Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Yana Garcia in August as the first Latina to serve as CalEPA secretary, replacing Jared Blumenfeld.
Garcia previously spent a year at the California attorney general’s office and about four years working on environmental justice, tribal affairs and border relations at CalEPA, rising to deputy secretary. She also litigated environmental cases as an attorney at the advocacy group Earthjustice for two years.
Agri-Pulse spoke with Garcia on environmental justice, industry partnerships and pesticide emissions. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CalEPA agencies like the Air Resources Board (CARB) and the State Water Resources Control Board often get media attention. How does the role of the CalEPA secretary fit in?
The role of my office at its core is to provide strategic direction to the various boards and departments. I think of my role in particular as providing the vision that is in line with the governor's administration and his goals, his vision for climate resilience and environmental protection.
People see the regulatory work of our boards and departments, which roll up the sleeves and get the rulemaking and the regulations done and implemented, handling a lot of the stakeholder engagement throughout those processes. It's our job to ensure they have the support they need to do that effectively and that they're doing it with an integrated and tethered north star to provide environmental justice, to sustain our economy and to build the resilience that we need to meet the future of California.
Describe your background in environmental justice and engaging the agriculture industry.
With the agricultural sector as a whole, there are two main topical areas that will continue to be shared priorities to find solutions to address as we move forward: the drought and an evolving climate—dealing with water supply and water quality and sustainable pest management.
I have come to these issues in my former role at CalEPA, from the vantage point of representing the needs of often disenfranchised, less influential, sometimes environmental justice stakeholders, who bear the brunt of multiple pollution burdens and socioeconomic burdens. As secretary, I retain that focus. I also understand that the role and job at hand is now broader than that—to work with business and industry interests to ensure that we have the holistic, creative, ambitious solutions that we're going to need. That cross-sectional partnership is critical to getting there.
In the [attorney general’s] office—through litigation and through stakeholder engagement—the nature of the job is a little different, coming from a law enforcement standpoint.
I've enjoyed and learned immensely from each one of my roles. Now I'm excited to use the multifaceted skill set to be able to come at some of these challenges that we're facing with different perspectives and minds.
One environmental justice issue gaining attention is pesticide emissions. Should CARB regulate those emissions in the Climate Scoping Plan?
From the vantage point of the secretary—both for me and for my predecessor Jared [Blumenfeld], who I worked with closely—we have to have a cross-disciplinary and intersectional approach that encompasses the work of the agency as a whole.
Dealing with multimedia issues—in this case issues concerning pesticide exposure from the regulatory frame of either [the Department of Pesticide Regulation] or CARB—is something that we consistently have to think about. We are always looking for ways that we can get to a solution at the cross section of the jurisdictions of our various boards and departments.
One of the things that environmental justice stakeholders have brought to our attention is that airborne toxics, including pesticides, have to be examined from a multimedia approach that looks at the differing authorities across our agency as a whole, not necessarily cleanly within one or the other.
In the Scoping Plan and in our climate agenda more broadly, natural and working lands are a critical part of our state strategy to achieve carbon neutrality and to reduce emissions. CARB is already looking at a variety of emissions that come from our natural and working lands. It is setting out the pathway through which we achieve our emission reduction goals in a way that account for reductions that will come from natural and working lands. That will inherently guide us through less-emitting practices, including a drive-down potentially on the use of chemical-based pesticide products.
We'll see in the Scoping Plan more of a focus on natural and working lands, because they are increasingly critical. Unfortunately, due to things like the prevalence of wildfires, natural and working lands can be causes of emissions. That has a lot to do with some of the practices we currently take for granted.
We're all in a position where we have to think differently about how we're going to achieve our emission reduction goals—including the more ambitious 85% below 1990 levels target that we have set for ourselves—in a way that that encompasses agricultural production and our lands throughout the state.
CalEPA is taking on several major climate and sustainability initiatives. Are you worried about meeting critical deadlines for these policies under a potential budget crunch from a looming recession?
The governor has been clear about his budgetary concerns for several months and has pointed to this administration's record-setting spending plan. We are looking at a recession on the horizon, but we have quite a bit of funding already making its way through existing programs and investments in grants.
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Some examples include the over $400 million to support agricultural water conservation practices. This includes support for drought response, for on-farm technical assistance, for direct relief to farm operators who have suffered the impacts from drought, and support for additional water conservation projects. That's something that many of our farmers and growers in the state of California are rightfully worried about.
In the context of the transition to more sustainable, less chemical-intensive farming practices, DPR has offered almost $4 million in grant opportunities. This is geared toward increasing the speed and scale at which safer and more sustainable pest management practices are adopted all across the state.
CalRecycle offers $1 million annually in grants for the cleanup of solid waste sites on farm or ranch properties. That's an important piece that often gets overlooked—how we're going to continue to steward and manage and work our lands in a way that is economically sustainable over time. We need to be able to address some of the cleanup needs.
What would you say to farmers facing steep compliance costs from CalEPA?
When it comes to the regulated community, effective partnerships are essential to achieving any of our increasingly ambitious goals. We can only foster meaningful partnerships through early and consistent communication.
I am committed to that communication, consistency, transparency and accountability. I invite business, industry, private sector representatives to work with us through our regulatory processes—and outside of our regulatory processes—to engage in our ability to see what so many in the private sector may be able to see ahead of us. And to develop the creative solutions we're going to need.
Our boards and departments meet regularly with stakeholders. We consistently solicit and consider their input on rulemaking efforts. Our mission at its core is to restore and protect and enhance the environment to ensure public health and economic vitality. We're always proceeding with those categories or considerations in mind.
DPR, for example, recently when it conducted our current rulemaking for 1,3-D, provides an example of what this type of consistent partnership and solution-driven work can look like. DPR conducted a pilot project to develop alternative and cost-effective application methods that would compare to exposure reductions achieved through the use of more expensive methodologies, specifically tarps.
As a practical matter, CDFA develops an economic analysis for all our rulemaking. We routinely consider that in our decision-making processes.
Any other thoughts?
CalEPA does provide—as the agency overseeing and coordinating two boards, three departments and one office and with quite a bit of regulatory work underway—strategic communications and partnerships.
That's one of the roles that sometimes gets overlooked in the focus on our regulatory and enforcement work, which is central to everything that we do. But the strategic communication and partnerships, given the multiple stressors and multiple crises that we're all facing, are things we're all going to need to work together on. We really need to think about the resilient future that works for all of us, whether that is communities bearing the brunt of pollution impacts, or the growers bearing the brunt of drought impacts and diminishing water supply, or the tech innovators looking to help us drive quicker solutions toward achieving our goals.
We all want to have a role to play not just in the development of the solution but also the narrative that helps us get there.
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