Thursday, January 23, 2014

Silicon Valley's Roots Return As "Urban Agriculture"

With the passage of AB 551, the State of California has blessed the concept and is encouraging local land use agencies to designate Urban Agricultural Incentive Zones. In this drought year especially, this is a signal that cities throughout California should be re-thinking their land use policies to foster more local food production, while reducing their dependance on industrial agriculture. In San Jose, we can leverage this new legislation to both increase our local food security and protect our local groundwater.

One of my greatest pleasures is growing my own vegetables and fruit both at home and in a nearby community garden, which holds the honor of being the first in this state permitted to use recycled water from our wasted-water treatment plant. This drought proof water source adds to a diverse water supply portfolio, which includes local surface and groundwater and three aqueducts that have dubious reliability and higher energy demands than our local supply options.

 Silicon Valley, also still known as Santa Clara Valley,  evolved from a major food production and processing economy to economies that function, in part, from the use of silicon-based microchips.

The mild Mediterranean climate and fertile soil of the valley remains above and below the engineered hardscape of nearly 400 square miles of urban development.

In addition, San Jose possesses another piece of natural capital that was essential to this valley  becoming both of these successive great economic centers: two adjacent groundwater basins capable of supplying up to 250 million gallons of water per day. The geology of the area blessed us with sand and gravel sediments that carry surface water into depths below a 200-foot cap of  fine silts, deposited in flooded wetlands over thousands of years of rising sea levels.

This geologic process  of layering sediment creates a special concern for how we use the land in the Coyote Valley. This upper region acts as a kind of a forebay for the groundwater basin in the northern part of the county, which serves the 13 cities that now comprise much of Silicon Valley.  As sediment eroded from the eastern mountain range into the valleys below, the gravels and larger materials settle out mostly at the top of the alluvial fans. These gravel deposits are often mined for aggregate for concrete and asphalt.

The high porosity of this gravel-filled narrow valley makes it extremely vulnerable to contamination from any pollutants that are discharged onto the land or into Coyote and Fisher Creeks that traverse the 10 mile length of the Coyote Valley.

Pollutants, once reaching the usually high groundwater table of the Coyote Valley, move quickly down-gradient toward the thousands of private and municipal wells serving nearly 2 million residents and workers in the urban areas to the north.

The Coyote Valley has been designated in the City of San Jose's General Plan as an urban reserve with a third of the land at the southern end designated for permanent green belt. Triggers are also described for under what conditions a transit-oriented Specific Plan would be allowed.

Under this new legislation, the City of San Jose could propose to designate this 7,000-acre Coyote Valley ALL as an Urban Agricultural Incentive Zone. Because of the potential for groundwater contamination, the area should also be restricted to organic agriculture only.

Here, it's good to mention a little wisdom from former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman,  who also served as Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush: "Some watershed land simply must not be developed. Its natural value in buffering, storing, filtering and recharging far exceeds whatever commercial value it may hold." (Cover letter from "Protecting the Source" Trust For Public Land, copyright 1998)

This could be a plank in a mayoral candidate's platform for a creating a sustainable San Jose, addressing both food security and water quality protection. It could also be an excellent joint powers project of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD). 

 There are other reasons that the Coyote Valley should be preserved as permanent open space:

     Laguna Seca should be preserved and re-established as a vernal wetland, creating habitat and reducing potential flooding in downtown San Jose

     A wildlife corridor across Coyote Valley should be established between the Diablo and Santa Cruz ranges

     Buffer setbacks from Coyote and Fisher Creeks should be preserved to protect the ecosystem of the riparian corridor

A Joint Powers Authority with Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority could be formed as a financing option for the Coyote Valley acquisition. The rationale for this is based on SCVWD’s water supply goal to aggressively protect groundwater from the threat of contamination. SCVWD also has a water resources stewardship goal to promote the protection of creeks, bays and other aquatic ecosystems from threats of pollution and degradation.

This partnership would give access to existing and future State and local water bonds as a significant funding source. The current Open Space Credit, applied to subsidized commercial agricultural pumping rates of $6.5 million per year, is enough to service the debt on $65 million in revenue bonds, providing funds for acquisition of conservation easements on 6500 acres @$10,000/acre.

This may well be the biggest pollution prevention project ever funded by the District, but one that will benefit future generations with a clean, safe and reliable groundwater supply in perpetuity.

I am also campaigning to extend that previously mentioned farm water subsidy to urban community agriculture, including larger commercial ventures like Veggielution in San Jose and Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale. I’ve asked Senator Jim Beall to consider a bill to remove the “commercial” restrictions for receiving the subsidy so all community gardens in the county could receive irrigation water at the lower rate. 

 After all, the Valley of Heart’s Delight still exists; it’s just hidden beneath our feet.

1 comment:

Sequoia Hall said...

The idea of Urban Ag is gaining a lot of traction. Did you see the SPUR report on it? Great to see your blog Pat!