Q&A – Alberto Ayala, Sacramento Air Quality Director

With California bracing for what could be a record-breaking wildfire season this summer, air quality is one of the most pressing issues facing our region right now. Alberto Ayala spent over 15 years at the California Air Resources Board before becoming the executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District in 2017. The UC Davis alum discusses the growing threat of wildfire smoke, the urgent need to move away from fossil fuel engines, the “scary” results from a new study about the impact of air pollution on our brain health, and why we need to rethink transportation as we plan for a better post-pandemic world.

Can you tell us a little bit about the air quality district and what its primary mission is?

In the simplest of terms, we are the regional agency with responsibility for achieving the national ambient air quality standards. We are also driving the decarbonization agenda in the region that the state has championed for many years. We are all about clean air and low carbon development. And as a government entity, we play a role with rules and regulations, but perhaps more importantly, we provide subsidies and incentives to clean up our sources of emissions. So it’s balancing the carrot-and-stick approach that is so intertwined in effectively implementing public policies.

The last couple of years have been a very unusual time in terms of pollution due to the pandemic, with many people working from home. How have changing traffic patterns affected air quality here in the Sacramento region?

We saw a marked decline in air pollution [especially at the beginning of the pandemic], which we attribute largely to the fact that we all stopped driving as much. I’ll give you a statistic. We conducted a study working with some partners, and we addressed very explicitly what the air quality benefit from the lockdown due to the pandemic was. In April of 2020, at the height of the lockdown, we saw a reduction in our region of 70% in VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled], which is just amazing. We saw an improvement in air quality on the order of 15% to 25%. People were saying, “My gosh, the sky is so blue, the air is so clean.”

So the challenge we have now is: How do we retain some of those benefits and yet go back to quote-unquote “normal,” but don’t do it in a way that takes us back to the pre-pandemic problems of high congestion and lots of air pollution? The transportation sector, in general, is still heavily dominated by the internal combustion engine. And that’s the biggest headache we have with pollution.

In fact, despite the improvement in air quality during the pandemic, the Sacramento region has among the worst air quality in the country, according to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report, which came out in April. [We ranked the seventh worst in the nation for daily particle pollution, 11th for annual particle pollution and ninth for ozone pollution.]

In Sacramento, like most urban regions, the most chronically difficult pollution problem is ozone pollution, not so much particle pollution, but clearly wildfires are changing that.

Particle pollution is the smoke that you see from something like a wildfire, or the soot that comes out of a diesel truck. That black smoke is essentially a collection of these particles that come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Ozone pollution, in contrast, is the result of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic emissions often from the combustion of fossil fuels—fuel that burns in an internal combustion engine like in a gasoline car. In the presence of sunlight, they basically cook up in the atmosphere, and then they lead to ozone, also known as smog. So the difference is here we’re talking about gases, not particles.

The fact that the American Lung Association report gave our region an F [for both ozone pollution and particle pollution], we think is only half of the story. We understand that particle pollution has an impact and we don’t want our lungs to have to experience that, but at the same time, it’s not like we ourselves can do anything to control [the wildfire pollution], unfortunately. In terms of ozone pollution, which is historically our biggest issue, we actually improved in this last report. We used to be ranked fifth [worst] in terms of ozone pollution. Now we’re down to ninth. So we’re making baby-steps progress.

Unfortunately, we also have a geographic disadvantage because the Sacramento Valley is essentially a giant bowl surrounded by mountains.

Absolutely. If you wanted to design a region that creates pollution, we’ve got it because we’re in a valley where the pollution gets trapped. And then on top of that, obviously summers are hot, and they’re going to get hotter because of climate change. And all of those are the perfect recipe for making a lot of pollution in our air. And then add the fact that wildfires are now a reality that we have to contend with year-round, then it adds to the problem. And it’s a complex issue because we normally think of wildfires as generating a lot of particle pollution, which is the case, but science is now telling us that a wildfire can impact our ozone problem as well.

Obviously wildfires have always been around, but what we have seen now is they are growing into these massive events, so massive that they can create their own micro-climates. Within that context, it’s essentially changing the conditions under which ozone forms. I think we need more research, but it is making it worse—you actually see an increase in ozone downwind of these fires. And climate change is making them more frequent and more extreme, and honestly, there’s no end in sight because we’re not mitigating carbon at the rate that we should. So it’s just a bad story all around.

You co-authored a study last year about the health impacts of particle pollution on the brain. What are some of the specific health risks that Sacramentans are facing as a result of the increase in wildfires and fossil fuel emissions?

