Zimmerman: Our underappreciated open spaces
Coyote Valley is pictured in this file photo.

    “Disruption of nature and natural systems by humans is a major part of the climate crisis. But nature is part of the solution.”

    This is what Andrea Mackenzie, the general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, told me in an interview earlier this year. The authority has four public open spaces offering visitors a place to hike, mountain bike, attend educational programs and more. Over 600,000 people visited one of these open spaces in the last year.

    Open spaces are far more than just places for recreation. They are one of the most affordable and effective ways to combat climate change. Open spaces are important locations for carbon sequestration and each acre absorbs about one ton of carbon per year on average.

    The vital importance of open and undeveloped lands has been recognized by Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators. Natural landscapes were specifically included in the $100 billion California Comeback Plan. Newsom also signed an executive order in 2020 mandating that 30% of land and coastal waters in the state be protected by 2030. The Open Space Authority’s 2014 Healthy Lands, Healthy Economies Report found that the value of nature’s service to the local economy is between $1.9 and $3.6 billion dollars annually.

    Coyote Valley embodies the importance of open space in Santa Clara County. On a map, it may appear as little more than a strip of agricultural and open land situated southeast of San Jose. In reality, it is the only remaining undeveloped valley floor in the South Bay and the best remaining natural pathway for wildlife moving between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo range. It is composed of 7,500 acres, 1,400 of which are now protected, and forms an essential corridor for animals such as bobcats, grey foxes, coyotes and several rare species of reptiles and amphibians.

    Last year, a collaboration between the Open Space Authority and the Peninsula Open Space Trust, with the support of the California State Coastal Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Board, purchased 235 acres in North Coyote Valley that was earmarked for industrial development. This was the last part of the larger purchase of 937 acres by the Open Space Authority, the Peninsula Open Space Trust and San Jose in November 2019 which “marked a significant milestone in protecting wildlife habitat, conserving open space and building a more climate resilient community.”

    A space for mitigation

    Preservation of open space benefits people as well as wildlife. Coyote Valley overlays a portion of the aquifer that provides drinking water for 1.8 million people. Overuse of this resource in the past has caused the valley floor to sink by as much as 15 feet. This sinkage—known as subsidence—was seen in Santa Clara Valley as early as the 1930s. In addition to its positive climate and conservation impacts, preserving Coyote Valley creates the opportunity for scarce rainfall to replenish the depleted groundwater resources which benefit people and ecosystems dependent on that water.

    Subsidence, development within floodplains and now climate change have made flooding even more likely in the region and  forced the construction of levees and flood mitigation measures such as those along the lower Guadalupe River channel. The remaining undeveloped flood plains in the Coyote Valley help absorb and slow stormwater flows, acting like a giant sponge to reduce flooding impacts downstream as well as the risk of another disaster such as the Coyote Creek flood in San Jose in 2017. This flood caused an estimated $100 million in damages and forced the evacuation of 14,000 people.

    To learn more about the launch of the Coyote Valley Conservation Areas Master Plan, check out the Open Space Authority website to get involved in the development process and have a say in the future of these open spaces.

    A space for inclusion

    The map of protected lands in Santa Clara County is an intricate patchwork of connected open spaces and recreation areas, as well as city, state and county parts. Multiple organizations have worked together to acquire and protect these spaces from development. Because of their ad hoc distribution, not everyone is fortunate to have free and easy access to open spaces. So now local open space authorities have turned their eyes to equity and environmental justice.

    The Open Space Authority has conducted several assessments on the needs of the communities under its jurisdiction—a diverse group of about 1.4 million people. Assessments identified the communities with the highest environmental burden and the most barriers to accessing the outdoors.

    To help address these barriers and inequities, the authority established an Urban Grant Program. This program places power back in the hands of the community and can fund projects to increase access to nature preserves and parks, support environmental education and help establish access to local food through urban agriculture. Mackenzie with the Open Space Authority noted that the program considers everything from planting trees in areas of the city that are lacking shade to starting community gardens.

    We are lucky in the Bay Area to have so many individuals dedicated to preserving open spaces, supporting environmental justice and living by Scottish conservation planner Patrick Geddes’ adage to “think globally, act locally.”

    San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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