If New Year’s resolutions could apply to places, perhaps no place is as worthy of concerted change as the San Joaquin Valley. Home to nearly 4 million people, the nation’s breadbasket is described as “a patchwork pattern of separate and unequal places” in a report by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
Titled “Land of Risk/Land of Opportunity," the report confirms what community members and advocates have long suspected – that environmental hazards tend to be clustered around low-income populations with low levels of education and English literacy. These include urban neighborhoods like West Fresno, which has borne the brunt of slaughterhouses, waste dumps and other undesirable land uses, as well as unincorporated rural communities like Earlimart, where pesticide drift prompted years of citizen activism and ultimately new legislation.
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Although similar research has been done in cities, the report, released in November, is the first to comprehensively address the correlation between the valley's environmental hazards and its most vulnerable people. Many of the area’s at-risk places, such as the Matheny Tract, adjacent to the city of Tulare, consist primarily of low-income Latino residents who work in fields heavy with pesticides. These residents also frequently deal with groundwater polluted by nitrogen-based fertilizers, delivered by dilapidated water systems.
The report is based on a three-year study study by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, in affiliation with the Environmental Justice Project of the John Muir Institute of the Environment. Along with standard scientific data – measuring arsenic and nitrogen levels in water, for instance – the study incorporates “civic science,” defined by social scientist Jonathan K. London, the center’s director, as “the idea that non-formally trained people have an expertise about their communities that can be a valuable source of information.”
The center worked with residents in West Fresno and rural areas like Wasco, Arvin and Lamont in Kern County to discern local land use patterns, using maps to pinpoint areas of concern. The report concludes that there are many more environmental hazards identified by area residents than are documented in state and federal regulatory inventories.
“We all have enough to do on a daily basis without having to worry about something as basic as drinking water,” said Virginia Madueno, a community organizer and clean-water advocate from the Monterey Park Tract near Ceres, where murky, foul-tasting water with high nitrate, arsenic and manganese levels has long prompted residents to buy expensive bottled water.
The challenges across the valley are daunting: Nearly one-third of the region’s population faces environmental risks, including toxic air and polluted water. A large number of residents live in poverty, with low levels of formal education and/or low English language literacy. Many people live near freeways and rail lines, drink polluted water, and work in outdoor occupations with inadequate safety precautions and little access to quality medical care – a sobering list of ingredients for poor health.
Yet, London said, the legacy of community activism in the valley is a major strength that can be built upon, including the use of mobile air monitors and other “civic science” tools. The study recommends the creation of an annual state report card to synthesize and monitor environmental and social vulnerability.
Over the next few weeks, London and colleagues will hit the road to present their findings to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board.
“I think we’re at a critical juncture in the development of a cumulative and cautionary approach to environmental protection,” London said. “If you can bring these three sciences together – civic, environmental and regulatory – you really have a very powerful formula for social change.”