Can the entire San Joaquin Valley embrace the idea of regional planning – or at least agree on a common vision for how to accommodate future growth?

That's the question facing the architects of the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint Process, an ambitious effort to create some "big picture" strategies to deal with growth in the area. But the blueprint is only one of several regionwide efforts to grapple with growth of all kinds, including population growth, real estate development, and the Valley's economic base. Along with the state-sponsored California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, the Blueprint is really a test to see whether the disparate parts of this large and fragmented part of California can work together.

The Valley is a huge area – eight counties stretching from Stockton to Bakersfield. It is growing rapidly, with a current population of almost 4 million people expected to double in the near future. Though the whole region has been traditionally known for farming, it is increasingly divided into subregions with different interests. The three northern counties – San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced – increasingly tilt in their orientation toward the Bay Area. The four middle counties – Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and Kings – are still agricultural in nature but urban growth is rapid, often for no discernible reason. To the south, Kern County is still focused largely on oil but is also beginning to see suburbanization from Los Angeles.

Regional cooperation has always been difficult to accomplish. Few organizations or officeholders share a regional view of public policy, and parochial interests have generally prevailed. There are some exceptions. The agricultural lobby has worked together effectively for decades – witness the Central Valley Project water system – and more recently the counties worked through their councils of governments to get $1 billion in last year's state transportation bond for Highway 99. It was the only earmark in the $20 billion bond. The air district has also provided a regional approach, at least on one issue. Generally, however, policymakers in the Valley have tended to think on a countywide, rather than regionwide, level.

Over the past few years, "regional blueprint" efforts have been undertaken in California's four large metropolitan areas – the Bay Area, metropolitan Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento. Typically sponsored by the area's council of governments (COG), the blueprint begins with a consensus among regional elected officials on the "big picture" for accommodating future growth. (In all four cases, a high-density, "smart growth" scenario has been agreed upon.) Then the COG works with the local governments and other agencies to find ways to implement the regional vision using local powers – often with the COG's financial assistance.

In Sacramento, this idea has become so deeply embedded in the political culture of the region that just about any high-density or compact development project is now known as a "blueprint" project. In metropolitan Los Angeles, the much-maligned Southern California Association of Governments is throwing millions of dollars into assisting local governments implement smart growth strategies and projects that conform to the adopted SCAG "Compass" or "2%" vision (see CP&DR Insight, August 2006).

Even when these blueprints have involved multiple counties, however, they have been sponsored by a council of governments that covers the entire region. In the case of the San Joaquin Valley, each of the eight counties has its own COG. So the success of the blueprint project depends in large part on the willingness of the single-county COGs to work together – and on the ability of the air district, as well as state agencies that deal with the San Joaquin Valley, to implement the vision that emerges.

This is where the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley comes in. Created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by executive order in 2005, the Partnership is mostly an attempt to pull together the state's wide-ranging agencies – dealing with everything from transportation to wildlife to education to health – and coordinate their efforts in the Valley. The Partnership has provided most of the money required to do the blueprint (the air district has provided the rest), but the Partnership also has lots of other things going on besides the blueprint. (For example, the Partnership recently awarded $2.5 million in "seed grants" for a wide variety of projects in the Valley, ranging from $75,000 for tourism to $125,000 for "health enterprise zones.")

Meanwhile, the blueprint itself has been organized in typically decentralized fashion. It is being administered by the Merced County Council of Governments, but much of its work is being facilitated by the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based regional nonprofit. The work is overseen by the "Blueprint Regional Advisory Committee" – a group whose acronym, BRAC, is unfortunately the same as the federal government's base-closure committee.

It is this decentralization that makes the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint effort such a challenge. One of blueprint's major efforts, for example, is sponsoring a "blueprint" visioning effort in each individual county. Blueprint workshops are currently taking place in various parts of the Valley, sponsored by the individual COGs. These workshops are asking participants to provide their view of Valleywide issues, but inevitably most of the participants are focused on local issues.

So one of the challenges is to determine how to meld these countywide blueprint ideas into a regional vision for the whole Valley. Just as important, however, is the challenge of implementation.

Because there is a separate COG for each county, it will be difficult for the region as a whole to adopt a consistent vision from north to south. In other places where blueprint efforts have been undertaken – not only in California but in Oregon, Utah, and elsewhere – the regional effort has been supported by elected officials who are board members of a regional COG and often by regional civic groups as well. Envision Utah in Salt Lake City has had implementation "legs" partly because the nonprofit civic group established to promote it has continued to raise money and seek out demonstration projects throughout the Wasatch Front. In most of the California examples, the regional COG has played this role. With a weaker regional structure, the San Joaquin Valley may have a harder time in the implementation phase.

However, it is possible that state agencies will step in and fill that gap in the Valley, especially if the state-led Partnership effort can embrace whatever comes out of the blueprint process. For example, one pending bill – AB 1055 (Blakeslee) – would require the State Transportation Improvement Program (the STIP, or list of transportation projects of statewide importance) to coordinate with regional farmland and open space efforts. The clear goal here is to use Caltrans's environmental mitigation requirements to help implement a regional natural resources strategy, especially in the Central Valley.

The Valley blueprint effort highlights one of the biggest problems in planning today – not just in California but everywhere. Problems and solutions are regional, but the political power to deal with those problems lies in the state Capitol and at the local level. The blueprint effort suggests that the San Joaquin Valley is getting more serious about using both state and local power to accomplish regional goals. It remains to be seen, however, whether the policymakers themselves will be able to overcome the parochial impulse in city halls and county administration buildings up and down the San Joaquin Valley.