Ron Nirenberg (right) moderates a panel Terry Bellamy (left), Douglas Melnick (middle), and John Dugan (right). Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (right) moderates a panel with (from left) TCI Director Terry Bellamy, Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick, and Planning and Community Development Director John Dugan at the City's first Sustainability Forum in June 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Hundreds of people from across the city gathered at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Tuesday evening for the City of San Antonio’s first-ever Sustainability Forum.

Activities and presentations touched on just about every aspect of sustainability: environmental restoration and protection, energy and water conservation, future transportation possibilities and challenges, and cultural and economic sustainability. The atmosphere was informal, with events spread inside the convention center and the outdoor Grotto on the River Walk, with an SA Tomorrow panel attracting a standing-room only in the main room, and simultaneous, informal brain-storming sessions and creative exchanges happening in smaller venues.

Much of the presentation was video-recorded and will be available on the City’s website.

The free event was presented by the San Antonio Office of Sustainability, among other city departments, along with other participating local public agencies, businesses and organizations. By the time City Manager Sheryl Sculley took the stage to address the crowd, it was obvious the packed room was a success, leading her to invite everyone back next year for the second annual summit.

The Sustainability Summit gave engaged citizens the opportunity to meet and mingle with public officials who hold jobs that are key to determining future growth and sustainability policies, yet have less of a public profile than elected officials and most senior executives at the City, CPS Energy, SAWS and the San Antonio River Authority. One public organization not participating that should be included in 2016 is the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is key to formulating future air quality and transportation solutions and had staff members in the audience.

The inaugural event was organized by Boston-based firm Kim Lundgren Associates.

The forum included a “speed planning” area, where SA2020 interim President and CEO Molly Cox led participants through a series of tables where they offered quick ideas about sustainability. Representatives of event sponsors or partners manned each table.

“No idea is too big or small,” said Timothy Mulry, the City’s sustainable transportation manager. “These are things the city should be thinking about.”

Five people who work on major sustainability initiatives in the city presented 10-minute TED Talk-style presentations.

First up was Matthew Hobson, the assistant director for the City’s Solid Waste Management Department who oversees residential and commercial recycling programs and other waste reduction initiatives. He asked the audience to imagine life in the city without garbage pickup. That seemed far-fetched until he started showing slides of urban life amid uncollected garbage in cities as far away as Italy and as close to home as Oakland, Calif.

City of San Antonio environmental services manager Matthew Hobson gives a presentation. Photo by Scott Ball.
Environmental Manager for the City of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department Matthew Hobson gives a presentation. Photo by Scott Ball.

“In society, we’re waking up to the fact that we can’t keep simply bury our trash,” Hobson said. He added the City’s launch of a long-term recycling plan a few years ago has made recycling easy to do, and helped to decrease the amount of trash winding up in landfills. The separation of brush and bulk collections in 2011 has diverted more than 50,000 tons of such refuse from landfills. Also, the City last year gave residents the option of putting plastic shopping bags into their curbside recycling bin.

Hobson said more improvements are in story. With Council’s approval, October will be the start of an 18-month residential rollout of green carts for recycling organic material, such as tree trimmings and food scraps. This is an expansion of the city’s subscription-based organics collection service that began in 2013. Customers will also be given the option of three different sizes of all three different bins. Each has a different service fee: The smaller the bin, the smaller the fee. Hobson said some customers have told the city that with more use of their recycling bin comes lesser use of their garbage cart.

“Residents can see a difference if they choose to recycle they will benefit by having a  smaller garbage bill,” Hobson said. He added that sustainability works in many ways, and that innovation in recycling is just one.

Eric Cooper, who has served the San Antonio Food Bank for nearly 15 years first as executive director and now as president and CEO, talked about the community’s most basic needs: feeding the many families in need in the metro area and 16 counties in Southwest Texas. San Antonio is one of 25 food banks in the state and one of 210 nationwide. It covers a large geography and partners with more than 50 different agencies to distribute fresh food and groceries to seniors, families, and the homeless. When Cooper started in 2001, the Food Bank was delivering 14 tons of food a year. Last year it exceeded 62 tons, distributed among 58,000 people a week, and its 25 acre urban farm produced tons of fresh produce and fruit for distribution and for sale at farmer’s markets to fund other initiatives.

Cooper asked audience members to name the number one factor determining an individual’s health and wellness and how their nutritional needs were being met. That one stumped listeners.

“Zip code,” Cooper said.

“I think we were invited to the Sustainable Summit because we incorporate solar, wind energy, composting, and water catchment and recycling at our facilities, but I can’t touch on sustainability without commenting on social inequity and an environment where everyone thrives, a win-win,” Cooper said. “There are no losers in situations of real sustainability. And we know there is more we can do: diverting good food from the landfill, and instituting new policies so that any unused food at places like the Convention Center gets collected and distributed to people in need. That’s a sustainability strategy that helps the environment and the hungry. There is nothing more beautiful than feeding someone who is hungry.”

