Spokane Journal of Business

The city of Spokane’s environmental report card

City’s operational improvements save water, reduce pollution

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The city of Spokane recently issued its environmental report card, which highlights an ongoing menu of eco-friendly efforts to support and encourage environmental sustainability through financially stable means, says Catherine Olsen, the city's environmental and sustainability manager. 

Citing certain accomplishments tracked since 2012, Olsen says the Spokane municipal operations have:

•Become energy positive, meaning the city generates more energy—primarily through the waste to energy plant—than it uses, even factoring in the fuel used for firetrucks, police cars, snowplows, and garbage trucks.

•Reduced garbage truck carbon dioxide emissions by 660 metric tons through its ongoing conversion to compressed natural gas-fueled trucks.

•Saved more than a billion gallons of water through the reduction of water-system leaks and losses.

•Added 50 miles of bike lanes and another three miles of multiuse trails.

The report card lists 10 subjects, nine of which are individually scored according to perceived progress.

While none of the progress scores have reached the ultimate goal of "completion" or languished with the lowest grade of "no-progress," the city gives itself high—or "good progress"—marks for building and managing sustainable, integrated infrastructure; clean air measures; net-zero landfill efforts; and environmentally friendly purchasing policies.

Integrated infrastructure: The "cleaner river faster" initiative is removing tens of millions of gallons of combined wastewater from the Spokane River for $150 million less than originally anticipated.

The initiative includes the $340 million combined-sewer overflow system, which is the largest infrastructure development ever undertaken by the city.

The CSO system is a network of underground tanks designed to hold millions of gallons of runoff temporarily during storm events to prevent stormwater from flooding the treatment system and flushing untreated wastewater into the Spokane River.

A good portion of the CSO network is being funded through the sale of green bonds.

Spokane was the first municipality in the state to finance such a development through the sale of green bonds, Olsen says, adding that in 2014, the $200 million financing was the largest green bond sale in the nation.

Some of the green bond funding is going toward an additional level of wastewater treatment at the city's Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility and for stormwater management facilities that will keep pollution out of the Spokane River in legacy industrial areas, she says.

Clean air efforts: The report card says the city has a track record of leveraging hydro and solid-waste power-generation assets and capacity in an innovative and integrated manner to create jobs and revenue.

Olsen adds, recycling goals are on track, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-required greenhouse gas reporting is on schedule, air quality standards are being met, new studies to optimize waste-stream reduction are underway, and the efficiency of the-city operated waste-to-energy plant continues to increase.

Zero waste initiative: The city is developing a net-zero landfill plan, which includes continued emphasis on recycling, composting, and green-waste collection, the report card says. The initiative also will include education and outreach programs and envisions marketing the plan to recruit environmentally focused businesses.

Purchasing policies: The city is achieving current goals with its policy that requires vehicle replacement programs to provide more energy-efficient vehicles, the report card says. The city also is reviewing and updating policies to incorporate state regulatory and policy developments.

The city scored "some progress" in regard to wise land stewardship, water conservation, energy security, gains in transportation efficiency and commute-trip reduction.

Water conservation: The city water resource business and marketing plan emphasizes conservation and stewardship, the report card says. System losses dropped to 11.7 percent in 2015 from nearly 20 percent in 2012, and are approaching the Washington state Department of Health standard of 10 percent.

Olsen says metering issues and behavior patterns continue to challenge outdoor goals.

"We might have five different irrigation systems in a park," she says. "They might be all on the same meter."

Likewise, in the private sector, a large commercial customer might have one meter for a whole operation, with no way to account for water usage by different sections of the operation.

"We don't always have metering to measure how we would like to," she says. "We didn't evolve as a city knowing we would want to account for every drop someday."

She says Washington's moniker of the Evergreen State doesn't fit the eastern side of the state as well as the West Side.

"We're part of the arid Intermountain West," she says. "We only get 17 inches of rain a year."

Wise land stewardship: The city has put $250 million of underused public land, assets, and right of way to work to drive economic growth, jobs, and income, all within the net-zero energy business plan, the report card says.

The plan promotes infill development, which it claims is the most efficient land use in terms of impact on resources, services, and infrastructure.

The city's comprehensive land-use plan update also is on schedule, the report card says, while also noting the Brownfield Redevelopment Program has been successful in securing grants, and citizens and businesses are embracing smart-growth principles.

Energy security: Several proactive steps have helped the city become net-energy positive starting in 2014, the report card says. The steps include maximizing hydro power generation, converting the city's garbage fleet to compressed natural gas, replacing traffic lights citywide with LED bulbs.

Future options being considered include evaluating and installing small-scale power technologies in city facilities and exploring renewable options such as solar and biogas for water pumping and waste treatment, the report card says.

Transportation: Centralizing the city's fleet service center has reduced city vehicle trips and increased operational efficiency, the report card says.

Looking ahead, they city hopes to gain greater commute trip reduction at its facilities though support for Spokane Transit Authority programs and alternate modes of transportation through planning and infrastructure.

Collaborative governance: The city's low—or "little progress"—mark on the report card is for collaborative governance.

The city, however, has begun efforts to develop a citizen-led climate collaborative and has more work to do to recruit public, community, and business partners to work together aggressively to implement the city's Sustainability Action Plan and compete the Joint Mayor-Council Strategic Plan, the report card says.

Olsen says the Mayor-Council plan was adopted late last year with a goal to create a more sustainable city that promotes smart use of water resources for economic growth and support for renewable energy resources.

Continuous improvement: The unscored subject, titled "continuous improvement," calls for ongoing monitoring and evaluation to incorporate best practices as they emerge and evolve.

Looking to the future, Olsen says the city plans to promote increased water conservation through incentives for drought-tolerant "Spokane-Scape" landscaping.

The city also is evaluating potential programs to market excess steam created at the waste-to energy facility, to implement smart technology controls to save energy on lighting, and to grow the "urban forest," she says.

Mike McLean
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Deputy Editor Mike McLean has worked his entire journalism career in the Inland Northwest. Mike, who also lives to reel in fish and crank up music, has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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