For several weeks in late December and early January, the Central Valley experienced one of its worst air pollution episodes in decades – shrouding the region in harmful haze and driving even the healthiest among us to stay indoors.
Unfortunately, this is yet another wake-up call to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) regarding the ongoing public health crisis that has been unfolding within our region for decades. As a public health agency, the District is legally responsible for making certain the air all our communities and for all our residents – from newborns to the elderly, from the wealthiest to the most disadvantaged – is clean enough to breathe.
While this pollution event was widely reported, the reality is that severe air pollution threatens the health of Central Valley and Sierra residents year-round.
There is a range of factors that contribute to the Valley’s unique problem, from wildfires to weather systems. That does not, however, take away from responsibilities for local sources – like cars, trucks, agriculture, dairies, residential wood burning, and oil, gas, and biomass facilities. We know these local sources are producing too much pollution on their own regardless of other factors. We also know air pollutants, like ozone and haze-causing fine particulate pollution (a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets), are directly linked to an increase in our risk of respiratory and heart problems, such as asthma, lung disease, heart disease and stroke.
Sadly, our air pollution is not only a health crisis for those living in the Central Valley.
The pollution makes its way up into the Sierra Nevada mountains where it contributes to the unhealthy air and hazy views that have earned national parks like Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon the dubious distinction of having some of the dirtiest air of any parks in the country.
In Yosemite National Park, this means roughly 59 miles of average visibility is lost due to haze. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, roughly 91 miles of average visibility is lost, alongside 87 days in which the air was unhealthy to breathe in 2016.
Because air pollution is also harmful to plant life, researchers at both UC Merced and UC Riverside believe pollution reaching the Sierra could be a significant contributing factor in the ongoing tree mortality crisis devastating the region.
A new plan from air district to limit the amount of local particulate pollution is expected in the next several months. The significance of this plan cannot be overstated. It may well decide whether we continue down a path of life-threatening, yet preventable disease and whether the wildlife, trees, and breathtaking views within our national parks survive for future generations.
Despite this undeniable significance, the air district’s current plan comes up far short of what is needed to tackle the fine particulate pollution problem. Instead, the district is seeking another 5-year delay for a plan they are already way behind schedule in implementing. This is unacceptable.
The district must reduce deadly particulate pollution now. They could begin immediately by limiting or prohibiting household, agricultural, and industrial biomass wood burning, controlling ammonia emissions from dairy farms, and preventing excess pollution from oil and gas operations.
As a native resident of the San Joaquin Valley, my commitment to the incredible natural resources that we have in our backyards grows with each passing year. I know the people of the Valley, Sierra and visitors to our national parks cannot afford five more years of breathing unhealthy air.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District must to do the right thing and develop a fully comprehensive plan for fine-particulate pollution without delay.
Coke Hallowell is a founding member of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, and also advocates for national parks.