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How Green Was Our Valley: A Cautionary Tale of 2020 Sacramento

By Jock O'Connell

(Originally published in the Sacramento Bee Forum section on March 1, 1998.)

Imagine a stifling, breezeless summer evening in 2020, the so-called "hindsight year." Lights are blinking on all across California's vast Central Valley already humming from the sound of a million or more air conditioners. In the sky above, the last of TriValley Airline's three daily non-stops from Mexicali is starting its final approach to Sacramento's Metroplex International Airport.

As the pilotless jet turns sharply, passengers can see the old Port of Sacramento, at one time a struggling maritime shipping facility but today a highly profitable recreational waterway -- and the only body of water in northern California where jet-skiers are still permitted. Off to the right just beyond the gleaming office towers of downtown Sacramento sits the grim edifice of Superfund Park, the 50,000-seat baseball stadium built on the former Southern Pacific rail yard. Constructed during the Mayor Superfan era around the turn of the millennium in the hopes of attracting a major league baseball franchise, it stands now as a monument to civic hubris — a grande dame of a sports venue now obliged to host tractor pulls, flea markets, rock concerts, evangelical rallies, and almost anything, it would seem, except a big league ball team.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the aircraft, an older traveler marvels at the lights which blanket the valley all the way to the coast range. Gesturing out the window, he muses to his younger seat mate: "Time was when you could tell where Davis ended and Woodland began."

The irony, of course, was that Sacramento never wanted to grow up to be the next LA or Orange County, once productive agricultural areas long since victimized by wall-to- wall urbanization. And while the region's civic leaders didn't necessarily mind becoming the next Silicon Valley, they did not want to compromise the region's quality of life by embracing Silicon Valley's congestion and sky-high housing costs. Above all, they did not want to sacrifice the Sacramento Valley's historic roots in agriculture.

But that was not to be.

The six county Sacramento Metroplex, along with the rest of California's Central Valley, had been run over by a demographic and technological freight train during the preceding decades. Established ways of living had been drastically altered. Traditional industries -- most notably agriculture and food processing -- largely disappeared, while new ones few had even dreamed of just years earlier had emerged and flourished. Entire new cities were built, while -- more commonly -- the once green barriers between existing cities and towns simply vanished. Sacramento County had become home to nearly 2.0 million people, while the other five counties in the region (El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba) housed another 1.2 million. It was almost as though everyone who had lived in the region in 1990 had spawned a clone. The consequences of such growth were not slow in coming.

Valley farming was the first casualty. Indeed, the passengers aboard the TriValley flight from Mexicali were mostly agribusiness executives and biotechnologists returning from Sacto-Sud, the immense treaty enclave in northern Mexico where California agribusiness companies had long ago established vast plantations to provide the food and fiber formerly grown here in the Central Valley. Their airline of choice, TriValley, was itself a farming and food-processing giant until Sacramento Valley farming was done in by the relentless demands of a spiraling population and new industries for land and water.

Apart from a handful of truck-farms run largely as living museums on inter-urban green belts, the last commercial crop in the Central Valley had been harvested in 2012, the year after the federal government -- in a still controversial move to save the Social Security and Medicare programs from bankruptcy --- imposed a levy on rain and snow fall. (In defending this act before the Supreme Court, the Attorney General advanced a rather innovative legal theory: whereas the federal government annually shelled out billions of dollars a year to clean up and repair destruction blamed on Acts of God, it should be entitled to recover some of these costs by taxing Mother Nature. Needless to say, the amicus curiae briefs made for fascinating reading.)

The subsequent skyrocketing of water prices only served to hasten the eclipse of Central Valley farming. The doubling of the region's population from Bakersfield to Redding and the rise of entire new industries would ultimately have crippled the region's agricultural economy. In the battle for land, those who valued real estate by the acre lost out to those who priced it by the square foot.

In its death throes, farming throughout the Central Valley did a fast-forward through its historic shift away from low-margin row crops like lettuce and tomatoes to higher value- added crops like almonds and grapes. In the process, what had once been the nation's supermarket produce aisle became its boutique grocer. But in a tight and inconsistent water market, farming of these high-value added crops could not be sustained through years of drought. Unlike fields that could sit fallow when there was little water, trees bearing fruit and nuts as well as vines nurturing grapes needed constant irrigation. In the end, even the raising of highly profitable speciality crops became untenable in the face of relentless suburbanization and the rise of major, non-agricultural industries.

