Study predicts rising heat and hardship in San Joaquin Valley


Within three decades, the San Joaquin Valley’s average annual temperature could rise by 4 degrees, worsening water quality and health risks in impoverished communities in California’s agricultural heartland, according to a new regional climate change report.

Poor farming communities who lack the resources to adapt are hardest hit by the increasing heat, according to the UC Merced report. This conclusion was based on dozens of recent scientific studies on a variety of climate change issues and assumes a worst-case scenario for global carbon emissions.

“Many families in the San Joaquin Valley rely on agriculture as their primary source of income,” said Jose Pablo Ortiz-Partida, climate and water scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the report. “Now climate change is shooting at them. They need all the help they can get.”

The report, part of California’s fourth climate change assessment, paints a bleak picture of life in the southern Central Valley as increasing water scarcity, poverty, poor air quality and rising temperatures are helping health, economic opportunity and environmental resources at their most severe undermining the region’s disadvantaged.

“Not every community in the San Joaquin Valley has the resources to become climate resilient — and that breaks my heart,” said Ortiz-Partida, who collaborated with researchers from UC Merced and Cal State Fresno on the 99-page report . “Climate change is happening too fast. Wells are already drying up and growing numbers are struggling for basic necessities like food and clean water in a region of 4.3 million people – 55% of whom live in poverty.”

The valley’s annual average maximum temperature rose 1 degree from 1950 to 2020, according to the report, and is projected to rise 4 to 5 degrees by mid-century.

If heat-trapping greenhouse gases continue to rise at high rates, the report said, half of the valley’s eight counties will have average annual high temperatures above 80 degrees by the end of the century, an increase of more than 8 degrees from historic conditions.

Chronic diseases and heat stroke are likely to increase with climate change, according to the report, along with “the deterioration of private property, canals, dams, roads and railways. Dikes protecting flood plains, cities and farmland will become more unstable due to increased land subsidence, drought and associated overpumping, wildfires and flooding.”

These changes are already underway in the country’s leading agricultural center, known for its wealth of row crops, dairies, grapes, almonds and pistachios. The changes are due to a convergence of forces: increasingly frequent droughts and heat waves fueled by climate change; new environmental protection and state groundwater regulations; and cuts in water allocation, the authors say.

As farmers in the Valley drill more and deeper wells, the water table has dropped. At the same time, pesticides and nitrates from fertilizers and animal waste have entered the aquifers of small farming communities such as Tooleville, East Orosi and East Porterville in Tulare County and Tombstone Territory in Fresno County.

Some rural communities in unincorporated areas have attracted international attention after wells that had served them for more than half a century dried up or became polluted.

On Friday, some nonprofit groups dedicated to improving the lives of the valley’s farming communities declined to comment directly on the report, given more time to study its dire forecasts.

“This report is incredibly depressing,” said Riddhi Patel, a spokeswoman for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

However, the report is not all bad news. It recommends a series of proposals that “could bring ecological justice and economic opportunity to the San Joaquin Valley as we face increasingly severe climate impacts.”

For example, it proposes “rezoning land around disadvantaged rural communities into green spaces, aquifer recharge projects and wildlife corridors, cleaner industry, solar panels and other clean socio-economic opportunities.”

“The promotion of clean energy sources for heating and cooling,” she suggests, “including industry, institutions and homes, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“These recommendations could become potential money-makers,” Ortiz-Partida said, “bringing the valley back to life with more family farms.”

Four years after its creation, the report was requested by the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Energy Commission, and the California Department of Water Resources. Funding came from a group of institutions led by UC Merced. Study predicts rising heat and hardship in San Joaquin Valley

Tom Vazquez

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