In simple terms, it’s kind of scary. Basically we found that some of the neurological impacts that you see in the brain [as a result of particle pollution] are similar to those typically attributed to old age and Alzheimer’s. When we talk about particle pollution, it’s not a single entity—what it means is a whole host of different types of particles. Some of the particles—specifically what we call the ultra-fine particles—that [result] from any combustion event, whether it’s a wildfire burning a lot of natural resources or an internal combustion engine burning gasoline, are so tiny that they behave more like gases, not particles. So they can actually translocate and enter the human body, and we find them in the brain, we find them in the heart, the muscle tissues, the lungs and other areas, and even in the babies of pregnant women. We’re just beginning to understand the health impacts.

What are some potential solutions? We know there are certain things we can’t control, like our geographical disadvantage, but there are also certain things that we can control.

You’re right. We have to stay optimistic. And there’s a lot that we can do. There’s a whole host of solutions that are known today that we should already be implementing. We understand that the biggest source of air and climate pollution for us, as a region, as a state, as a country, is the transportation sector. So we need to electrify the transportation sector ASAP in every application that we can, and then to use renewable energy to supply those batteries and fuel cells that are going to be driving our electric vehicles.

We need to electrify the built environment. What I mean by that is that like [vehicles], buildings also require energy. We need to electrify our residences and buildings—[one example is] by replacing gas appliances with electronic ones in our homes—so that we can begin to transition to a zero-carbon future.

In the area of climate adaptation, I think we also need to ramp up efforts. So we need to start thinking of how we as humans begin to adapt to our changing climate. For one thing, let me touch on wildfires. How do we make sure that everybody has a place with good filtration, even in the event that your residence is impacted by wildfire smoke? Maybe we start promoting the use of portable air purifiers so that you can create a clean room environment within your residence. On the broader area of climate adaptation, we know that the biggest issue facing a region like Sacramento is the urban heat island effect, so we’ve got to increase our urban tree canopy. We don’t have enough trees, especially in some of our most marginalized communities.

We’ve also got to start promoting cool roofs, where instead of a regular roof, for example, there might be a garden on top of a roof; and cool pavements, which have surfaces that are not as dark so they don’t absorb as much solar energy when they get hit with sunlight, and other strategies that are really going to mitigate this additional heating that comes from the urban core. And those things are going to require economic support funding, but also the political will to start to do some of these things.

Speaking of political will, back in January, you retweeted a story about how nearly 2 million children have developed asthma due to automotive exhaust, and you commented, “Complete electrification of transportation using renewables can’t happen soon enough! We know how. We just lack the political will.” When you talk about political will in Sacramento, do you mean our city council and the county supervisors?

I mean it generally. Air quality management in the U.S., and specifically in California, is a shared responsibility. There’s a federal role, a state role, and then a local role through air agencies like my air district. So I think we need the political will at all levels. I mean, California adopted the first requirements for electric vehicles [EVs] back in 1990. And look at how long it’s taken to reach 1 million EVs. It took 32 years. And at the local level, you have climate action plans, but they’re not the most aggressive or the most progressive. We have some jurisdictions [in the region] that don’t even have climate action plans.

I think the city of Sacramento, by relative comparison, is doing great and yet we’re still far behind where we need to be. The county is making movement toward a better climate action plan, but again, it’s still going to fall short of where we need to be.

I wrote an essay five years ago, in which I pointed out that of the 40 biggest cities in the country, Sacramento and Las Vegas were the only two without any protected bike lanes and with no imminent plans to build them, whereas cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago were racing to build hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes. And now five years later, we’re not much better off. And for reasons I don’t completely understand, the city just has not made that a priority when clearly, active transportation like biking and walking is going to be one of the ways that we move toward cleaner air.

That is absolutely true that active transportation is the thing that we need to promote first. [In 2018], the city of Sacramento joined efforts with the city of West Sacramento to form the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change. I represented my agency, and we [participated] with a number of regional agencies. And one of the outcomes of that was, “Let’s promote active transportation.” We should be doing more to plan our communities and cities around people, not around the [gas-powered] vehicle. Protected bike lanes is absolutely at the top of the list, and we are also struggling to bring back the great electric bike-sharing system we had [pre-pandemic] with Jump bikes. But again, where is the investment in transit? And how are we helping our public transit be the innovative transit of the future where you actually meet the needs of transportation for people?

Well, Henry Li, the head of Sacramento Regional Transit [SacRT], has been doing a lot of innovative things, but of course, he needs more support. He wants to build Bus Rapid Transit lanes [BRTs— dedicated bus lanes to make bus rides much faster and thus more attractive to riders]. Other cities around the country have them, but we don’t yet.

