to environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley.
Dolores Weller is the Executive Director of the Central Valley Air Quality (CVAQ) Coalition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org