Why is California a Leader on Air Quality Issues?

Have you ever wondered why California is a leader on air quality issues? Here’s a recap of California’s significant strides in improving air pollution over the last 74 years.

Summer of ‘43

Picture yourself in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943. That summer, the pollution was so dense that people couldn’t see beyond three blocks ahead. It was the middle of World War II, and many people weren’t sure what to make of the thick, stinging haze.

Some people thought it was a war-related chemical attack. Parents didn’t let their kids play outside, athletes didn’t train outdoors, and residents across the city didn’t hesitate to rush to the doctor with burning eyes, throbbing heads, and breathing troubles.

Two years later, in 1945, the City of Los Angeles formed the first air pollution control program—the Bureau of Smoke Control—and adopted regulations to reduce smog-forming emissions from factories. In 1947, state legislators passed a law allowing counties to create their own air pollution control districts.

Population Growth and Emissions

Until the early 1960s, most regulatory efforts focused on cutting pollution from large industrial sources like factories, landfills, incinerators, and boilers.

Meanwhile, between 1940 and 1960, the state’s population more than doubled—jumping from 7 million to 16 million—and the number of total registered vehicles nearly tripled, increasing from 2.8 million to 8 million.

Following the climb in the number of Californians—and the number of Californians driving cars—the state became the first in the country to enact automotive emission control technology requirements. Tailpipe emissions were limited and progressive fuel standards were put in place. Soon after, in 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan created the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

That same year, those actions—coupled with the severe air quality conditions affecting people up and down the state—prompted the federal government to grant a waiver allowing CARB to adopt its own emission standards for new cars.

The California Waiver has been a critical component toward achieving clean air goals for the state. By giving California the ability to set its own standards, this federal waiver has paved the way toward the state’s clean air goals—helping ensure that today’s cars run 99 percent cleaner than they did in the 1960s.

The District

In 1970, the legislature passed a law that gave local governments primary responsibility for controlling air pollution from all sources except cars. That same year, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors formed the Air Pollution Control District (the District).

In the 47 years since the District was formed, we have adopted rules to limit air pollution from stationary sources. Sources subject to our rules include open burning, gasoline storage and dispensing, oil and gas processing, automotive coating, and dry cleaning. Currently, we work with approximately 1,000 sources countywide.

Our adoption of local rules, together with state-spurred advancements in clean car technology, has meant improvements in our county’s air quality over time.

What Are the Results?

Santa Barbara County has seen smog-forming emissions decrease by nearly 50 percent between 1985 and 2015—with fewer and fewer days with high smog levels even as our population grew. In 1991, Santa Barbara County experienced 97 days of exceeding the state ozone standard. In 2016, that number was down to three.

Smog Alerts have gone from 148 in 1970 to zero in 2000, and levels of fine particles—responsible for the most air pollution-related deaths—cut to nearly half the levels seen in the 1980s.

These improvements in air quality have been recognized throughout the state.

So why is California a leader on air quality issues? Challenging environmental conditions have pushed the state to take action by working with industry and implementing progressive programs to protect public health. Building off California’s past successes of reducing smog-forming emissions is critical as we address the impacts of greenhouse gases in the future.