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How Central Valley Farmworker Communities Are Tackling Climate Change

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A person with a mustache wearing a baseball cap looks at a plant in a garden.
Huron Mayor Rey León walks through a community garden and compost hub run by the Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy Institute offices, known as LEAP, in Huron, Calif., on Sept. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A rural community on the banks of the San Joaquin River was spared from flooding during last winter’s powerful storms after hundreds of acres of former farmland were restored to their natural state as floodplains, giving the rising water a place to go.

An immigrant family in the Central Valley city of Tulare got relief from 100-degree heat and sky-high energy bills with insulation and energy retrofits installed under a state program to weatherize the homes of low-income farmworkers.

A small town mayor in a region with some of the most polluted air in the nation launched a free rideshare program with a fleet of electric vehicles — the first step in his goal of creating hundreds of green jobs.

These are a few of the climate resilience strategies emerging in hard-hit agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley, supported by state and federal funds that could enable local initiatives to scale up. But the very places that need help the most may have the hardest time accessing the funding available, research shows.

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Residents of San Joaquin Valley face a barrage of challenges as the planet warms and weather patterns shift, often with catastrophic results. Land development has been engineered over decades to maximize agricultural productivity, with little attention to environmental resilience. And low-income immigrant workers, who are the backbone of this economy, are on the front lines, living in communities that lack resources and critical infrastructure to cope.

Summer temperatures throughout the valley routinely spike into triple digits, making outdoor work dangerous and shoddily built homes stifling. Wildfires repeatedly blanket the region with smoke, exacerbating the air pollution that leads to the state’s worst rates of asthma.

A dry field with an irrigation channel alongside it.
An irrigation channel carries water to new plantings in the recently restored floodplain on the banks of the San Joaquin River near Grayson, Calif., on Aug. 31. The restoration work was conducted by the nonprofit River Partners to allow the fast-moving river to spread out over a wider expanse, diminishing its destructive force and preventing catastrophic flooding. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Violent floods wash away homes and livelihoods in communities with neglected levees and insufficient storm drains. And recurring drought contributes to the fact that most of the nearly 1 million Californians who lack access to safe drinking water live in the Central Valley.

“The biggest problem is the combination of things: farmworker communities not having a rest from one climate impact to another,” said Pablo Ortiz-Partida, senior water and climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “All these things start interconnecting.”

Ortiz-Partida said policymakers must listen to those who live with these impacts daily.

“There needs to be some top-down solutions, but also some bottom-up solutions,” he said. “How can we start that process of equitable transition to cleaner energies? … How can we start bringing a new, more sustainable vision of agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley?”

Left behind in the clean energy transition

California has established itself as a national leader in climate policy. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the state has committed to spend more than $52 billion over the next several years to transition off fossil fuels and tackle the effects of climate change. That’s in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act that will soon flow to the state to fight climate change.

Yet low-income immigrant communities in rural areas that are among the most impacted have not always seen the benefit — and could be at risk of losing out again.

A new report from UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, & the Environment, and two nonprofits — the Institute for Local Government and Next 10 — found that many California municipalities, especially smaller ones, need to staff up and develop detailed climate action plans if they want a shot at competitive grants for the unprecedented funding.

“As the state faces worsening impacts from climate change, local governments are the front-line defense for our communities,” said F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10. “We need to identify the barriers cities and counties face so we can take full advantage of the historic federal and state funding available to better protect ourselves now and in the future.”

State Sen. Anna Caballero represents some of the San Joaquin Valley’s poorest places and said climate policies don’t work if they only benefit wealthier residents of coastal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

She’s seen plenty of well-intentioned climate programs miss the mark for her Central Valley constituents. One example is rebates for purchasing electric cars and solar panels, which require paying the full price upfront and getting the discount later.

“The urgency of getting this right and including rural communities in our discussion about climate change is that we’re going to end up with two separate worlds,” she said. “If you can afford it, you have an electric vehicle and a solar rooftop. And if you can’t, there’s nothing for you. There’s no job. There’s no way to pay your bills. And your community has no way of sustaining itself.”

The region’s economy is dominated by agriculture and fossil fuel extraction industries, whose leaders trend Republican and have often resisted Democratic moves to slash carbon emissions and protect water and ecosystems.

Meanwhile, 55% of the San Joaquin Valley’s 4.3 million residents live in disadvantaged communities, according to California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment for the region. Among California farmworkers, 9 in 10 are immigrants, and 8 in 10 are not citizens. Though their labor is essential, and many have lived here for decades, they can’t vote, so their voices and experiences aren’t always represented.

Yet Caballero, a Democrat, and many other lawmakers and advocates have been pushing for equitable solutions, and some are beginning to bear fruit.

‘The river is their backyard’

The unincorporated community of Grayson, on the west bank of the San Joaquin River, is just five-by-six blocks. The only business, The One-Stop, is a gas station, convenience store, lunch counter and laundromat rolled into one. Residents rely on wells for drinking water that are often contaminated with agricultural chemicals from surrounding fields. Flooding has long been a risk.

