Lessons from a Community Living the Climate Crisis

Published Feb 2, 2021

Dr. Pablo Ortiz discusses the intersecting impacts of climate change in the San Joaquin Valley, and how inequities are hurting the most vulnerable residents

In this episode
  • How multiple climate impacts are affecting communities in the San Joaquin Valley
  • Effective ways for scientists to listen to, work with, and help vulnerable communities
  • Recommendations and strategies for community members to adapt to climate change
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:54)
Intro (0:54-2:24)
Interview part 1 (2:24-13:06)
Break (13:06-14:06)
Interview part 2 (14:06-25:03)
Throw (25:03-25:08)
Ending segment (25:08-27:36)
Outro (27:36-28:45)

Related content
Credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Pablo: Water is a symbol of enormous inequity, not only in California, but through the world. And while some people have it in excess and paid very little for it, others go through extreme burdens to get enough water to survive.

Colleen: That was today’s guest Dr. Pablo Ortiz. Welcome to the GS podcast. I’m your host Colleen MacDonald. Today we’re taking a deep dive into an area of the US that is experiencing multiple impacts of climate change right now. And stick around after the interview. Katy Love is back with some historical background on vaccines.

If you’ve eaten almonds, cherries, tomatoes, or walnuts, or enjoyed a California wine, then you have a vested interest in the San Joaquin Valley region of central California.

The central valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, producing more than half the nuts, fruits, and vegetables grown in the United States. The San Joaquin Valley is its drier southern portion, and right now, its residents and its economy are at great risk due to climate change.

Of course, climate change poses a threat everywhere. But extreme heat, drought, and flooding are already affecting life in the San Joaquin Valley. Residents tend to be lower-income, and many people are undocumented, which means they don’t have a lot of resources to adapt to climate change, or political power to advocate for solutions.

Today’s guest is trying to help. Dr. Pablo Ortiz, climate and water scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is part of a team working to help people in the San Joaquin valley cope with the impacts of climate change. In our discussion Pablo shares lessons that can be applied to other parts of the country…what he learned from working with public officials, how science can help people who are struggling now, and why one of the most important things you can do as a researcher... is truly listen to the community you’re trying to help.

Colleen: Pablo, welcome to the podcast.

Pablo: Thank you so much, Colleen. It's a pleasure to be here, I've been listening to this podcast even since before I started working at UCS. So it's now like an honor to be part of this.

Colleen: Excellent, that's so nice to hear. So you've been working with communities in the San Joaquin Valley to help them prepare for the impacts of the climate crisis. This is really exciting, not only for those communities, but because what ends up working there could be replicated in other parts of the country. So first, can you describe what the San Joaquin Valley is like and the people who live there?

Pablo: Yeah, so the San Joaquin Valley is part of the Central Valley of California and the Central Valley was formed by two main basins. One is the Sacramento River Basin in the north, and then the San Joaquin River Basin in the south. And the San Joaquin Valley has a population of about 4 million people, mostly in cities like Stockton, Fresno, Bakersfield. But today, I'm going to be talking more about the small communities, and these are communities that are scattered through the Valley, that have many of the most vulnerable populations, not only in the state but in the whole country.

To get a picture of how these communities looks like, their main economic activity has been agriculture for over a hundred years. And then in the San Joaquin Valley, there are more than 250 different types of crops. And this includes fruits, vegetables, nuts. I am sure many people listening to these podcasts have been hearing about the almonds of California or the grapes, tomatoes, oranges, so many different crops.

A large part of the vulnerable populations in these communities are farm workers who are mostly of Latino origin. And then, in many of these communities, their water is polluted. The air quality is very bad. There are no lights in the streets. There are no parks. There are no sidewalks. The transportation system is either scarce or unreliable or both. Many don't have like sewer systems. And of course, there are no supermarkets, and many times, the closest store is like the typical gas station store.

