Central Valley leaders need to plan better and work together on land and water use to improve the quality of life here, a study of California's ag-centered interior concludes.
For "The State of the Great Central Valley" report on the environment, released Wednesday, changes over five years were analyzed by researchers at the Great Valley Center, based in Modesto, and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced.
Writers found modest improvements in several areas, but changes beyond Valley control got much of the credit. State-mandated fuel efficiency standards helped improve air quality. The economic bust slowed the paving of farmland.
"We need to do more. There's no silver bullet. There's a variety of little pieces," study contributor Roger Bales said Wednesday. Bales is a professor of engineering at UC Merced and director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
Water storage -- by snow, dam or underground -- will be key, he said. "If I was going to do one thing, it'd be to add more resiliency to our water system," said Bales, referring to predictions of longer droughts and less snow in the Sierra.
But some of the report's strongest recommendations go against the Valley's cultural grain, such as increasing regulation in several areas and curbing subdivision sprawl. Such decisions take political will, which Bales hopes better information will help create.
The report examines five areas:
Air: Stanislaus and Merced counties have higher than average numbers of children with asthma and far more than average numbers of unhealthy air days. This section of the Valley exceeded state standards 150 days in 2011, nearly double that of the Sacramento area -- but not nearly as bad as Fresno area counties. Blame less- efficient diesel engines for much of the ozone and toxic substances in the air, the report says.
Water: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies more than two-thirds of the state's water. Of concern are rising nitrate levels in Valley drinking water, in part because of nitrogen-based fertilizers and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. As for quantity, overall drier conditions have contributed to a surge in wildfire danger.
Land: More dense housing is urged to save farmland. Stanislaus County has 120 homes per square mile, and Merced County has 43. By comparison, Sacramento County has 576. In the boom years, 2006-08, about 4,000 acres were developed in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, nearly half of it prime farmland.
Species and habitat: The Valley is home to 588 rare and endangered species. While steelhead trout and salmon are coming back in small numbers in rivers, Swainson's hawks have not done as well. A lot of wetland habitat has been restored, but only recently have monitoring efforts started to see if it has been effective.
Resources and energy: Valley energy use remained static from 2006 to 2010, despite more people. The region has optimal conditions for solar panels and wind farms, and dairy farms offer great potential for methane "cow power."
The Great Valley Center in Modesto and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced released on Wednesday the latest "State of the Great Central Valley of California" report, focusing on quality of air, water, land, endangered species, waste disposal and energy. Report recommendations:
Save the air: Raise air quality standards across the region. Use more fuel-efficient diesel trucks to lower ozone and pave rural roads to reduce dust.
Manage water: Invest in water management and infrastructure to protect and restore the Valley's diminishing supply, including better irrigation technologies and infrastructure.
Don't waste water: Increase water recycling, use of aquifers and urban efficiency.
Contain growth: Take a more careful approach to urbanization of prime soils, increasing density of urban areas and transportation choices. These need to be brought into city and county general plans.
Go greener: Embrace renewable energy technologies, and take advantage of a climate and landscape ideal for solar, wind and biomass energy farms.
Save energy: Raise standards for energy-efficient building construction.
Watch the big picture: Put a higher priority on planning and data gathering to assess environmental health and restore biological diversity.
See the full report at http://bit.ly/CentralValley0712.