On a more positive side, new industries did emerge. UC Davis gave a boost to landscapers, horticulturalists, and gardeners throughout the nation when it established a School of Xerophytics to identify new methods of sustaining landscape vegetation and decorative plants with minimal water. At the same time, a Rancho Cordova firm developed and patented a process for manufacturing a synthetic liquid named Faux Eau® that mimicked the recreational properties of real water, thus rescuing the swimming pool industry from certain oblivion.

The health services sector continued to be a leading employer, creating tends of thousand of new jobs, especially in what had been known as geriatric medicine. Indeed, Sutter International, had emerged as one of the very few multinational corporations headquartered in Sacramento. Recognizing early on that the graying populations of the major industrialized nations would overwhelm traditional modes of health care, Sutter officials decided to get ahead of the curve and ultimately became the largest and most efficient provider of geriatric medical care not only in North America but also in Europe and Japan.

The big new employer, though, was an industry scarcely even imagined twenty years earlier. In what now seems an inevitable progression, the electronics and bioscience industries converged, resulting in a huge new biotronics sector whose most mundane applications were merely astonishing. In one industry after another, basic assumption and processes were utterly transformed by the possibilities offered by biotronics. And, as one of the first centers of this hybrid industry, the Sacramento area attracted thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from around the world. The region bounded by Davis, Rockland and Folsom became known internationally as the Biotronics Triangle.

Not since the days of the Gold Rush had Sacramento seen such a rapid influx of new people or such a rapid rise of new wealth. The region had never been so affluent. But never had its social peace been so fragile. By the summer of 2020, these were the best of times for many Sacramentans, but for many others things weren't so swell. Never before had there been such a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Technology had driven Sacramento's economic boon, but technology had left tens of thousands far behind -- and hopelessly so.

Satisfying, well-paying jobs proliferated, but typically only for those with the necessary educational and technical skills. As had been long predicted, school dropouts and others who had fallen by the educational wayside were not simply disadvantaged in the new economy, they were damned. Official unemployment in the Sacramento Metroplex was well under five percent. But there existed a substantial underclass who had fallen out of the official economic picture and did not figure in the employment statistics. They were the unnumbered. More commonly, those who held lower paying jobs saw little value or dignity in what they did. More often than not, working full-time did not bring home enough to cover life's bare necessities. They were the unvalued.

The abundantly obvious unevenness of life in the valley gave rise to what criminologists came to term "crimes of begrudgery" in which the advantaged were victimized primarily and often exclusively because of what they represented in the outraged eyes of their assailants. Victims were surprised that their assailants were more often than not the least bit interested in relieving them of their valuables. As one retired cop observed, it was somewhat like the old days when ‘townees' would beat up the college boys "just for the fun of it."

Of course, fun never had that much to do with it. And things did not remain benign for long. Within a few years, a little class rivalry went a long way into instances of low- intensity class warfare. Kidnaping of the rich, assassinations of prominent business executives, Luddite-inspired sabotage of industrial plants and transportation networks became more common in the Sacramento region as it did elsewhere in America.

Meanwhile, old-fashioned violent crime, which had been on the wane during the 1990's, again became more prevalent during the first decade of the new millennium. The principal cause was demographic. The number of 10 to 25 year olds, the core of the modern criminati, swelled. To make matters worse, lots of these people had nothing to do, nowhere to go. When asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, the answer for a great many juvenile offenders was: "Don't you mean if I grow up?"

But crime tended to be localized. Crime had not so much been controlled as corralled. Round-the-clock congestion of the region's surface streets generally obliged criminals to operate within their own neighborhoods and to pretty much limit their loot to what they could carry away. Surveillance cameras were ubiquitous, although it was common knowledge that only a tiny percentage of those cameras could be regularly monitored.