And if you add the heavy work in the fields, like in the agricultural fields, and that they are day laborers, this means that if they don't go to work one day, then they don't get paid. And these are mostly what now has been set as essential workers. This means that these people has been continue working to bring food to our table during this pandemic. And lastly, what is going to be the role of climate change in exacerbating these inequities? So we are talking about something that has to be done because there are great inequities here and the living conditions on these communities are already hard and will worsen until we do something about it.

Colleen: So Pablo, I think I have an idea of the answer to my next question, but I'm going to go ahead and ask it and let you answer it. Why did you focus on this area?

Pablo: I chose this area because I feel that they are bright people and very good-hearted people who need some support to reach their potential. And the San Joaquin Valley is obviously an area of extreme inequity. And I want to do my part to reduce this great socioeconomic difference between those who have the most and those who have the least. That’s in one part. And in the other part, I'm a climate and water scientist. And these are communities that are already disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change. So, my job is to help these communities prepare by increasing their understanding about climate change so that we can later co-develop adaptation strategies and adaptation activities so that they can advocate for themselves with their local, state, and federal representatives.

And lastly, recognizing that climate change is happening everywhere and that is affecting us all, it is important to realize that these communities in the Valley tend to have fewer resources to adapt and to plan for climate change. And that many of the impacts are going to further aggravate the inequities and their situation here in the Valley.

Colleen: And I think it's also important to mention that a large percentage of the food that we eat, that people in this country eat, is grown in that area. Is that correct?

Pablo: It's correct. The San Joaquin Valley is probably the most important agricultural region in the United States and is one of the most important agricultural regions in the world.

Colleen: Talk to me about climate change and how it's affecting the region.

Pablo: There are multiple climate change projections for the San Joaquin Valley. And by the way, these changes apply also to many areas of California. So of course, there's the high temperatures that, on the one hand, increase the risk of heat strokes or other direct effects on people, and on the other hand, they can, for example, increase the energy demand as we turn more of our air conditioners, or also increase evapotranspiration, and with that, potentially, the demand for water, particularly in agriculture.

Also higher temperatures also favor the conditions for the development of more frequent and extensive wildfires as we have seen recently in California. These increasing temperatures together with precipitation can materialize into longer and more severe droughts. And we are also going to see a reduction of the snowpack in the Sierras, which, in the case of California, is very important. The snowpack is very important because it is a natural form of water storage during the winter. And then in the spring, it starts melting and fills our dams or reservoirs with water that we later use for irrigation during the summer. So as we have more precipitation in terms of rain and less in terms of snow, it means that we will also have probably more water runoff in less amount of time. And this is the potential for creating more floods.

And finally, one aspect is the rising of sea level that will impact cities like, for example, Stockton and other areas of the delta region, which is where the San Joaquin and the Sacramento River meets and then goes into the San Francisco Bay.

Colleen: Well, it's interesting when you were talking about the snowpack and the melting, I hadn't thought about it before, but it really is a water storage where it melts at hopefully the right rate so that you get water throughout the season. And what you're saying is with extreme temperatures, it might melt too fast. So you're getting extreme amounts of water. And then you're also having then extreme periods of drought.

Pablo: Yes, absolutely. So in one hand, it melts faster and it melts in a season where we already have rain and we already have a lot of water in the reservoirs and we need to release that water because we want to create a space in the reservoirs to prevent for flood events in the future. And then, so snowpack is super important. And the other important part is the water in the ground. The water in the ground, we use it as a buffer, particularly during drought events, and there's example of the drought a few years in California, where we had to look at the groundwater to basically cover the demand that we were not able to supply using surface water.

Colleen: So you've created an educational guide to help these communities tackle the impacts of climate change. How did you go about designing the guide?

Pablo: Yes, it's an educational guide specifically designed for community members in the Valley. And the main idea is that knowledge is power. So we hope that this knowledge empowers community members so that they can advocate for themselves for the development of, for example, new policies. And this should be new policies that protect them and solve some of the inequities that they have regarding, for example, air quality, water quality, better education, and job opportunities and other challenges that they face. And this guide was developed together with three other authors and even more collaborators. So among these authors were Angel Fernandez-Bou and Mahesh Maskey who are researchers at UC Merced and Coreen Weintraub who is a campaign manager here at UCS with us.