Lilia Lomelí-Gil, who runs the Grayson United Community Center, pointed out some older homes on Charles Street, where the water rose ominously as rain pounded the region last winter.

A person with long hair stands in front of a dry field.
Lilia Lomelí-Gil walks along the recently restored floodplain on the banks of the San Joaquin River near her home in Grayson, Calif., on Aug. 31. Lomelí-Gil, who runs the Grayson United Community Center, said the natural floodplain protected Grayson from flooding last winter and creates a place where community residents can get closer to nature. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

“The river is their backyard,” she said. “The lady that lives right there in that little house was at risk of getting flooded. It did go up to their yard.”

Lomelí-Gil, 71, knows that risk firsthand. Back in 1997, she was living in nearby Modesto when a massive flood hit on New Year’s Day.

“I lost my home,” she said. “Because the waters came in 4-feet high. And since we were downriver from the sewage plant, of course, it was all contaminated waters.”

She salvaged what she could and moved back to Grayson, where she’d grown up the daughter of farmworkers from Mexico.

During last winter’s storms, levees failed and catastrophic floods devastated other farmworker communities, like Pajaro and Planada.

In Grayson, the San Joaquin River surged, but the outcome was very different: the town did not flood. One reason? A recent floodplain restoration project allowed the fast-moving river to spread over a wider expanse, diminishing its destructive force.

The work was done by River Partners, a nonprofit organization that restores riverside habitats around California. The group purchased unused farmland abutting the river, then removed the earthen berms holding the water in its channel. Dozens of people from the local community, including Lomelí-Gil, got involved in planting native tree saplings and grasses to restore wildlife habitat in the new floodplain.

On a recent weekday, Lomelí-Gil tramped down an abandoned road at the end of Minnie Street to show off the plantings. Once the work is complete, she said, she’s looking forward to taking kids and seniors from the community center out to walk along trails by the river.

“Going back to nature … It works with mental health and your physical health and your spiritual health,” she said, stopping to listen to the sound of the birds and the babbling water. “I think that triangle is the key to facing life’s challenges.”

Removing levees to allow floods to flow across fallow farmland is a low-tech solution with significant payoffs, River Partners executive director Julie Rentner said. It not only reduces flood risk and expands wildlife habitat and space for recreation, but it refills underground aquifers that have been depleted by decades of over-pumping — and that should lead to cleaner drinking water for Lomelí-Gil and her neighbors.

Similar projects will soon break ground. In the wake of last winter’s storms, state lawmakers budgeted nearly half a billion dollars to shore up levees and rebuild damaged communities. Tucked in there was $40 million for River Partners to restore natural floodplains on 2,500 more acres elsewhere along the San Joaquin River.

That money is only a downpayment on what’s ultimately needed, Rentner said, but it’s an important step that could be a game-changer.

“It’s thinking more holistically about how we manage our water and our soil and our communities,” she said. ”So that we can find solutions to climate resilience that benefit us all.”

‘Weatherization on steroids’

Extreme heat is another consequence of climate change hitting the San Joaquin Valley hard. Scientists calculate that annual average maximum temperatures increased by 1F from 1950 to 2020. In 2021, Fresno experienced a record 69 straight days with temperatures over 100F.

Outside the little city of Tulare, nearly three hours south of Grayson, Arturo Yañez, 55, unloads crates of kiwis and pomegranates. He said in the three decades he’s lived in the valley, he’s felt it get a little hotter each year.

A person in a baseball cap looks at photos on a shelf inside a home.
Arturo Yañez looks at family photos at his home in Tulare on Aug. 31. He received home weatherization and solar panels through a state program for green energy retrofits for farmworkers’ households. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

“This year, too, it was extremely hot,” he said in Spanish. “To work in these temperatures is tough.”

To help mitigate the heat, California uses funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program to weatherize homes of low-income families, with some of that money carved out for the small percentage of farmworkers who are homeowners.

Yañez is one of them. On a late summer afternoon, he showed where a crew had laid insulation in his attic and installed ceiling fans. An efficient, electric air-conditioning system was on the way.

With the thermometer outdoors still reading 103 F at 5 p.m., those measures would make the house more comfortable, he said, and keep his energy costs more manageable.

“Sometimes, it’s tough to cover all the bills,” he said, adding that when it’s too hot to safely work outside, farmworkers are sent home early, costing them hours on their paychecks.

Yañez had also applied for solar panels through the weatherization program, and that afternoon he learned that he’d qualified. His face lit up in relief.

“That’s wonderful!” he said. “We’ll be saving energy. And we can help reduce global warming too.”

Caballero said efforts like these are exactly what the valley needs but they must expand rapidly, to include hundreds of thousands of farmworker families who rent, often in shoddy homes with poor insulation and no air conditioning.

