For many moons, the City of Santa Barbara appeared to rest on its environmental laurels-conspicuously coasting on a history of considerable accomplishment. But in the past two years, that’s all changed. From top to bottom, people at City Hall appear to have gotten green religion, and to the extent they’re singing from the same page, it had better be on recycled paper.
While City Hall often exaggerates the extent to which it’s on the cutting edge of eco-friendly practices, no other governmental entity within the county lines comes remotely close to it. It starts at the top. Mayor Marty Blum has been a cheerleader for all things green and sustainable during her tenure, and has squandered few opportunities to speak about global warming. In this matter, Blum has hardly been a lone wolf howling at the darkness; she’s been enthusiastically joined by her fellow councilmembers and many city administrators who have tried to make the city’s bureaucracy as green as practically possible.
In many instances, study precedes real action. For example, City Hall is now putting the finishing touches on an exhaustive survey of greenhouse emissions produced by its buildings and vehicles. This sets a baseline upon which the success of environmental reforms can be measured. Hardly sexy, but essential. Last year, City Hall reduced its electricity demand by seven percent; in the coming years, it hopes to do even better by increasing its reliance on solar power and other alternative fuel sources. Already City Hall is generating electricity by tapping into the methane at the wastewater treatment plant. On the drawing board is a plan to plug into the hydroelectric potential of water flowing into the city’s Lauro Reservoir. The city’s efforts to install photovoltaic cells on rooftops have yet to bear fruit, due more to cost considerations than design issues. As a result, the solar project approved for the Cacique Street fire station in 2005 has yet to be built. But high costs of installing solar panels notwithstanding, City Hall has approved a far more ambitious solar project-this one on top of the Public Works Department building at 630 Garden Street.
With energy efficiency in mind, City Hall is also paying special attention to the design of new structures and remodels. Rather than discourage large energy-profligate structures with a “stupid tax”-which the City of Aspen imposes and uses to subsidize solar energy projects-City Hall is considering a plan to expedite the review process for developers and architects building in accordance with green principles.
With its trucks and big rigs, City Hall has already made the shift to biodiesel, and is gradually replacing its fleet of cars with hybrids. To reduce employees driving while on the job, City Hall purchased road-worthy bicycles for making short-distance trips. To help meet next year’s goal-65 percent-City Hall contributed a significant chunk of change to the Metropolitan Transit District to help increase the frequency of certain bus lines in an effort to encourage more riders. That’s on top of the $1.4 million City Hall already contributes to the electric-powered cross-town shuttle, designed to keep downtown workers out of their cars and tourists closer to shops and restaurants.
In terms of water conservation, City Hall has long been considered a pioneer throughout the state when conservation programs emerged during the drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Given predictions of even longer and more intense droughts due to climate change, such programs will attract renewed interest. Already, some councilmembers are pushing for stricter conditions requiring that new developments rely on reclaimed water to keep their toilets flushing.
Many of City Hall’s initiatives come in response to citizen uproar. That’s certainly true of the $2 million spent annually to protect creeks from effluent and the streets from oils. While that money was extracted from unknowing tourists through higher bed taxes, everyone ticketed by the city’s street sweeping program has helped make this happen.
Two years ago, the city unveiled a plan to eliminate pesticides from parks to the maximum extent feasible. This, too, was prompted by sustained pressure from anti-pesticide activists. The plan got off to a good start in its first year, but last year’s heavy rains-and the resulting insects and weeds-dealt the program a setback. While small amounts of extremely toxic chemicals were used, larger than usual quantities of less toxic materials were deployed.
For years, Santa Barbara led the nation with innovative recycling programs that subsequently lost direction and vitality. To the extent that Santa Barbara is meeting statewide recycling requirements, it’s thanks to the efforts of MarBorg’s private initiatives. In the past two years, however, that’s begun to change. The City Council took its first steps toward constructing a plant at the landfill that can convert much of the waste into fuel. Likewise, City Hall is initiating an exceedingly modest pilot project to recycle the food scraps of Cottage Hospital. According to the city’s own estimates, food scraps make up fully one-fifth of the waste stream going to the Tajiguas Landfill. City trash planners have gotten distracted by contract compliance issues with one of their trash haulers and have fallen behind on such basic programs as commercial recycling-for which no mandates now exist-and recycling services at apartment complexes. Because the city fell behind on these recycling ventures, Councilmember Brian Barnwell charged that City Hall sent enough recyclable material to the Tajiguas Landfill to fill three city halls.