Other Opinions

Sen. Caballero, columnist Walters all wrong when it comes to hydroelectric project

Don Pedro Dam and powerhouse, on the Tuolumne River.
Don Pedro Dam and powerhouse, on the Tuolumne River. Turlock Irrigation District

Why is it when state Sen. Anna Caballero seeks “equity” by altering air quality regulations, her proposals increase health risks for Fresno County’s most pollution-impacted residents? Last year she sought an exemption for old, diesel farm trucks. Now she wants to cut a loophole in an important climate change law.

Perhaps it’s the distance.

Caballero lives in Salinas, way off in the northwest, coastal — breezy — corner of Senate District 12. Their last recorded ozone violation was a decade ago, and particulate pollution keeps her vulnerable constituents indoors just one day a year.

Meanwhile, those of us living in the inland parts of her sprawling district face a much grimmer reality — one that the senator continues to ignore, despite her district’s deep reach into Fresno County.

From Kingsburg in the district’s southeast corner, to Coalinga in the southwest, SD 12 includes seven of our county’s 15 cities, plus unincorporated communities ranging from Lanare and Cantua Creek to La Vina and Orange Center.

Kevin Hall Fresno Bee file

Her hometown’s average of just one bad air day per year is a world apart from the air pollution onslaught here. In Parlier, the ozone monitor for the southeast county recorded more than 300 health violations in the past five years. Across the Valley floor in Huron, PM 2.5 safety levels were broken on 32 days from 2013 to 2018.

That’s 332 dangerous air days in rural Fresno County to a mere five in Salinas during the last five years. Has Caballero’s clean air numbed her to this Valley’s suffering?

Premature deaths from particulate pollution alone in the San Joaquin Valley are still estimated at well over 1,000 people annually. People who work outdoors, particularly farm workers, are at highest risk. So are children, seniors and many people with pre-existing conditions. Childhood asthma rates are at epidemic levels.

We have a human health crisis, senator, wrapped in an urgent climate emergency.

Fortunately, the state’s strong push for renewable energy, when implemented correctly, reduces ground-level air pollution and greenhouse gases simultaneously. As more wind, solar, geothermal, and storage come on line, pollution will drop as natural gas power plants like the 400mw Panoche Energy Center west of Firebaugh and highly polluting biomass plants such as Rio Bravo in Calwa can — at long last — be shut down.

Unfortunately, if Caballero taps into the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, the opposite will happen. She seeks “renewable energy” status for hydroelectricity generated at Don Pedro Dam in Tuolumne County, another part of her district beyond our air basin.

Caballero’s stated goal is to save the local utility that operates the power plant the expense of meeting the state’s renewable energy mandate of 60 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. She claims electricity bills will rise for people living within the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, if the districts, which jointly own Don Pedro, must keep investing in renewables.

However, the utility is not selling solely into the local area. Like its competitors, it sends its electricity onto the regional grid where SD 12 residents are served directly by PG&E or Southern California Edison. The costs for renewable energy are shared by everyone on the system.

Columnist Dan Walters offered the same argument in last Saturday’s Bee. Walters further wants to crack the law wide open and expand the breach to include all existing hydropower.

But, Caballero and Walters are also advocating for higher air pollution levels in the San Joaquin Valley and increased greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because in drought years hydroelectricity output drops and must be supplanted by fossil fuel energy, including power plants here.

In periods of prolonged drought, more of which climate change will bring, the imbalance would soar. This is why the state law under attack says hydropower will not be considered a source of renewable electricity until carbon-emitting substitutes are no longer available.

Nonetheless, if the Caballero loophole passes, hundreds of thousands of her constituents will face direct health and financial impacts, including the pain of physical suffering, increased health care and prescription expenses, and the loss of many days at work or school.

Worse still, her youngest constituents’ hope for a future with a stable climate would continue to fade.

Kevin Hall is a Fresno resident and graduate of Fresno State. He formerly reported on farm issues for trade publications and is now an air-quality activist.