The really big dent in crime, however, had come when a new generation of political leaders — those born in the last quarter of the 20th century — began to assume positions of authority and prominence as politicians or talk-show hosts. Raised on Ritalin and then soothed by Prozac, this was a generation at ease with the notion that a properly medicated society was far less dangerous place than one which denied easy solace to its most desperate and depraved. The general public had years earlier acknowledged the futility of combating the drug trade. Over time, even the right-wing radio ranters, fearing the regrettable inconvenience of an underclass uprising, had taken up the cause of using pharmaceuticals to sedate those left behind by the technological revolution and economic progress. So America surrendered in the War on Drugs so as to better contend with the War on Crime.

The population of the Metroplex not only grew, it sprawled. A few local governments sought to encourage greater density of housing so as to promote the use of mass transit options like light-rail or subways. Some municipalities experimented with tax credits and other incentives to channel growth into downtown districts or older neighborhoods in need of redevelopment. But in the end they could not overcome some powerful social and economic forces, most notably the individual Californian's desire to have a home of her or his own and the abiding eagerness of housing developers to satisfy this quintessential manifestation of the American Dream. (Never mind that the dream really belonged to men with names like Levitt, Kaufman and Broad.)

Plus there was that yen for security. It was not merely the region's wealthiest who opted for homes in gated housing estates. Such secure living quarters had become standard as the Metroplex's residents built more walled communities than had the Tuscans — alas, however, without the Tuscan sense to built on the tops of hills far above flood plains.

As housing spread out, so too did industry. Needing to be close to labor, companies carved new industrial parks out of valley turf. Befitting the image of what Martin Amis called the "futuristically enlightened" corporations engaged in advanced technology and intensive scientific research that were housed in the low-rise structures set on land where barns and silos once stood, these parks looked just like college campuses.

But into this fine ointment flew NIMBY, the Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome that had effectively thwarted plans to construct additional freeways in the more built-up areas. The few new highways that had been built since the late 1900's were almost always roads into previous virgin land. In general, the Metroplex's transportation system had not even come close to keeping pace with its population growth and the dispersal of housing and industry. Attempts to restrict automobile ownership were successfully resisted on constitutional grounds. But the theoretical right to mobility could hardly be honored on roads and streets as congested as those in the Sacramento Metroplex. To some extent, CalTrans was able to cope with technological fixes. Many of the region's highways and all of the interstates were now "Smart Highways" on which certain specially-equipped vehicles were steered by computers, not drivers. This enabled traffic engineers to move bumper-to-bumper traffic at speeds over 120 miles per hour in specified lanes. But only vehicles with expensive gear were allowed in these lanes. In a breakthrough which nearly earned the agency a Nobel Peace Prize (for combating road rage), CalTrans finally hit upon a way of synchronizing traffic lights in all directions. But even this system was rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer number of vehicles on the road.

By 2010 the sheer congestion was such that the Sacramento region began to implode socially and politically. The neighborhood reasserted itself as the focal point of community life for most valley residents.

Not since the suburbanization of America had begun in the years following World War II had so many people worked and shopped and found entertainment within easy walking distance of where they lived. The vast regional shopping malls now resembled the former military installations which still dot the state. Corner groceries, neighborhood taverns, butcher shops, and the whole coterie of small stores and businesses and restaurants were spawned. Sidewalks were widened to accommodate the pedestrians. It wasn't exactly the return of the ‘Mom 'n Pops' of the pre-shopping center and supermarket era. Given the enormously complex distribution problems of the time, the new local groceries and bakeries and butcher shops were typically franchise operations, providing a modicum of convenience and a hint of social ambience at 7-11 prices.

Not all small stores made a come back. Merchandise sales via computer and televised catalog programs skyrocketed. But Sacramento became a city of distinctive neighborhoods not unlike the cities of the eastern seaboard in the early 20th century. To many, this was a welcomed development. It brought something of an old-world charm to a city that had never had it.

But there were negative aspects as well. Although a few neighborhoods were racially and ethnically diverse, most were not. Rich whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians seemed to be able to blend quite happily with each other, although there were gated communities within larger gated communities reserved for those who wished to remain racially or ethnically segregated.

But in the older and poorer areas of town, de facto ghettos persisted. Indeed, for almost every conceivable grouping whether it be defined by ethnicity, national origin, gender preference, zodiac sign, or smoking/non-smoking, there was a neighborhood where one or another group predominated to the exclusion of others. And, as might be expected, residents of these enclaves did not easily suffer the presence of anyone who didn't fit in.

