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New Strategies Against an Old Enemy : From Experiments on Human Guinea Pigs in Downey to New Strains of Smog-Resistant Crops, the War on Air Pollution Continues

July 20, 1986|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer

When a California farmer is forced off his land, it's usually by circumstances beyond his control. Canceled crop subsidies send some limping to the city; others give up when commodity markets plummet or petroleum prices soar.

Next month, citrus grower Robert M. Howie will deed over his last orange grove and reluctantly retire. In Riverside, where the acreage devoted to citrus is shrinking at an annual rate of 10%, a decision to sell out is not uncommon. But the reason behind Howie's parting with land that has belonged to his family for over half a century is less obvious.

Howie is a fourth-generation farmer who served 28 years as county agriculture commissioner. His orchard did not fall prey to blight or the banks. It is the victim of agriculture's most underrated villain--smog.

"Damn it all," says Howie, turning his back to the whoosh of nearby traffic, "you can't tangle with automobiles and expect to win. The people in those cars would rather have smog than agriculture. If the choice is between the environment and cars, personal transport always wins."

Last year, smog cost the American public $2.3 billion in lost crop yield. In Southern California, the annual damage is extensive. Lettuce, endive and spinach no longer can be grown commercially in Los Angeles County. Few orchids can tolerate the air south of Oxnard. In Riverside, once the home of the navel orange, only 2,000 acres of citrus groves remain, and commercial production of alfalfa and turnips is marginal.

Smog no longer stops at the Tehachapi Mountains. Last year in Kern County, 20%--or $61 million worth--of the grape crop was lost, and an acre of land that used to yield three bales of cotton produced only two and a half because of smog generated locally or blown south down the Central Valley from the San Francisco Bay area.

According to Howie, air pollution finally caught up with his 10-acre grove when traffic began to increase on a major road bordering his trees, Van Buren Boulevard, which links March Air Force Base with the Riverside suburb of Arlington. Five years ago, a traffic light was installed 200 yards upwind of his orchard. Since then, his navel orange trees have been blanketed by exhaust from accelerating automobiles.

"After the signal went up, the first four or five rows just stopped producing," Howie claims. "I hoped that would be the extent of the damage, but now the whole orchard is in decline. My production is down at least 40% because of smog. The 1985 price for navel oranges was the highest ever paid,but that doesn't mean much if you don't have enough oranges to sell."

The consequences of living with smog are not always apparent. Many Southern Californians believe our thick yellow haze is no more than unsightly and occasionally irritating. Others insist, without much proof at present, that every breath of Los Angeles air takes a person one step closer to cancer. The truth is somewhere in between, but one reality is undeniable: Smog is here to stay, and it affects everyone in undesirable ways. The L.A. Basin's weather and geography may mean that a total victory against smog (and now the latest scourge--acid fog) is all but impossible. Nevertheless, the fight to at least make Southern California vastly more livable goes on, and the regulatory and scientific arsenal against air pollution continues to grow.

The irony of Howie's plight is that it comes at a time when air quality throughout the Los Angeles Basin is improving. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the quasi-autonomous agency that enforces federal emission standards in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, smog levels are down 18% from five years ago. Since 1976 the number of Stage 1 alerts, which signifies an ozone buildup that starts to irritate the respiratory system, has declined 33%.

"We've made tremendous progress," says James Birakos, deputy executive officer of the SCAQMD. "The thousands of complaints about eye irritation we used to receive every summer have literally dropped to zero. Our toughest job is convincing people things have gotten better when they still can't see across the street."

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