Back in 2007, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger desperately cast about for ways to cut the deficit-ridden state budget, he suddenly slashed $27.8 million from the a program that preserved agricultural lands, leaving a mere token $1,000 for it in a $90 billion general fund spending plan.
Now that cut in so-called Williamson Act contracts, dubbed the “brownest cut of all” at the time since it came from a governor with very green pretensions, seems about to do more environmental damage than ever, in large part because of a new business plan adopted by the state High Speed Rail Authority.
Schwarzenegger’s cut left 16.4 million acres of farmland exposed to potential development, land formerly protected by contracts between counties and landowners previously committed to keep farming their acreage in exchange for a property tax break funded by the state.
The cut has already had a measurable impact, but the bullet train authority’s latest action figures to accelerate things.
Here’s a bit of what’s already happened, based on figures developed by Conservation Science Partners, a nonprofit in the Sierra Nevada mountain town of Truckee:
During the decade from 2001 to 2011, only partially covered by Schwarzenegger’s Williamson Act cut, which has been continued by current Gov. Jerry Brown, California lost 785 square miles of farmland to development, equal to 502,000 acres at 640 acres per square mile. That was a higher percentage than in any other Western state, and no one knows how much more has been eaten by urban sprawl since 2011.
By the end of that year, fully 19.5 percent of California’s total land mass was developed, the highest percentage of any Western state.
The springtime plan for a bullet train construction U-turn can do nothing but worsen this trend, the brownest item in California’s modern budget history.
Just how brown? One 2003 study from Purdue University showed that every acre of farmland in Purdue’s home state of Indiana pulled an estimated 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air each year. That’s for all types of farmland, including pastures, vineyards, rice and cotton fields, orchards and more.
This is a lowball figure based on Indiana lands, which unlike California open spaces, sprout nothing green during the winter to take carbon from the air. Even under those less-than-ideal conditions, the math works out to a total of 1.754 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by the 16.4 million present and former Williamson Act acres. That’s more than is saved by any man-made tactic, including expensive cap-and-trade programs. The act was named for 1960s-era Republican legislator John Williamson, who dreamed it up.
Now consider the latest high-speed rail plan, which sees the first bullet trains running between Bakersfield and San Jose, and not between Merced and Los Angeles, as previously planned.
The change means early bullet trains likely to carry more commuters than other passengers. With estimated travel times of an hour or less between Fresno and San Jose, Silicon Valley workers who can’t afford sky-high real estate prices in cities like Los Gatos and Palo Alto could get to work fairly quickly via the bullet train and connecting Caltrain routes or corporate buses.
This solves problems for a lot of people, while potentially creating enormous urban sprawl on current farmland. For the High Speed Rail Authority, it could ensure a full passenger load, something that’s been very uncertain from the original conception of this massive project. That could help the authority lure private investors who so far have not put up a nickel.
For high-tech companies, it solves the problem of finding affordable housing for employees, because land is exponentially cheaper in Central Valley locales like Merced, Chowchilla and Madera, all hard by the bullet train route. It would let them expand near their headquarters, rather than putting new plants in cheap-land states like Texas and Arizona.
For farmers whose Williamson Act contracts have either expired or are about to, it could mean big money when developers move in even before all the tracks are laid.
But ill effects are obvious, too. There will be far less sequestration of greenhouse gases when housing tracts eat up farmland. Urban sprawl could spread as never before.
All because of two governors who have billed themselves the greenest ever, anywhere, and their hand-picked appointees.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.