The conspicuous absence of a broader sense of community, a concept of community that encompassed the region as a whole, constituted a large part of the Sacramento Valley's problem in coping with change.

Residents of the Metroplex preferred to identify themselves by the neighborhood or gated community in which they lived. Those who resided in Roseville or Folsom or Placerville resented being lumped together with each other, let alone with the City of Sacramento. These suburban, exurban and wholly rural residents certainly did not look to the core city to furnish leadership the region needed. Moreover, the capital had a hard time living down its reputation for being a town that could not distinguish between civic visions and rampant boosterism. Every time the city tried to put on a mature face, someone who recall those years when the mayor and a majority of the city council would drop everything and fly off to wherever it was rumored a big league sports franchise that might be shopping for a new home.

By the same token, no one in Sacramento seriously looked to the outlying communities for leadership.

The identity problem compounded the difficulty of developing a consensus over where the region should go. As was frequently acknowledged, the Sacramento Valley lacked a positive vision of what it wanted to be. Even back in the 1990's, the region knew it didn't want to become a sprawl like Los Angeles or Orange County. Nor did it want to lose its ties to the land as had happened when the fruit orchards of Santa Clara County were uprooted to accommodate Silicon Valley.

To be sure, there were the old cliches about turning Sacramento into a "World Class City." But for most that goal seemed to be indiscriminately bullish on the question of growth. It was often unclear what civic boosters had in mind beyond such trappings of urban stature as (first and foremost, it would seem) major league sports franchises, a truly international airport, and perhaps even a new symphony orchestra. But all of these aspirations pretty much assumed (or implied) bigness. To attract a big league baseball team, the market had to be bigger. To justify a non-stop flights to and from foreign cities, Sacramento airport needed more passengers. So, in most visions, world-class equated to bigness. Sacramentans who dreamed of making their town a world class city were therefore philosophically at ease with the idea of substantial population growth. Indeed, the principal problem they saw was attracting the companies that would create the jobs for all these new Sacramento Valley residents to fill. Population growth was thus highly desirable if the region's visionaries were to achieve their goals. The whole point was to build a market large enough to sustain their civic pretensions.

But others had different visions of the region's future. The problem was in finding the appropriate arena in which to sort out competing ideas and to assemble a consensus for how to manage regional growth.

Government couldn't provide the answer. The public had long ago lost faith in the very institutions of government that could have been useful in addressing social and economic problems confronting the region. Sacramento, along with the rest of the nation, had been going through a political watershed. The two political parties that had dominated the country's politics since the mid-19th century had run out of energy and ideas. Rising in their place was a broad-based but aptly ill-defined libertarian movement in the middle of the political spectrum with a host of small, much more sharply defined ideological, life- style preference, linguistic, ethnic, animal rights, and religious parties on the edges.

Public sentiment had remained decidedly skeptical of the concept of big government, even though the reality of big government no longer existed. For the Sacramento Metroplex, the decades of deconstruction and devolution of political power had resulted in a fragmentation of the region's system of municipal government and a proliferation of semi-autonomous local units. For those who despised and distrusted hated government, this was the achievement of some Jeffersonian ideal. But for those who sought to shape a coherent regional response to the challenges facing the region as a whole, the result was a degree of bureaucratic inefficiency and confusion of authority that made mere anarchy seem preferable.

In other parts of the country, the pendulum was already beginning to swing back toward a greater centralization of political power as the public began to appreciate that the more local government became, the more venal, narrow-minded and corrupt it tended to get. But the Sacramento Metroplex was not quite ready to vest power in any building bigger than a town hall.

Not surprisingly, elected officials throughout the Metroplex were extremely reluctant to espouse regional solutions to the region's challenges, even though countless reports and studies had recommended just such a course. What these reports overlooked was that, even in an era of term-limits, politicians had a keen instinct for survival. No one was elected to represent the entire region. So no elected official would champion the interests of the region as a whole. Far from it, every political figure in the six-county region had a much narrower constituency to serve and satisfy. There was nothing to be gained politically in being a regional statesman. But there was much to lose. Not surprisingly, there was a dearth of regional leadership from elected officials.

