Drought Health Hazard: Not Enough Water to Keep Down Central Valley Dust

A tractor pulls a watering tank to water down dusty roads on Paul Betancourt's farm near Kerman in Fresno county.  (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It’s almond season in the Central Valley, when loud mechanical harvesters with long arms grip and shake the trees, knocking down the nuts.

But the process also sends up huge dust clouds. Farm machines and trucks make multiple trips on dirt roads between fields, and that creates dust, too.

The drought has been contributing to a dust bowl in Central Valley farm country. The dust, in turn, exacerbates the region's high rates of asthma. To keep dust down, farmers usually use a watering truck, spraying the roads to knock down the dust and comply with air pollution rules.

But now, in the fourth year of a crippling drought, the approach is changing.

It’s the job of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to oversee dust rules, and the district’s Ryan Hyashi says farmers have been very responsive. Now the district is trying to balance competing tensions.

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"It’s potable water that they’re usually putting on these roads," Hyashi says. "People don’t have water to drink, and we’re putting it on roadways. It sends a poor message."

Instead, the air district is encouraging farmers to limit access to dirt roads, or cover them with things like gravel. If those options won’t work, farmers can now sign up for a program to avoid enforcement penalties as long as they meet certain requirements, such as not being within 1,000 feet of a school or hospital.

"[Farmers] want to do their part and be good stewards,” says Hayashi. But if there's no water for dust control, they may “just have no alternative."

But air quality advocates say the air district is essentially giving farmers a free pass to pollute.

"When we see any relaxation in the rules, we get very nervous," says Kevin Hamilton, with the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

As we're talking, Hamilton watches a cloud of dust billow up on a farm road west of Fresno.

Respiratory therapist Kevin Hamilton stands near an unplanted field on a dusty farm road west of Fresno.
Respiratory therapist Kevin Hamilton stands near an unplanted field on a dusty farm road west of Fresno. (Sasha Khokha)

"So here goes another truck with more dust coming up," he says. "This is dangerous stuff. This is actually a health hazard."

Hamilton treats patients for asthma and says this kind of dust can travel for miles, ending up in people’s lungs. He criticized air regulators not only for the new dust guidelines, but also that they’re allowing well-drilling rigs from out of state that may have dirtier engines than California trucks.

"I understand that we’re in an emergency," he says, "but we’ve all fought so long to begin making progress here -- and I feel we are making progress. At this moment, it feels like we’re going to go backward again."

Just a few miles away, farmer Paul Betancourt says he doesn’t want his family breathing dusty air either. But he also doesn’t want the dust on his almond trees because it can cause mites. Watering down the roads on his farm, he says, means he uses fewer pesticides.

"We want to use less chemicals on the farm," Betancourt says. "You want us to use less chemicals on the farm. But in a year like this, when we’re really short of water, it’s balancing out how to keep the dust down."

Betancourt’s almond farm near the Fresno County town of Kerman has very fine, silty soil. For now, Betancourt says as long as he has water in his well, he’ll still periodically spray down the roads. Gravel is too expensive, and road oil just doesn’t work, he says.

“We need to use the water carefully and keep the dust down,” Betancourt said. “At this point, it’s still the most cost-effective way.”

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He doesn’t plan to apply for the air district’s emergency drought relief programs. Farmers who do can avoid using water to control dust through Nov. 1. After that, the valley’s particulate matter season starts, and the air district says it will require farmers to use water to spray down roads again.

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