Saving a Shrinking Valley

State officials predict that California will attract 11 million new residents by 2030—and close to a third will settle in the San Joaquin Valley. With so many people, will there be room for orchards and lettuce fields, much less vernal pools and open space? What will be the quality of life for those who live there? I asked Carol Whiteside, who founded the nonprofit, nonpartisan Great Valley Center 10 years ago, for her thoughts.

Is it true that developers are offering farmers $1 million per acre?

There was only one instance where it was that high, near Sacramento. It depends on how close the land is to development. One hundred thousand, $200,000, $300,000 per acre is more common.

What is the Great Valley Center’s role in the future of the valley?

We want to see a more sustainable community, but we don’t prejudge what the results should be. We ask, in all planning efforts, “Is everybody at the table, do we have the best available data and information, are we taking a long-term view?” If those three things are generally there, people get good results.

Is anyone taking a long-term view?

Right now, there’s an extraordinary thing going on. In June 2005, the governor recognized that the San Joaquin Valley was not only a place of high incoming growth but also a place where employment and per capita income was pretty bad. He created the California Partnership—with eight cabinet secretaries, eight civic sector appointees, and eight local county reps. The idea is to come up with strategic actions to begin to prepare the region for development—including recommendations for land use and transportation. We’re actually just starting a conversation about what and how the region will look with three million new people in the San Joaquin Valley alone.

Do you think the California Partnership will work or will this be another plan that sits on a shelf?

I’m always optimistic at the beginning of a process. Regionalism works when you add something new. When you take something away from people, it’s hard. Getting people to think and understand things on a regional basis is daunting. The challenge for the plan will be, “How good is it, or is it a reaffirmation of what’s going on now?” The fundamental question in my mind for the region is having a big enough vision—many people who live in the valley treasure it as a rural agricultural community that maintains its small town qualities. When you think about a region of six million people, it’s hard to think about maintaining those qualities.

What worries you the most about the future of the San Joaquin Valley?

How do you take this larger vision and make it into one that is sustainable and healthy? We have two models. One is the low-density suburban development to which we’ve lost a lot of agricultural and open space. You have the feeling of being in a suburban community, but you are still dependent on coastal areas for financial and cultural centers. The alternative is to bite the bullet and say, “With this many people we’re going to have to build great cities, start thinking now about where we build transit and how to make neighborhoods strong.” Those cities could exist in an agricultural area and be less dependent on the coast.

I can’t picture a big city in the middle of the valley.

Almost every city and small town in the region is growing. In the northern San Joaquin Valley people are moving from the coast; in the southern San Joaquin people are moving in from Southern California and just immigrating from other places.

What about the high energy costs and water demands of suburban developments?

The assumption in the valley is that 98 percent of the people want a big house with a small lot. That’s not true any more. We’ve got empty-nesters, young people, single people looking for something different. But we build more of the traditional development than not—that’s been the historic pattern. We’re trying to get people to think long-term and not repeat those patterns of development, to realize that it doesn’t get them where they want to be. In the valley like everywhere else, people are beginning to look at higher-density and bigger houses on small lots. The California Partnership has work groups on water and energy—in all of those work groups, you’ll find recommendations that the valley be much more aggressive about renewable energy.

What is motivating those recommendations?

There are three reasons: to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, to reduce energy costs, and to reverse some of the adverse impacts on air quality, which is a huge problem in the valley.

At a recent talk, you said that people who live in the valley don’t always appreciate its environmental resources the way outsiders do. What did you mean by that?

When you live in a forest, you don’t always appreciate it. When you live in the midst of abundant open space, you see it as abundant, not something that could disappear. Plus, so much of it has already been tilled, or altered, that people have a hard time appreciating something like vernal pools. But the wetlands in the valley are so important to the Pacific Flyway—I think people are beginning to understand that because they see the birds here in the winter.

You also suggested that environmentalists need to better partner with farmers.

We recently did some outreach on land-use recommendations, to try to get people engaged in the discussions—when do you get a chance to do strategic planning for the next 50 years? We emailed 63 environmental groups in the valley but got zero response. We did the same thing for farm groups, and 11 out of 15 responded. Getting people engaged in that way is very difficult.

Are there other environmental groups engaged?

People in the valley don’t want Bay Area people telling them what to do. But we’re trying to get our affiliates in the eight counties to network with environmental and water-supply groups, with housing advocates, to help engage them. On a statewide level, the Trust for Public Land, Audubon, and Fish and Game developed a generalized map of important natural resources in the area—with recommendations for establishing open space systems. They said, “You don’t have to save everything, but here’s what you should consider at a regional level that would be a resource for all of the counties.”

What about land trusts?

We had a $5 million grant from Packard in ’99-2000 to work in three counties on ag easements—to see if we couldn’t create some models for using easements as a way of redirecting development. We had a hard time getting people interested. The differential cost of land is so great. If people think they have a chance to sell to a developer, a land trust can’t come close. We had started several land trusts—in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Merced counties, and we’ve now consolidated them into the Central Valley Land Trust. We’re not going to renew that grant, but we’re going to use the money we have and work with agriculture to encourage and promote sustainability and economic stability in farming. One way to do that is to provide coastal areas with our crops. The valley has always had high value ag. But you can increase that value with branding—for example, Lundberg Rice. It’s smaller scale farming, but it does keep the farmer in the middle in business. Right now you can go to Chez Panisse and they will tell you where the food comes from, the grower’s name, etc. But the mainstream chains and bigger operations aren’t doing it yet. Kaiser is increasingly serving locally acquired fruits and vegetables. We’re trying to figure out a way to take it mainstream.

The valley also has a fledgling ecotourism industry that could help preserve land.

There are the tiniest beginnings—Blossom Trail in Fresno, for example. It’s a trail through the orchards people can take while they are all blooming. People go to southern France to do that, but they can do it right here. Then there’s the birdwatching, the sandhill cranes in Lodi. What we don’t have yet is the elegant small inn—where you can stay in a wonderful bed and eat a fresh meal out of the garden. If we get that part of ecotourism down, people would find it a wonderful place. It’s magnificent in the fall and spring.

If development in the valley continues at this rate, what do you think the quality of life will be like for people who live there?

One way or another, it’s going to have to change. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing forever. You can’t do the same thing and expect to have different results. At some point we need to make a choice thoughtfully and proactively—or just run to the edge of the cliff. It’s like the timber people when they were prevented from logging anymore—they were hurt and furious, but they were close to running out of timber anyway. Air quality is one of those big walls for us. The region is already in severe noncompliance with air quality standards. People are moving away because of it.

You are passionate about the valley. Have you always lived here?

I was born in Chicago, but I’ve lived in the valley for more than 30 years. We ended up here because it was where my husband could find a job and because, in the early 1970s, we lived in the Bay Area and you could not see the San Francisco skyline from the east shore due to bad air. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it?

What led you to found the Great Valley Center?

I was mayor of Modesto from 1987-1991, and I worked for Pete Wilson on growth management. I had an insider’s perspective of what the issues were. While I was in Sacramento, I could see that the valley was still growing but not coming out of its recession. I thought, “We’ve got to deal with these issues; we can’t just let development go on forever.” Our original premise was to reduce the false conflict between the environment and the economy. But then we realized that wasn’t enough—we had to build capacity too.

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