“It’s kind of ‘weatherization on steroids,’” she said. “The benefits could be very, very powerful.”

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office published an extreme heat action plan, and the legislature budgeted $1.1 billion for “decarbonization” retrofits in the homes of low- and moderate-income Californians, such as electric appliances and heat pumps for heating and cooling.

This year, Caballero wrote a bill, signed by Gov. Newsom, to monitor where those funds are spent.

“We wanted to make sure that, with limited funds, we started with the communities that had the worst extreme heat,” she said.

Building a greener economy

In the town of Huron, becoming more climate resilient is also about creating new jobs.

Surrounded by tomato fields and almond orchards, the Fresno County town of about 6,000 is not the kind of place you’d expect to see Teslas and Chevy Volts. The poverty rate is 40%, and just 3 in 10 adults have finished high school.

A person with a moustache and wearing a baseball cap stands in front of a white car.
Huron Mayor Rey León stands near an electric vehicle outside the Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy Institute offices, known as LEAP, in Huron, Calif., on Sept. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Yet, from a former diesel garage on an alley behind the struggling main street, a busy rideshare service dispatches drivers in shiny electric cars to ferry Huron residents to the doctor and other appointments.

The free program is called Green Raiteros, a play on the Spanish slang for someone who gives rides. The five-year-old project is the brainchild of Rey León, founding director of the nonprofit Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy Institute, or LEAP. Green Raiteros is funded with state grants. And drivers are employees, not gig workers, with pay starting at $18 per hour, according to LEAP staff.

León, who’s also Huron’s mayor, said the program is part of his vision of meeting basic needs like transportation while leaning into the green economy. The hope is to both reduce emissions and create jobs, preparing the workforce as climate change-induced drought disrupts the agricultural economy of the Central Valley.

“Huron is in an area that’s been not just drought-stricken, but poverty-stricken for a very long time,” said León, sitting in his office upstairs from the dispatchers. “We hope we can make the investments necessary to employ, empower and really animate folks from the community to advance their economy — with innovative technologies so that we can simultaneously fight the climate crisis.”

León sees the physical health of his community as intertwined with its economic health — and both as inextricably linked with the health of the environment where they live: one of the most contaminated air basins in the nation. Huron residents breathe air that carries dust from the fields, pesticides and smog from nearby Interstate 5.

Among other efforts, León has installed 30 EV charging stations around town, planted 300 street trees and enacted measures to promote water conservation.

Meanwhile, León is aware that tens of thousands of agricultural jobs could dry up in coming years, as climate-change-fueled drought persists and environmental laws to restore depleted aquifers take effect. The LEAP headquarters on the alley is an incubator for projects he hopes will eventually lead to hundreds of well-paying jobs in manufacturing and environmental stewardship.

A person wearing a baseball cap looks out the window from the backseat of a car.
Enrique Contreras gets a ride in an all-electric vehicle from the Green Raiteros rideshare program in Huron, Calif., to a doctor’s appointment on Sept. 1, 2023. The program is run by Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy Institute offices, known as Leap. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In one bay of the garage, several men were building prototypes of portable trailers with solar panels on top, that the California Energy Commission hopes can serve as emergency shelters and power stations, to deploy during wildfires or other disasters.

And in a greenhouse behind the garage, two workers are running an experiment, funded by the USDA, to test a liquid organic fertilizer on tomatoes — with hopes of scaling up production and using local agricultural waste.

As Huron’s mayor, León is also scoping the possibility of developing a park and nature conservancy on 3,000 acres of overgrown federal land just outside of town. He envisions replenishing the underground aquifer there using the town’s treated wastewater, and employing residents to build trails and plant native trees grown in LEAP greenhouses.

León’s dreams are big, but they’ll take more money, political muscle and capacity building to realize. He knows they won’t happen overnight and, for now, he’s experimenting at a small scale. The Green Raiteros fleet in Huron has 11 cars, but state grants are funding an expansion, with five additional vehicles in Fresno and three more in the Salinas Valley town of Pajaro. In a poor community like his, León said, such government funding has been essential.

“If not for the resources provided by state agencies, it really wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “We’re farmworkers and, traditionally, farmworkers have never been afforded the privilege of being able to build up wealth. … We hope that with the projects we’re doing, they could see them as pilots for what could be done in similar communities throughout the state.”

Small farming towns like Huron have had some success winning competitive grants. But even with all the new money flowing from state and federal governments, it often goes to big cities and large nonprofits with sophisticated fundraising operations, leaving small, rural places at a disadvantage — even if their need is intense, some advocates say.

“There are dire inequities on every measure of human wellbeing in the Central Valley because of past and current policies and disinvestment,” said Solange Gould, co-director of Human Impact Partners, a nonprofit that advocates for health equity. “There’s a lot of funding, but the state needs to provide more technical assistance to Central Valley groups to be able to access that money.”

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