Nearly 150 trees were planted along Highway 99 by Tree Fresno and Sonoma Technology to capture pollution from roads and highways to improve air quality for nearby communities. Photo via Tree Fresno
Written by Frank Lopez
Perhaps in no other time in recent history has the importance of public health been more apparent.
For decades, the San Joaquin Valley has been notorious for having some of the nation’s worst air quality with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stating on its website that the area fails “to meet federal health standards for both ozone (smog) and particulate pollution.”
A local nonprofit environmental organization and a technology company out of the Bay Area that focuses on science based solutions for meteorological and air quality needs worldwide have teamed up to get to one of the roots that plagues the Central Valley’s air.
Tree Fresno and Sonoma Technology, Inc., are in the midst of their Fresno TREES project (Tree planting along Roads to help Eliminate pollution Exposure and Sequester carbon), which aims to reduce pollution for people living near roads and highways by planting trees and shrubs nearby to capture carbon emissions.
Two vegetative barriers were completed just last week, one along Highway 99 near California Street in Fresno consisting of 44 Mondell Pines and another consisting of 100 mixed species trees along the same highway in the small town of Fowler.
Sonoma Tech will analyze the effectiveness of using vegetative barriers to reduce near-road pollution exposure. Near-road pollution contributes to health impacts such as asthma, and according to the American Lung Association, it affects 24% of children in Fresno County.
“Vegetation and the use of trees are a potential way to try to reduce exposure to pollution for those who live or work — or are at schools — near major roads,” said Vice President of Sonoma Technology Doug Eisinger.”
The project is also made possible through a partnership with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Special Environmental Project (SEP), which consists of constructing the vegetative barriers between busy roadways and communities close by.
Sonoma Tech partners with universities in California to study air quality and health issues, with the Central Valley and Fresno being a specific focus for about the last 15 years.
Due to pollution from roadways, the agricultural industry and the geographic location of being downwind of major cities in the Bay Area, there have been a lot of studies conducted over the years on air quality in the Central Valley.
“It was a natural location for us to apply our resources in terms of determining whether or not folks who live near roads would see the benefit of planting trees along roadways,” said Lyle Chinkin, CEO of Sonoma Technology.
Data from California Department of Transportation reports that in the Fresno area, between 5,000 to 18,000 heavy-duty trucks travel daily on each of State Highways 41, 99, 168, and 180, with Highway 99 having the highest daily truck count.
Trees sequester (cut off) carbon through their uptake of carbon dioxide, and through the Fresno Trees project, more than 3,700 trees and model vegetation will be planted for use as an environmental mitigation measure.
The total estimated cost for the Fresno TREES project is about $2.6 million for 2020.
Mona N. Cummings, CEO of Tree Fresno, said there were questions from the public as to why native trees and plants were not used for the project, but they decided to go with more evergreen vegetation.
“We’re maximizing the science that is available in that we are intentionally trying to prevent those noxious pollutions from reaching the nearby communities,” Cummings said. “In that effort, we choose very drought tolerant species that are able to endure the harsh environment along the roadways.”
Because the project covers lots of ground with different property owners, Tree Fresno is in communication with many state agencies including CARB, CAL FIRE, and Caltrans.
As COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, those with existing respiratory health problems are more likely to experience a higher risk of serious health complications from the new coronavirus, and air quality in certain areas can pose more problems.
“Planting more trees, especially along the highways, can improve people’s health,” Cummings said. “We hope that with our partnership with Sonoma Tech we’re able to present data which supports that.”