Water — or the periodic lack thereof — isn’t the biggest threat to the San Joaquin Valley’s economic vitality. It’s air quality.
The Environmental Protection Agency this past week tightened the ground ozone standard to a limit of 70 parts per billion, down from 75 parts per billion.
The EPA might as well as have handed down an edict that the San Joaquin Valley had to find a way to turn decomposed granite into gold. It simply isn’t going to happen.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has pointed out you could remove every one of the valley’s 2 million vehicles as well as ban thru traffic on Highway 99 and Interstate 5 plus stop all train traffic and still not meet the previous standard let alone the new one.
The EPA essentially concedes the point noting most of California — specifically the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles Basin, Inland Empire and the Sacramento Valley — won’t be able to meet the new standard by 2025. But then again when it comes to the San Joaquin Valley, the federal EPA is downright pragmatic compared to Sacramento. Under the previous federal standards ground ozone pollutants from vehicles, manufacturing plants, farming, utilities, and refineries exceeded the target level 35 to 40 day a year. The tougher state level is unattainable roughly more than 100 times a year.
On the flip side, there have been major strides in San Joaquin Valley in terms of airborne particles. Perhaps five days a year the valley can’t attain the federal standard. The state, again, is much more restrictive as the valley fails to reach Sacramento’s standards between 90 and 100 times a year.
Steady improvement has come to the valley’s air quality since the 1990s despite a significant gain in residents that has kicked the region’s population up to 3 million.
There are a lot of severe financial penalties ranging from fines to loss of federal highway tax dollars that are in jeopardy if standards aren’t attained. So far, the state and federal governments have been reasonable especially given the gains the valley has made.
It also may have something to do with close to 60 percent of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts are grown in the San Joaquin Valley. And while farming has made great strides it still has a major impact on air quality.
Much of the air quality problem is rooted in geography.
Unlike Omaha in Nebraska or Sioux Falls in South Dakota, everything is not flat for hundreds upon hundreds of miles allowing the wind to blow away and dissipate pollutants. Nor is it San Francisco or the Bay Area where constant prevailing winds carry smog away almost daily.
The San Joaquin Valley stretches 250 miles from the Delta to the Tehachapi Mountains flanked by the Sierra to the east and Coastal Ranges to the west. It creates a catch basin that holds the smog to such a degree that not too long again during hot, stagnant summer days the area around Bakersfield looked like it was covered in fog making it impossible to see the foothills less than 10 miles away.
Part of the problem, but not all of it, is air pollution blown into the valley from the Bay Area an even Sacramento. Studies a few years back showed that 27 percent of the air quality issues in the Northern Sam Joaquin Valley — San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties — came from those two outside areas. By the time you got down to the mid-valley around Fresno outside emission culprits dropped to 11 percent. That number dropped to 7 percent in the southern valley.
None of this may pique your interest until you understand future steps to further improve air quality will cost you and cost jobs. It’s because to further reduce emissions they have to be reduced at the source.
That puts an extreme non-attainment area for air quality like the San Joaquin Valley that the Congressional Budget Office once succinctly referred to as the nation’s new Appalachia given economic and social issues at a distinct disadvantage in attracting jobs compared to much of the rest of the nation.
The challenge now is to keep improving air without hurting some of the nation’s most vulnerable families economically.
Yes, we want cleaner air but we also need to be able to survive.
It’s a tough balancing act made worse by the fact even if it is substantially healthier today to breathe in the valley than it was 20 or even 10 years ago bureaucrats pulling down healthy six-figure checks in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., and savoring the bounty of the San Joaquin Valley at meals could mandate compliance to standards that could make it difficult for those working to provide them food to house, clothe and feed their own families.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.