Nature abhors a vacuum and where elected official fear to tread, private initiatives commonly crop up. And in the Sacramento Metroplex's case, any number of private groups and civic organizations had taken a stab over the years at the game of Sim-Valley. Why they failed to promote substantial solutions to the region's growing pains is worth examining.

Not the least of their shortcomings was the fact that most of these civic organizations seemed to have been sponsored by the Road To Hell Paving Company. In deed, most displayed a dismaying lack of respect for political and fiscal reality. This was not altogether surprising since most of the private sector organizations formed to scope out answers to the region's problems appeared to pretend that the political process was something they could safely ignore. Somehow, they believed, public policy could be made and implemented without involving most of the public. In the words of one observer, they felt they could "pull off the political equivalent of the virgin birth."

Many of these groups were not very representative of the region. While they may have brought together some of the area's best minds and brightest talents, they frequently left out others who had something to say about the community's future. In several instances, these groups were dominated by people who worked for public agencies or large corporations of the sort that paid people to attend meetings every other week for the sake of appearing to be responsible citizens of the community. Either that or they were started up by folks with lots of time on their hands and a few pet peeves on their minds. In many cases, the members of these organizations were altogether too economically comfortable and frankly too white to grasp what was really happening throughout the region.

Certain civic groups faltered because they relied too much on outside consultants who were primarily in the business of marketing some questionable theories about how other communities across the country had allegedly gotten their acts together. Some groups failed because they subjected their members to excruciatingly long exercises in consensus building only to produce some remarkably platitudinous bromides. Most groups failed to achieve anything concrete because they thought their mission complete when they held a press conference and issued a report.

Bench strength was also not a long suit for the private initiatives. The Sacramento area contained a disproportionate number of high-power business executives who saw Sacramento as merely a rung on their way up the corporate ladder. Their primary allegiance was to corporate headquarters which, more often than not, was far from River City. As a result, whatever interest in the community they expressed was often just pro forma. Ironically, those who were literally rooted in the region — area farmers and agribusiness executives — usually found themselves at the short-end of the economic development stick as the region's towns and cities routinely turned over valuable farm land to the needs of the growing industry, suburbanization and exurbanization.

Then there was the not so small matter of public-private friction.

To many business people and especially to entrepreneurs, public officials were a suspect class. Bureaucrats were seen typically as lazy, inefficient impediments to all that was good. Politicians were widely regarded as vain, self-serving creatures who were busy catering to narrow constituencies when they were not shaking the campaign donation tree. The political process itself was viewed as a gridlock of conflicting and probably irreconcilable interests.

But to those who had run the gauntlet of electoral campaigns, who had subjected themselves to the ritual humiliations of seeking public office and who had given up all rights to personal privacy, the self-appointed civic entrepreneurs seemed like dilettantes who were adept at forging strategies that seemed perfectly workable in theory but turned out to be perfectly unworkable politically or fiscally.

Public officials also doubted the commitment of their prospective private sector partners. Even if the class of elected officials was regularly cleansed by term limits, the civil servants who advised elected officials had long memories. They remembered how in the past business people who had aspired to be ‘corporate citizens' or ‘civic entrepreneurs' remained engaged only so long as the economy remained vibrant. Once economic slowdowns occurred, as they inevitably do, the company executives usually bailed out of the public-private partnerships. Far from being interested in working with government officials on long-term economic development strategies, they now devoted their energies to demands for tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, and to blaming their private woes on the same governmental institutions they had earlier sought out as partners in a great social endeavor.

In the end, they -- the sundry movers-and-shakers, change-agents, social catalysts, civic entrepreneurs or whatever passed for the region's self-anointed leadership -- seemed powerless to disprove John Kenneth Galbraith's discouraging maxim that Americans enjoy problem-solving more than they do solving problems. No one should have doubted that the development of a rational, regional strategy for managing growth would be an extraordinarily daunting challenge for a region which had failed miserably to deal with the greatest threat posed to life and commerce in the area — flooding. Oh yes, in the summer of 2020, that issue was still being debated.

Copyright (c) 1998 by J. A. O'Connell

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