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Putting Dairies Out to Pasture

Environmentalists prefer development in Chino area over farm pollution. For O.C., fewer dairies mean less pollution in waterways.

May 06, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

It is an oft-repeated pattern across Southern California: Farmland yields to the bulldozer's blade.

But in contrast to other parts of the state, where pitched battles have been fought to save farms from urban sprawl, the rapid transformation of dairy land near Chino is being welcomed by environmental regulators as a significant step toward cleaner air.

Normally, replacing farms with suburbs would bring on more pollution from increased traffic. But for hundreds of thousands of people living in the Riverside area -- downwind from the dairies -- the biggest air pollution problem is a persistent haze of tiny particles, and dairy farms are a chief culprit.

And for more than 2 million residents of northern and central Orange County, fewer dairies could mean less pollution in the creeks and waterways feeding the Santa Ana River, which provides much of their drinking water.

"We're at the tail end," says Virginia Grebbien, general manager of the Fountain Valley-based Orange County Water District. "If there's a bad actor in the upper watershed, it's affecting us as well."

Ammonia rises from the dairies -- an estimated 21 tons each day, making the farms the largest source of ammonia emissions in Southern California. The prevailing winds wafting over the region carry tons of nitrogen oxides produced by cars, power plants and factories.

The two chemicals mix in the air to produce tiny particles of ammonium nitrate -- the same stuff as lawn fertilizer -- swirling in the sky.

Health studies have linked particle pollution to maladies ranging from lost lung function to premature death. Western Riverside and San Bernardino counties suffer from some of the worst particulate pollution in the nation. But with houses replacing dairies, the plume of ammonia will continue to dissipate.

"In this case, growth will take out the cows, and that will have a beneficial impact on particulate matter," said Roger Atkinson, director of the Air Pollution Research Center at UC Riverside.

Haze blankets many of California's inland valleys during warm weather, but it is especially abundant in the Inland Empire.

A pollution sensor in Rubidoux consistently records the highest particle pollution levels in Southern California and some of the top measurements in the nation.

Throughout the year, the concentration of very small particles averages 31 micrograms per cubic meter of air in Riverside, more than double the federal health-based standard, government records show.

Under the right conditions, a person standing downwind from the Chino area can watch at midday as a billowing curtain of gray haze forms out of thin air as onshore breezes pass over the dairies. The towering mass contains billions of particles efficient at reducing visibility -- many of the specks are the diameter of the wavelength of light and scatter the sun's rays -- and it descends on the area from Grand Terrace to Mira Loma.

"It looks like a white wall, a mass of pollution blowing in, although it used to be much worse," Atkinson said.

Vicki Fitch, 35, is one of many who rely on their noses to tell which way the wind is blowing. She lives in the Bridlewood tract, one of Chino's newest communities built in dairy land. Like her neighbors, her family wanted to live in a rural area, but they got more than they bargained for.

"It's very odiferous. There's a lot of fragrance and flies in the air," Fitch said. "I use a lot of air freshener in the house, and I have to walk quickly from the house to get into the car." Unlike other polluters, dairies have escaped regulation of their emissions. Now, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is preparing a control measure aimed at reducing emissions by at least half over the next decade. The agency is considering more stringent rules on manure removal and greater use of "digesters" that derive methane fuel from manure.

Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer at the AQMD, said it is unlikely that the Riverside area will be able to meet the federal limit for very small airborne particles by 2014 without significant reductions at the dairies.

Reductions in dairy fumes could create benefits that ripple to big cities from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley. If dairy emissions are substantially reduced, smog goals for the region could be met without having to reduce as much of the nitrogen oxides produced by industrial sources farther west.

Nitrogen oxides -- a byproduct of fuel consumption -- are expensive to control, so the AQMD hopes to coax businesses to help pay for emission controls at dairies in lieu of more costly controls at facilities along the coast, Chang said.

Environmental regulations are but one of the pressures on the Southland's dairy industry. Ontario recently annexed 8,000 acres of dairy land, Chino plans to annex a large portion to the west, and many farms along the Santa Ana River on the south will be closed to accommodate Prado Dam expansion.

Developers are offering as much as $280,000 an acre for the farms.

Sybrand Vander Dussen, 60, has watched the industry come full circle. He emigrated from the Netherlands in 1947 when his father came to Artesia to establish a dairy farm, then moved inland as development gobbled up Orange County. He now has one foot in both worlds, operating an 80-acre dairy with his son and working as a real estate broker selling pastures.

"We came here when no one wanted the land, and we're leaving here when everyone wants the land," Vander Dussen said.

"These dairies are old and obsolete. Everybody wants out. This has lived beyond its time. It will all be gone soon."

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