Water Matters: Sustainability

This Monday evening there were at least two winners … the Seahawks impressed and Sequim City Council heard all the good work staff is doing to improve resiliency and sustainability in city operations.

In preparing for the presentation I quickly learned that sustainability has been an intrinsic value for the community before the word became one of council’s “critical success factors” several years ago. Similarly, resiliency has been a way of life for city staff well before it became a buzzword for emergency preparedness.

I suspect small communities in especially unique and beautiful places have this in common: residents, business owners, and city staffs all recognize they must protect what they’ve got and avoid squandering resources.

In Sequim, staff is oriented to lean efficiency practices and trained to facilitate problem solving, and encouraged to volunteer ideas for improvement in any area. It’s a testament to staff values that suggestions for improvement are often related to sustainability.

City operations encourage water conservation through tiered pricing, apply building codes for energy efficiency, and bundle recycling fees with garbage rates to automatically allow residents and businesses to recycle.

Capital asset repairs are prioritized in a six-year capital improvement plan to minimize the need for full replacement.

All good. But with increasing risk associated with the slow-growing emergency of climate change, there is more to do.

Cities are the front line

Perhaps you’ve noticed an uptick in news headlines about climate change lately? They’ve become more frequent in the past five years, but in the past two months there has been a big jump, due likely to recent international and U.S. analyses on the grave economic impacts of climate change.

This is on top of news that global emissions rose again last year after three years of plateau. Nations in general are failing to meet even their preliminary emission-reduction goals.

A more positive theme concerns the role of cities as a source of innovation and leadership for curbing carbon pollution. With legislative powers and demanding constituents, cities are in the best position to take action quickly.

Indeed, there are about a dozen cities in the U.S. and several dozen more around the world pledging ambitious action to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius at the most (compared to pre-industrial levels). All such “C40” cities have adopted a target date for obtaining all their power from renewable sources before 2050. In fact, some cities are close already and many are aiming to peak by 2020 and be carbon-neutral by 2030.

To-do list

In the Pacific Northwest, transportation is the area most ripe for reducing emissions. A city can easily minimize travel by individuals to distant meetings by using electronic forums and de-carbonize its fleet over time.

“Smart Growth” strategies add to resilience while preparing for increasing development, which is important because climate refugees are another hazard to sustainability for the North Olympic Peninsula.

With our lack of hurricanes and perceived lack of water scarcity — and natural beauty — we’ll need to prepare to sustain more people.

Transportation examples of smart growth policies include idle-free areas (medical and school zones are good examples), compact development aligned with transit and walking/bicycling routes, and commercial development without suburban mall-type parking space requirements — to make alternative transport more attractive than finding a parking place.

De-carbonizing the power grid is probably the most controversial stepping stone for cities and counties to approach emission-free status. While power in our region from hydroelectric dams is clean relative to coal-burning states, the dam reservoirs emit greenhouse gases and our energy provider’s supply chain does include some fossil fuel sources.

Switching to 100 percent renewable energy may never be realistic, but improving the ratio should be a constant goal.

Regarding individual action by residents, visitors, and staff members, a city can promote or incentivize a long list of activities that will reduce its carbon footprint: conserving energy, buying green power or installing it, reduce/ reuse/recycle waste, composting, walking and bicycling, switching to a hybrid or electric vehicles (EV), community vegetable gardens, reusable shopping bags, purchasing to minimize plastics (particularly disposable water bottles), planting trees, shopping local, raingardens for stormwater, volunteering for litter and park clean up, picking up dog poo and many others.

In the long run — and sometimes in the short run, too — sustainability actions benefit the economy as well as public health. It is not necessary to trade a stable budget for health and resiliency. And there is no need to pay high consulting fees for someone from far away to explain what we need to do. What it takes is leadership.

Worldwide, cities have flexible control and the ability to make a huge difference.

Forget ballot initiatives. Don’t hold your breath for federal action. Work with your favorite city.

Geek moment

Despite the extreme cold last week, the snowpack is starting out slow this water year. The long-term average snow water equivalent is about 2 inches for mid-December, but all snow accumulating at 4,000 feet so far has melted.

For the 2019 Water Year (started Oct. 1):

• At the Sequim 2E weather station (Schmuck Road): Total rainfall = 4.6 inches; Highest temp. = 65 deg. F on Oct. 13; Lowest temp = 23 deg. F on Dec. 7.

• At the SNOTEL station in the upper Dungeness watershed (elev. 4,010): Cumulative precipitation = 10.4 inches (80 percent of long-term average). Number of days temp stayed below freezing = 0.

• At the USGS gage on the Dungeness River (Mile 11.2): Max. flow = 1,870 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Nov. 27; Min. flow = 77 cfs on Oct. 24-25. Currently (Dec. 10): 217 cfs.

• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park: Flow = 0 cfs; Bell Creek at the mouth at Washington Harbor = flow generally 1-2 cfs in winter unless it’s storming.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Soule at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.

Water Matters: Sustainability