We don’t. So my agency, SacRT, SMUD and SACOG [Sacramento Area Council of Governments] are working together to develop an integrated regional strategy, and we’re trying to help Henry because he’s right. But a lot of us don’t have the necessary funding that would be needed to actually move the region forward, and transit is the perfect example. We are going to try to support BRTs. And we have helped Henry with some of his on-demand micro-transit shuttles [small buses that you can summon on an app, much like Uber] that have gone electric, and we want to do more.

READ MORE: Getting Back on Track: A profile of Sacramento Regional Transit’s Henry Li

What do you suggest that people do? I think a lot of people feel helpless, like they don’t have a voice.

People do feel helpless. But we have a political process where to be heard, you have to show up, right? To be heard, you have to reach out. Our board is a collection of 14 elected officials, and they all have online sessions where the community can reach out, and they’re starting to go out to the actual community again to meet face to face. But honestly, I think the thing that harms the political process—a lack of voter participation—is the same thing that harms our ability to make progress. You have to show up, you have to raise your hand, you have to advocate for the things that matter to you.

As you know, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other civic leaders are trying to get people to return to working downtown. They want to bring downtown back to life and help the small businesses that have obviously struggled. Yet, as you mentioned, the decrease in traffic due to the pandemic and working from home has dramatically improved air quality. So where do you stand in terms of people going back to the daily commute?

It’s a dilemma, to say the least. And you know, part of the reason we conducted the study [about air quality during lockdown] is because we do want to inform the policy discussion about what to do when we go back to quote-unquote “normal.” We understand that we need to support local development, we understand that Sacramento had a really good thing going [pre-pandemic], and we don’t want to lose it. But let’s be smart about it. So I think the future is going to be hybrid.

Take [my agency] as just an example of an employer in the region. We are telling our employees, for the one day or two days that you do have to be in the office in person right now, try not to rely on the vehicle like we did before. But honestly, I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to five days a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I think it’s always going to be some sort of hybrid.

And that’s why we want transit to be better. That’s why we want different mobility solutions. We’re trying to bring back bike-sharing, and you have a lot of scooter choices now and other solutions like micro-transit [shuttles]. We’ve got to do more of that so that we don’t completely lose what we know life should be like when it comes to air quality—bright blue sky and healthy air that everybody can breathe. And the way we prevent that is by not going to our old habit of one person and one combustion car.

You have a state that is leading the environmental movement in the world, and yet the state, by its workforce, is a big source of pollution in our area. So my hope is that we can provide the evidence that suggests this. If you’re really wanting to incentivize the state workers to come back, let’s incentivize the ones that are willing to use public transit and other means of mobility, and let’s disincentivize people who want to go to the old habits of getting in your car and driving around alone.

Can you talk about the correlation between the air quality and equity right now, and some of the challenges that disadvantaged communities are feeling in terms of air quality.

Environmental justice and equity are huge issues. In California, we now have the Community Air Protection Program that we’re trying to implement. And it’s meant to [help] communities that have been marginalized for many, many years. And as we peel the layers of the onion, we know that the reason that these marginalized communities are typically impacted worse by pollution is because these are the regions that tend to be next to a freeway, so you’re probably going to be on cheaper land and in cheaper houses. We have programs that are specifically intended to help our marginalized communities. We go into a community and say, “We want to help you with clean air projects,” and the community wants bus stops, they want sidewalks, they want trees, all of which haven’t historically been clean air projects, but now we know that everything is connected.

What are some things we can do to improve air quality in those areas?

The most fundamental thing is providing information on very hyperlocal air quality conditions. Information is power. So a lot of what we have been doing with the city of Sacramento is deploying portable air quality sensors to anybody in Sacramento who wants it. So you have a hyperlocal way to know what your air pollution situation is where you are. And obviously, this includes schools and businesses.

Then beyond that, one of the core programs we have is our permitting program where every business that is going to be a source of pollution needs to get a permit from us. We need the funding to make sure that we’re helping businesses adopt cleaner and cleaner technology all the way to zero-emission technology.

And where is the investment in the tree canopy in South Sacramento, so that someday soon South Sacramento can look like East Sacramento does today with those beautiful streets lined with trees, so that you can envision walking to places? Who wants to walk where you can go for miles and never see a tree? So there’s some low-hanging fruit that we should be thinking about. Typically, South Sacramento hasn’t been on the radar in terms of strong voices, but it is changing. We have elected officials who come from those communities, so I think we’re going to begin to see the change. It’s just not happening soon enough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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