The Central Valley has long been known as a land of bounty, with fertile agricultural land, temperate climate and a growing population. All of these factors also affect the region's environment, according to "The State of the Great Central Valley: Assessing the Region Via Indicators ¬- The Environment 2006-2011."
The report, jointly produced by the Great Valley Center and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced, tracks a variety of environmental indicators within the Central Valley and shows mixed results.
The report's authors found good news in a reduction in the level of a number of key air quality indicators, a recharge of watersheds to near normal levels, a slowing in the loss of prime agricultural land to urbanization and an increased restoration of wetland habitats.
The bad news - the air quality in the Central Valley is among the worst in the nation and the level of nitrates in drinking water has increased.
The number of days ozone levels were above state and federal air quality standards increased overall since 2005, and almost all counties in the region did not meet the one-hour and eight-hour air quality standards for many days each year. The percentage of the Valley's population at risk for respiratory problems because of poor air quality outpaced other California regions.
The report also featured a few of the efforts being made to improve environmental conditions in the Valley.
Over the past three years, farmers across the Central Valley and state have been working with the National Resources Conservation Service to replace engines in old tractors and other farm equipment in an effort to reduce the amount of harmful emissions polluting the air.
The Central Valley received the majority of the replacement funding with approximately 1,000 of the contracts (roughly 85 percent) going to farmers in this region. When all contracts have been implemented, this will represent an emissions reduction equivalent to removing 430,000 cars from Valley highways.
"This first-time, voluntary program offers solid, trackable and quantifiable results in reducing NOx emissions," said Manual Cunha, Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, one of the organizations that helped craft the program set-up and federal funding as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. "The EPA has signed a memorandum of agreement that will allow these results to be counted toward emissions reduction targets for 2023 that will become mandated in future legislation."
Demand for the program has far outstripped the grant funding available. NRCS received 3,455 applications for engine replacements over the past three years, and was able to fund only 34 percent of these requests. The Nisei Farmers League and other program partners are working to increase the 2012 funding by an additional $50 million so more applicants can participate in this successful program.
"California's farmers have responded enthusiastically to our efforts to improve air quality," said Ed Burton, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist for California.
While the efforts of area farmers are making a measurable difference, the report's authors made five recommendations to "promote stewardship of the Valley's resources, a healthy economy and improved quality of life:"
1. Stricter standards in the region's air quality and further adoption of green technologies.
While the pollutants of concern have declined, the Valley's air quality remains at non-attainment levels for all counties. Compared to the rest of the state, the Valley has the most people at risk for asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. The precursors to ozone and particulate matter could be reduced by using more fuel-efficient diesel trucks and paving rural roads.
2. Continued investment in management and infrastructure will help protect, preserve and restore the Valley's diminishing water supply.
The Central Valley is California's fastest growing region with a rising demand for water. California will need to direct more effort and funding into a portfolio approach to water supply planning rather than looking for "silver bullets." The need for a sustainable water supply can best be met by increased recycling, use of aquifers and urban efficiency. Improving irrigation technologies and infrastructure will ensure cleaner drinking water.
3. The Valley's environment must be regarded as a unique and critical asset that provides economic, social and environmental benefits.
The real estate bust has greatly reduced the loss of agricultural land in the region, but as the population increases, the Central Valley will need to take a more careful approach to the urbanization of prime soils. Increasing the density of urban areas will help grow the region's economy while maintaining agricultural dominance. A balanced approach is necessary to insure wetlands and riparian habitats and the species that inhabit them are valued in policy making at the local, regional and state levels.
4. The Valley must embrace renewable energy technologies for sustainable growth.
The climate and landscape of the Central Valley is ideal for solar panel, wind and biomass energy farms. The area's adoption of these technologies combined with constructing energy-efficient buildings will increase the region's economic opportunities by attracting well-educated workers and provide a greater mix of housing choices.
5. The Valley needs to continue to invest in data gathering and sharing and implementation of regional growth blueprints prepared over the past decade.
More resources and funding are needed at the planning and data-gathering levels to assess the Valley's environmental health and to develop strategies to protect and restore its biological heritage and diversity. This should include more timely data collection, increased data sharing, and coordinated data reporting and integration. State cutbacks have resulted in negligence in updating several databases. Blueprints from Shasta County to the southern San Joaquin Valley call for higher housing density and more transportation choices, but they need to be inculcated throughout the Central Valley in city and county general plans.
To read the full report, visit http://www.greatvalley.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/environmental-indicators-2011.pdf