SA Tomorrow

John Dugan City of San Antonio planning and community development director talks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.
John Dugan, City of San Antonio’s planning and community development director, talks with former City Councilmember and longtime water management advocate Weir Labatt. Photo by Scott Ball.

In the evening’s best-attended event, John Dugan, the city’s planning and community development director, was joined by Douglas Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer; Terry Bellamy, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department; and Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) for a “fireside chat” panel. Melnick admitted the definition of sustainability is a work in progress.

“What is sustainability? Our goal is to work with the community to define what it means to you,” Melnick told a standing room-only crowd. “To me it means a thriving economy, a resilient community and a natural healthy environment.”

Melnick said a key element of sustainability is accounting for the current and next generation, and balancing their use of available natural resources and the city’s development.

Nirenberg reminded listeners that city planners expect San Antonio’s metro population to grow by one million people by 2040. With this influx of new residents comes more jobs and economic activity, but also increased traffic, and demand for housing, energy, water, and city services.

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That’s where the city comes into play with SA Tomorrow, a three-pronged, long-range planning effort, and SA2020, the vision upon which SA Tomorrow will be built.

“We want to make sure we all benefit from this growth,” said Nirenberg, one of three chairs of the SA Tomorrow steering committee.

City of San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick speaks with a guest. Photo by Scot Ball.
City of San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick speaks with organizer Kim Lundgren. Photo by Scot Ball.

Melnick said San Antonians are rapidly consuming various resources as one of the nation’s top 10 largest cities. He added, though, that a sustainability plan – one of three plans in the SA Tomorrow program – can help give all of San Antonio more choices in how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Moving members of a rising population from one place to another in a timely, efficient manner is critical, said Terry Bellamy, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department. He said only half of the city’s thoroughfare plan has been built, a statement that settled over the room like a surprise thunderstorm. Bellamy said the city’s building traffic count is consuming current road and highway capacity.

Fireside chat panel Terry Bellamy (left), Douglas Melnick (middle), and John Dugan (right). Photo by Scott Ball.
Fireside chat panel Terry Bellamy (left), Douglas Melnick (middle), and John Dugan (right). Photo by Scott Ball.

Bellamy said a sustainable city must embrace various transportation options, such as smaller, neighborhood-oriented public transit vehicles and connected vehicles. All forms of transport will adopt new technologies making transit safer and more efficient, he added. With wireless Internet capacity becoming a norm in all vehicles, new safety issues likely will be surfaced, just as the advent of smart phones created the need for new regulation.

Bellamy praised the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System, the “circle” of hike and bike trails along city-owned creeks that’s undergoing growth and development. He said connecting trailheads in the coming years will make it possible to navigate the entire city without stepping into a vehicle or on to a roadway, an observation that drew applause.

Bellamy and other city officials said the fewer vehicles means less gridlock and auto emissions, less stress commuting, and enhanced public health, especially for active non-motorists.

“It can be a freeway for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Bellamy said of the trailways system.

Water and energy conservation, adequate land use, green building techniques, and improved recycling/waste disposal methods also fuel sustainability, speakers noted.

City Manager Cheryl Sculley gives a presentation. Photo by Scott Ball.
City Manager Cheryl Sculley gives a presentation. Photo by Scott Ball.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said the percentage of single-family households taking advantage of the city’s recycling program has risen from 10-30% in the last few years citywide. She said that number will double to 60% by 2025. A decade ago, much of the city was resistant or indifferent to recycling, and Sculley was criticized in some corners for making waste management, garbage collection and recycling more automated and cost-effective. Today, the now-familiar brown and blue pick-up bins, and the arrival of the green composting bins, are widely accepted. Commercial recycling is beginning to take root, and residents will soon be incentivized to adopt smaller, less costly bins for home use.

Sculley said City leaders “are very committed to sustainability in the community. This is about continued growth and development of the city, but doing it in a responsible way.”

Such responsibility includes consideration of existing resources and how to best manage them with prudent planning. Dugan said resource availability is “the economy of scarcity” and that community equity is vital.

That includes planning for 500,000 new dwellings in the coming decades. Dugan said developers could turn their focus from sprawling “greenfield development” and look at the vacant or undeveloped 20% of all property inside the urban core, including the center city and such arteries as Perrin Beitel Road and others near the South Texas Medical Center, to plan for new development.

Afterwards, the TED Talk-style presentations continued.

Representatives from CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) talked about how renewable/clean energies and personal conservation and stewardship play a role in local sustainability.

