California's Central Valley, which has fed generations of Americans for nearly 100 years, is itself experiencing an economic famine. Unemployment and poverty rates are nearly twice the national average in certain areas, forcing residents and families to grapple with long-term unemployment, low wages and declining opportunity.

Fortunately, our Central Valley has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Beneath our land, there is a tremendous amount of oil and natural gas estimated to be worth more than $300 billion. The Monterey Shale formation contains about two-thirds of the United States' total estimated oil reserves, roughly 15.4 billion barrels.

This 1,750 square mile formation has far-reaching implications. A recent study done by the University of Southern California predicts that more than two million jobs would be created by its exploration and the Valley would reap a huge financial windfall. As a result, good-paying jobs would flood the region as there would be a need for oil field workers, welders, pipe fitters, carpenters and truck drivers, site supervisors, engineers and so forth.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process oil and gas companies use to fracture rock formations deep in the earth to extract shale oil or natural gas. Fracking wells are drilled to reach a targeted rock formation. Pumps inject large quantities of fluid, typically a mixture of approximately 90 percent water plus smaller amounts of chemicals and sand, to fracture the rock. Gases and oils released during the process are forced into the wells and flow up to storage tanks. This practice is not new to the Central Valley; it has been taking place in California oil wells since the 1950s. Recently, concerns have been raised about the risks of fracking, including the contamination of groundwater from injecting chemical-laden fluids into the well, competition for a freshwater supply in a region that needs every drop, and proper disposal of the wastewater.

But already, solutions are being explored. At the legislative level, bills are being considered to set standards for how California regulates drilling and what information drillers would be required to make public. The Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources is developing its own regulations. And, at the local level, Kern County is conducting its first-ever environmental report to study implications associated with oil production.

The oil and gas industry is also looking into high-tech water recycling systems which would require less fresh water for the process.

With proper oversight, guidelines and environmental regulation, fracking can bring needed investment into our region and with it bring high-paying jobs for our families.

In addition to lowering the Central Valley's high unemployment rate, developing another major industry would add diversity to our economy. Our farmers do a tremendous and admirable job feeding the world and keeping residents employed and laws must be in place to protect their land, access to clean water and their livelihoods. Protecting agriculture and developing our significant gas and oil resources is the path to a bright and rich future, one that has high levels of employment, and grows the middle class to live the American Dream.

Leticia Perez of Bakersfield, a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, is the Democratic candidate for state Senator in the 16th District.