Valley Air District celebrates year of cleaner air

The Valley Air District received $750,000 to spread over eight counties for clean air centers during the impending wildfire season that has hurt sensitive groups over the last few years. - Photo by Rigo Moran

Valley Air District grant programs help move the needle on emission reductions, improvements to air quality

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY – Despite being home to cities with some of the worst air quality in the nation, the San Joaquin Valley has had a “milestone year” of cleaner air, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s 2023 Annual Report to the Community.

Within the report, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Valley Air District) discussed the programs it has implemented over the past year and compared 2023 air quality metrics with historical data to measure its overall progress. The district said that despite population growth and events like wildfires, the Valley has recorded a “significant decline in air pollution levels.”

“The report highlights that over the past two decades the Valley has made significant strides in improving air quality, evident in the increasing number of days when air quality standards are met across all Valley counties,” the district said in a May 9 press release.

The district, which encompasses all of Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties and portions of Kern County, recognized that the Valley continues to face extreme air quality challenges, but celebrated the strides it has made to reduce pollutants generated within the Valley.

Last year, the Valley Air District saw the highest number of days in which air quality met various health standards compared to days air quality exceeded, or was worse than, those health standards. Recorded air quality only met the health standards 53% of the time in 2002 and 75% of the time in 2012 compared to 90% of the time in 2023.

The health standards referenced in the report include federal air quality standards relating to nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide levels as well as particulate matter particles that are 10 micrometers or smaller (PM10), 1-hour ozone levels and the 24-hour PM2.5 standard of 65 micrograms per cubic meter.

Poor and harmful air quality persists across the Valley, however; improvements to air quality only help to move the Valley away from its current “nonattainment” designation by the Environmental Protection Agency for multiple air quality standards. For example, the EPA standard for 24-hour PM2.5 pollution was 65 micrograms per cubic meter in 1997; the current standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

“This ongoing conversation only highlights the urgency for continuing to reduce air pollution through strong partnerships at every level,” the press release said. “The district and the California Air Resources Board remain committed to further reducing emissions through innovative strategies in partnership with Valley communities to meet additional federal air quality standards in the coming years, ensuring cleaner air for residents across the region.”

Clean air programs

In the 2023-24 fiscal year, the Valley Air District allocated more than $650 million — nearly 90% of its total budget — to voluntary grant and incentive programs geared toward residents, businesses and local governments within the district’s service area. Programs offered by the district include Drive Clean in the San Joaquin — a series of vehicle replacement and repair programs — and grants for alternative firework shows.

These programs help members of the general public reduce their contribution to air pollution, typically by offering direct funds or tax incentives that make it financially possible for people to replace gas-powered, high-emission equipment like lawn mowers, fireplaces and vehicles with electric, low- or zero-emission alternatives.

The report credited the district’s legislative advocacy work for obtaining millions of dollars in federal funding from competitive grant programs, including $8.6 million for upgrading wood-burning devices with electric or gas alternatives, $10 million for low-dust nut harvesters and $56 million for heavy-duty electric vehicle charging stations.

Further, the district helped secure budget allocations for statewide clean air programs, including $250 million for transportation equity projects and $234 million for community air protection incentive funds. According to the report, the district focuses its advocacy on programs that improve air quality, help fulfill federal clean air obligations and enhance public health.

Agricultural emissions

Also highlighted in the report was the Valley Air District’s partnership with agricultural stakeholders to achieve “historic reductions” in emissions generated by the ag industry in the San Joaquin Valley. District efforts to reduce ag-related emissions include incentive programs to replace old, high-emitting equipment and to adjust practices that generate dust and air pollution.

Similar to other clean air programs, the district participates in grant and incentive programs that help farmers replace older, high-emission agricultural equipment with lower-emitting equipment, such as zero-emission ag utility terrain vehicles and electric pump engines.

Thanks to funding available through multiple different programs, the industry has turned over and destroyed more than 12,800 pieces of older agricultural equipment in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the report. Turnover of agricultural equipment has resulted in a reduction of more than 11 tons, per day, of nitrogen oxide emissions in 2024.

The district has also worked on a low-dust nut harvester program that reduces emissions specifically generated from nut farming. According to the report, the district has obligated $16.7 million through this program in order to replace 202 pieces of nut-harvesting equipment, reducing PM10 emissions by 11,000 tons and PM2.5 emissions by 1,400 tons. 

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