In summary

If we can rethink our habits of polluting the air that we breathe, we can improve our air quality in California and the Central Valley.

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By Caty Wagner, Special to CalMatters

Caty Wagner is an environmental activist who now lives in Los Angeles,

The first time my lungs seized up on me, I thought I was going to die. 

I had made the trek to a government building to file some paperwork in the heat of the Central Valley summer day, only to find that the gate I parked near was shut. Not wanting to come back another time, I circled the perimeter looking for a gate. It was 110 degrees, and I felt my lungs struggling to keep me going. 

Suddenly, I was gasping for air, and there was nobody in sight. Panicked, I called a friend who urged me to retreat to my car and crank the air conditioning. Fortunately, that did the trick. 

I had only lived in the Central Valley for two months when I developed asthma. I had never suffered from it as a child in Connecticut, but it did not take long before the air quality in my new home led to my diagnosis as one of the 1 in 12 American adults with asthma – one of millions of people in this country who cannot trust their lungs to supply their body with life-giving oxygen in every circumstance.

This diagnosis is all too common for many people. The rate of Americans with asthma is growing every year: 5 million more people suffered from the disease in 2009 compared with 2001. It’s especially common in the Central Valley, where 1 in 6 children have it. While I lived in Visalia, I heard from young people who developed severe asthma after living near fracking sites.

All of this is most damaging to historically marginalized communities, including Black and Latine Californians, who often live in neighborhoods and find work in jobs that expose them to hazardous air. Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to die from an asthma attack.  

In the Valley, particulate matter from soil erosion and traffic exhaust hangs heavy in the hot, dry air. For 10 months out of the year, you cannot see the Sierra Nevada because of pollution. The mountains are obscured by the dust of the harvest and the fog of the winter. The only time they’re truly visible is when it rains. But while the mountains cannot be moved, none of this is inevitable. We can take action to clean up our air. 

If we can develop a system of agriculture where the waste is composted instead of burned and a system of transportation where electricity rather than gasoline powers our vehicles – if we can rethink our habits of polluting the air that we breathe – we can improve our air quality. 

The economic costs of pollution in the Central Valley is enormous – more than $3 billion per year, according to one study. The benefits of investing in a clean agriculture system are correspondingly huge – $8 billion a year for rural communities nationwide, according to one report.

As climate change warms our planet, these steps are all-too necessary. Much of the agriculture in the Valley depends on the water harvested from melting snowpack. But what happens when the snow no longer descends upon the mountains? We need to take serious steps to preserve soil moisture, conserve our water and protect our health.  

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a report last year that laid out a plan for ending the crisis with steps including electrifying heavy-duty vehicles by 2040. Such a step would benefit the health of anyone who has ever called the Central Valley home. 

Before the fires this summer, I was in Kings Canyon National Park. I had just found a parking spot when I looked up to see a mother bear and her two cubs walking along the river. I’d never seen a bear before, and the moment provided an exciting reminder that we are not the only ones who call this planet home. As I watched those bear cubs trundle along the riverbank, asthma was the last thing on my mind. 

All Californians deserve to enjoy the natural beauty of our state with safe and healthy air. We need to find ways to build a more sustainable society, or those wild moments of surprise and joy risk disappearing forever.

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