Members of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, from left, Nathan Magsig, Steve Brandau, Brian Pacheco and Buddy Mendes hold a news conference outside the Hall of Records in downtown Fresno on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Credit: Craig Kohlruss / The Fresno Bee

In a unanimous vote, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors rejected a project that would have helped public health officials understand the impact of climate change on vulnerable, rural communities in Fresno County.

The vote during Tuesday’s meeting, in effect, rejected a proposal to execute a $175,000 state grant which would have assessed how climate change impacts the health of the county’s vulnerable populations, particularly in the rural areas.

David Luchini, the director of public health for Fresno County, told the supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting, that the department applied for funding through the California Resilience Challenge 2021 Grant Program, and would have funded a project called Fresno Understands Environmental Resilience Through Equity, or FUERTE.

Luchini said the grant-funded study would help the department make informed decisions about what remedies or actions to take based on projections of increasing severity of heat projected over the next 20 years, effects of smoke coming from wildfires, and other severe weather changes.

Central Valley communities already experience health disparities based on race, income, neighborhood, language, immigration status, and other factors, and are particularly vulnerable to climate-related health threats.

Luchini said the study would be in anticipation of future funding coming down from the state to address climate impact.

“We haven’t done much work in this area,” said Luchini. “This is really a good first small step.”

But Fresno County supervisors disagreed.

Supervisor Steve Brandau said he didn’t think the project was useful, while Supervisor Nathan Magsig questioned whether the study and its cosponsors were aligned with what he called “the values of Fresno County,” namely the agriculture economy.

Community advocates say they are “disappointed” in the supervisors’ decision.

“What should be our priority is the public health of people, of communities,” said Veronica Garibay, co-director of Leadership Counsel, in an interview with The Bee on Friday. “I would ask whose values are we prioritizing when making decisions about how we respond to climate change?”

‘Agriculture is at the heart of what we do’

During Tuesday’s meeting, Brandau asked a number of questions about the nature of the study, such as, “who would write the questions” and what role local universities would have in managing the outcome of the studies.

Luchini said the goal was merely to “build up our knowledge” and understand what communities and issues should be prioritized when addressing health implications of climate change, and that no implementation work would be carried out with this funding.

Still, Brandau objected to the idea, saying that “universities will study anything.” He also said — without providing evidence —that some of the organizations proposed to participate in the studies “have sketchy résumés.”

The public health department would have also worked with UCSF Fresno, UC Merced, Fresno Madera Medical Society, Public Health Institute on putting together the questions, town halls and surveys.

The public health department’s grant application had also proposed comparing and contrasting study findings with those of another Fresno coalition that is working to advance climate resilience in the city of Fresno. The coalition is composed of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, Central California Environmental Justice Network, Healthy Fresno Air, Central Valley Health Policy Institute, and others.

Brandau said he didn’t think the project was worthwhile, and that “if people want a cooling center, they should just come before the Board and ask for one.”

“I don’t need to spend $175 grand on that,” he said.

Magsig asked whether the study would be aligned with the interests of agriculture.

“Agriculture is at the heart of what we do here in Fresno County,” Magsig said. “It’s the number one industry.” He asked Luchini if the partners on the study “support preserving and expanding agriculture,” and if they had a “history of fighting to protect our agricultural economy.”

Magsig said that one of his major concerns was about the fallow farmland that will result from the implementation of Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.

Luchini said that he had not heard that any of the proposed partners are “against ag,” and that no grant funding had been awarded to any potential partner organizations.

No other Board members commented, except for Supervisor Brian Pacheco who said that “if we can’t keep it (the assessment work) in-house, I won’t support it.”

Health leaders, advocates react to the decision

County and community leaders responded to Tuesday’s decision with a mix of disappointment and hope for future funding and collaboration.

In a statement to The Bee on Friday, Luchini said that the Board of Supervisors stated they’re “very supportive” of the department using internal resources to conduct studies that assess health impacts of extreme climate weather events. “We are also hopeful that additional funding for this type of study will come from both the state and federal governments in the near future,” he said.

Garibay, of Leadership Counsel, said that collaboration should be part of the County’s assessment plan.

“I think it would behoove the supervisors to want to work in collaboration with others who are doing work so as to not duplicate efforts,” said Garibay.

She said the county should “really develop a strong coordinate strategy, including an action plan, given that the impacts of climate change will only get worse.”

Fresnoland Documenter Rachel Youdelman contributed to this report.

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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