And to better understand the concerns and interest of the communities, we conducted interviews and spoke with local stakeholders. And we were in close collaboration with some of the local stakeholders to ensure basically that the language that we were using was appropriate and that their points of views were being properly covered and represented. And this is something that I would like to communicate and that I hope that will be of help to other researchers listening to this podcast, because many times, us, as scientists, we assume that we know what the challenges of these communities are. And then, we develop projects without questioning if they are really of interest to community members, and if they are going to contribute something to improve their conditions on their communities. And we didn't want to make that mistake. So going to their communities and having collaboration was a vital part of this project. Of course, we still have so much more to learn, and there are so many more other ways to involve local stakeholders into our work.

And that's like one section. And the other one was based on the concerns that we obtained from the interviews, we developed this educational guide, and the idea was to include their knowledge and experiences and interpret how their concerns may worsen due to climate change. And based on that, propose adaptation strategies to these multiple changes. And there are like several sections in the guide that include information regarding water quality, water availability, floods, droughts, socioeconomic issues, and even a little bit of air quality.

[Break]

Colleen: I like the way you've described this. And I was smiling a little bit when you said that sometimes scientists and researchers go in and they think they know what the issues are. Did you find, when you went in and started talking to communities, that what you had in mind was maybe not exactly right?

Pablo: Yes. Actually, my original idea was to focus on only water issues because I am an expert in climate and water. But then, once I got there, they say like, "Well, yes, of course we have problems with water and water quality, but we also have a plethora of other things." You know, the thing that I was mentioning regarding lack of infrastructure, no sidewalks, no parks, no public transport. And then I was like, okay, so water is part of the problem, but this is way bigger than that. And if we don't talk about these other issues and we don't share the perspective of the community members, then only solving the water situation, or the water inequities are not going to be enough. So that's why, in that regard, the guide ended up having these other multiple sections.

Colleen: So tell me, I want to get into, you went out into these communities. What did you see on the ground that communities are most concerned about and dealing with?

Pablo: Yes. Among the greatest impacts, and this is coming from the concerns of community members, community leaders, also members that work in city councils of remote cities and other representatives of community organizations is that the greatest impacts are related to quality and availability of water. And, for example, in California, as I was saying, a lot was heard a few years ago about the drought. And for those of us who live here, there were mandates to reduce the use of water by 25%. And maybe for those who visited during that time, they saw signs at airports, at hotels, at restaurants about conserving water, but the impacts of many communities in the San Joaquin Valley was way worse. And here, we are talking that as there was less surface water available, then we turn to using more groundwater, and this led to groundwater levels at a point low enough so that many of the community wells could not reach and they basically dried up.

There are other effects related to over pumping and increases in arsenic. Arsenic is a pollutant or a contaminant that has been, for a number of years, reaching many of the community wells, and they create health issues related to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. So it's a very worrying situation.

Colleen: Were there any public officials that you worked with?

Pablo: Well, I can talk about one example and this is the story of Jose Ornelas. Jose Ornelas was a city council of the city of San Joaquin. And he was one of the persons that helped us the most and connected us with so many other community members that we ended up interviewing and talking with and have really great collaborations. And he was showing us pictures and videos of really dark brown water coming out from facets in housing, his communities. And then we were doing the interviews and seeing these pictures and we wanted to have like some verbal confirmation that water was like their main environmental issue.

So we asked like point blank, "So can you tell us, Jose, what's the main environmental issue in your community?" And then he answered, it's the air quality. And then we were like completely surprised. And he looked that we're surprised and he was like, well, because at least we can buy the water, but we cannot buy the air. And that's completely true. Like he could still buy the bottled water for drinking, but the air quality was really, really bad to the point that sometimes planes is spreading pesticides in nearby agricultural fields, then those pesticides would basically drift through the air and reach his community.