Steve Graham of San Antonio River Authority gives a presentation on natural resources, land use, and smart growth. Photo by Scott Ball.
SARA Assistant General Manager Steve Graham gives a presentation on natural resources, land use, and smart growth. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SARA Assistant General Manager Steve Graham said individuals, businesses and industry can help to reduce the effects of runoff stormwater, which carries anything from chemicals and sediment to trash, and enters the river unfiltered.

“It’s all the things we do, like fertilizing our lawn or throwing something out of the car. It’s non-point pollution,” Graham said.

Graham suggested many eco-friendly ways a household or business can reduce its contribution to runoff: a form of bioretention such as a rain garden, bioswales, permeable pavement, green roofing, sand and vegetated filter, constructed wetlands, or planters. Graham said SARA plans to bolster ways to help make these strategies more accessible and affordable to the general public.

Citing the floodwaters that quickly build along major city streets, Graham said turning rainspouts inward on to lawns and landscaping instead of allowing them to drain directly on to concrete or pavement would eliminate such flooding.

Kimberly Stoker, CPS Energy’s environmental and sustainability director, pointed to the utility’s increased investment in solar energy production, plans for an innovation center and introduction of smart digital meters. She said energy efficiency incentives help customers reduce consumption, especially at peak use times, and curtail carbon emissions. She also gave the audience a brief historical tutorial of the energy utility dating back to the 19th century, a reminder that Braunig and Calaveras lakes were built in the 1960s by the City and CPS Energy to provide a constant water supply for coal and gas power plants without pumping directly from the Edwards Aquifer. They were among the first lakes in the nation to use treated wastewater to cool power plants, and are emblematic of the city’s long-standing commitment to water conservation and management.

SAWS Conservation Director Karen Guz said water restrictions and that shared culture of conservation among citizens has reduced the annual level of consumed gallons per capita since 2011. More importantly, Guz said, local commercial and residential water users have modified their habits because of the restrictions. Many major water users, Guz said, citing the Shops at La Cantera, have reduced water consumption by more than half by removing turf and automatic irrigation systems and moving to native landscaping with drip irrigation.

Karen Guz of SAWS gives a presentation on water resources. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAWS Conservation Director Karen Guz gives a presentation on water resources. Photo by Scott Ball.

Guz said rebates and other incentives through SAWS can help water customers be more efficient with their usage. More than 7,000 ratepayers have participated in the current SAWS program that provides cash rebates or coupons for converting turf to native landscaping.

Guz tested people’s level of water conservation literacy by posing a series of questions. What’s best, sink-washing dishes or using an Energy Star dishwasher? Answer: dishwasher. It takes up to 30 gallons for hand-washing with the water running to rinse, versus seven gallons of water for the dishwasher. Guz said afterwards that SAWS discourages pre-washing dishes before loading the dishwasher.

“You’re sending the grease and solids down the drain that sticks like glue to the sides of your pipes and clogs sewer laterals and then makes its way to the side of SAWS pipes and contributes to sewer backup,” Guz said. “We encourage scraping food remains into the trash.”

What’s best, taking an average (eight minutes) shower or a bath? Bathtubs, depending on size, hold between 25-45 gallons. A big tub filled halfway consumes at least 22 gallons. A shower with a free SAWS shower head uses 14 gallons while an EPA-approved shower head uses 16 gallons.  San Antonio was the first city in the nation under Mayor Phil Hardberger and his Mission Verde initiative to mandate installation of EPA WaterSense tested and approved water fixtures in all new construction, a measure that has since been adopted in many cities.

Guz continued with her audience quiz: Turn off the water while you brush your teeth and save two gallons, and that’s every person in the house, every day. Men can save even more by not letting the water run while shaving. No one got that one right.

The real enemy of water conservation where usage dwarfs all other uses is the automatic irrigation system – our words, not hers.

The challenge, Guz said, is getting the developers and owners of new residential subdivisions to adopt water use practices typical of homeowners in the urban core. Lots in the older parts of the city have larger yards and green spaces, yet per capita water consumption is half that of households in the newer subdivisions, where automatic irrigation systems that can use 2,000 gallons of water in a single cycle are ubiquitous.

That raised the issue of SAWS’ recent decision to relax water restrictions as the Edwards Aquifer level has risen and steadied and the city has emerged from drought. Was that the right move or should water restrictions exist year-around, regardless of aquifer levels?  Guz urged attendees to give feedback via the SAWS website.

A satisfied Melnick closed the program by predicting the forum will become a yearly event.

*Featured/top image: Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (right) moderates panelists Terry Bellamy (left), Douglas Melnick (middle), and John Dugan (right). Photo by Scott Ball.

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SA Tomorrow: It’s Your Turn to Plan San Antonio’s Future

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.