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What California Cities Are Doing for the Environment

California is often looked to as the bellwether state, leading the way in innovation and creativity in technology and public policy.This is particularly true when it comes to environmental issues, such as energy conservation, recycling and waste reduction. California cities are at the forefront of the state’s efforts to implement new technologies, improve existing ones and address important environmental policy issues — often well before the rest of the country recognizes the issues as important.

Cities throughout the state are demonstrating that growth can be balanced with steps to preserve open space, save energy and water, improve the quality of life for residents and conserve natural resources. An important part of the League’s policies include Principles for Smart Growth that provide guidelines for doing just that. And at its 2005 annual conference, League members voted to distribute the Ahwahnee Water Principles for Resource Efficient Communities to every city in the state, encouraging them to consider adopting the principles as policy.
California’s local governments are involved in numerous efforts to ensure that their communities are healthy in terms of cleaner air, water and surroundings. The following are just a few examples of such projects.
Energy Efficiency
Producing Electricity From Steam. The City of Santa Rosa recycles stormwater runoff and water from other sources. The recycled water is piped to the Geysers, a commercial geothermal field where electricity is made directly from steam. The naturally heated steam drives turbines in nearby electrical power plants, producing an environmentally friendly, reliable and renewable source of energy.
Fostering Energy Efficiency. The 15 member cities of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments in Southern California launched a program in 1991 to help businesses and residents cope with rising energy prices by providing coupons for purchasing energy-efficient products. Five years later, the program has expanded to include public agencies and offers a joint procurement program for energy-efficient items, as well as an Energy Resource Center (for more information, visit www.sbesc.com).
Building “Green.” The City of San Jose constructed its West Valley Branch Library as a model of “green” building design, using 30 percent less energy and 50 percent less irrigation water than standard buildings. It also incorporates natural daylight and a variety of chemical-free fabrics and materials to improve indoor air quality. At least 25 percent of the construction materials were made from recycled products.
Water Quality
Cleaning Up Beaches and Reducing Pollutants From Urban Runoff.The City of San Diego launched a public education campaign called “Think Blue” to raise awareness of urban runoff as a major cause of beach, bay and recreational water pollution and change people’s polluting behaviors. The campaign focused on positive behavioral messages and introduced new concepts of environmental stewardship. Over a two-year period, the campaign reduced beach closures by nearly 50 percent and became a national model for education outreach.
Mitigating Pollution and Creating Recreational Space. The cities of Fresno and Clovis operate an urban storm drainage system that comprises approximately 160 small urban watersheds of about one square mile each. Each watershed has a basin to collect runoff and acts as an effective pollutant trap. Studies show that a typical ponding basin removes between 50 and 83 percent of 15 commonly occurring stormwater pollutants. Much of the water is returned to the local groundwater aquifer. Some of the basins serve a secondary use as parks and recreational facilities used for soccer, baseball, dog runs, green space and wildlife viewing.
Smart Growth
Transforming Blight and Brownfields. Over a 10-year period, the City of Emeryville transformed 385 acres of brownfields into clean, attractive developments with 2,134 housing units. The effort brought 8,400 jobs into the city and created more than 4 million square feet of retail and office space.
Utilizing Space in Neighborhoods for Housing. The City of Santa Cruz created an Accessory Dwelling Unit program to encourage using available space on single-family lots to build “granny flats.” By using creative zoning incentives, providing pre-approved design prototypes and making financing available, the city accommodates new low-income rental housing close to public transportation and preserves existing neighborhoods.
Preserving Open Space While Providing Affordable Housing. The City of Novato redeveloped the decommissioned Hamilton Air Force Base by leveraging about $500 million in private investment. In addition to building 775 below-market rate homes for low- and moderate-income families, the project retrofitted military facilities to meet community needs, such as senior housing and an arts center. Families can walk or bike to nearby shopping and enjoy parklands and permanent open space.
Clean Air
Using Alternative Fuel Vehicles to Improve Air Quality. The City of Vacaville has provided incentives to residents for several years to lease or purchase electric and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, which decrease emissions. The CNG vehicles are the “greenest” rated vehicles and get 28-39 miles per gallon; CNG costs less than $2 per gallon. The program serves individuals living or working in Vacaville, Dixon and Rio Vista. In addition, the city uses 20 alternative fuel vehicles in its fleet.
Leading the Way
As these examples illustrate, California cities are engaged in numerous activities that benefit the environment and residents as well. Cities have been leaders in promoting energy conservation. During the energy crisis of 2001, municipalities throughout the state responded by reducing energy consumption in city facilities and implementing innovative ways to decrease the load on regional electrical grids and avoid rotating blackouts. Cities responded in unprecedented numbers to keep the power on. They also converted electric traffic signals to light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which reduce traffic signal energy consumption by 90 percent, and cut back nonessential services such as sports field lighting. Many of these measures continued after the crisis ended, producing ongoing savings.
Today, many cities are developing partnerships with environmental groups, citizen groups, the private sector and community- based organizations to promote energy conservation, “green” buildings, recycling and more. With the help and leadership of California cities, in 2004 (the most recent year for which data are available), California reached the statewide recycling rate of 48 percent. And cities are flocking to League workshops to learn more about “green” buildings.
California’s cities are embracing numerous ways to conserve resources, promote sound environmental policy and, at the same time, get the most bang for the tax- payer’s buck. By taking these steps, we are enhancing the quality of life for our residents and — perhaps most important of all — preserving our valuable natural resources and environment for our children and future generations.