And sometimes, during summer, during summer nights, when it's very hot in the Central Valley, they have their windows open, and he said that sometimes, the pesticides basically just go inside the house. And then he showed us, for example, outside in his car, and they were like these microdroplets are over his car, some sort of like these poop that sometimes we find when we park, below a tree or something like that, just to have a visual representation of how that would look like.

Colleen: Let me pivot to some of the recommendations in the guide so we can hear a little bit about what some of the solutions might be.

Pablo: Absolutely. So in the guide, there is information on how climate change is affecting water quality, water availability, floods, socioeconomic activities, and also air quality. And in the guide, we included a number of adaptation strategies for each of these changes or challenges. And some of them are very simple, such as the use of filters to improve water quality. Others are more complex and are related to advocating for the rights with their legal representatives. And for that, what we did was included emails and phone numbers, basically contact information of who they can call and which are the agencies responsible for complying with their rights. So among other strategies is for people that have private wells, we included contact details of organizations that can perform water quality testing on their wells or maintenance activities, in many cases, for free.

Other activities related to, for example, water shortages include information on how to install a rainwater harvesting system in their homes or contact information for agencies that can help pay for debts on water and energy bills. This is going to be very relevant, for example, after, well not even after, during this pandemic, because many people, at the beginning of the pandemic, were hoarding bottled water, and this was the bottled water that people in this community just to buy just for drinking every day and they didn't have access to it. So it just marks these inequities that we have been seeing a little bit more.

And let me also tell a little bit about the adaptation strategies in terms of like socioeconomic matters. So here, there are activities related to seeing which are the employment opportunities that are more likely to reach the San Joaquin Valley in the future and how some of the community members can prepare. The example here is that there are going to be solar energy facilities that are going to be developed for the generation of clean energy or that more people is going to install solar panels on their homes. And then we provide information in the guide about organizations that provide training for solar panel installation or maintenance of these types of systems. And other strategies for parents and people interested in obtaining college degree, we mentioned an organization that supports with preparation for college and create support groups for people that want to join to college. Because many times, they are the first in their family to have like a university degree or to try to pursue a university degree.

And all together, we are talking about more than 30 different adaptation strategies. The guide has also my information so that even people listening to this can share all their strategies with us.

Colleen: Pablo, it's a really powerful guide. I like the way you're taking this holistic approach and you're giving lots of solutions across many different areas. I'm wondering, where are the policymakers in this equation?

Pablo: Yes. So much more, the reality is that mitigation and adaptation activities should be on a much larger scale and should be carried out by federal, state, and local government agencies. Because at this point, although individual actions help, they are sadly not enough. So we need systemic actions to face climate change, particularly at this point. However, the reality is that climate change is already here. Communities are already being affected and current policies are not enough, or they are not developing at the required speed. So that is why we decided to write this guide, because that help is not coming anytime soon. And we wanted to empower community members and increase their knowledge about climate change so they can continue to adapt.

So for politicians or representatives who may be listening, it will be extremely important that you help to accelerate the development of mitigation and adaptation policies to climate change regarding energy generation, protection of natural resources, support for infrastructure in these communities, and of course, improvements also related to education.

Colleen: So will you continue working with these communities?

Pablo: Yes. We have been in close collaboration with some of the community members, and we are currently developing like an electronic version of the guide so that it can be easily updated. In the guide, we have like a channel, like an open channel of communication for people to provide input so that we can either increase the number of adaptation strategies, simplify the language, or put more examples in the future. And also, another part of my research for this year is how the amount of dust that flies from agricultural fields into communities is likely to increase because dust is an important factor in air quality. There are so many cases of asthma in the Valley, and sometimes, this dust is carrying pesticides, fertilizers, or other pollutants that people is breathing.

So bottom line is we are doing everything possible so that more people learn about these inequities that exist in the Valley, so that then more people get involved and there is more knowledge that is being generated and maybe even a little bit of pressure so that positive changes can develop and the living conditions in these communities are improved.

Colleen: Pablo, the work you're doing is amazing, and I'm really happy to hear that you are going to continue working with these communities. I'm also really excited to hear that you're putting the guide online. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Pablo: Thank you, Colleen. This was amazing.

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