Sustainability on the backs of Santa Monica residents

Sustainability

A recent SMa.r.t. column on sustainability compared the City of Santa Monica’s residential and commercial sectors’ progress towards the City’s sustainability goals. Initially, it appeared that the residential sector was on track while the commercial sector was lagging. While this is still the case, the actual picture is more nuanced, as is the path to the City’s goal of water self-sufficiency and one pound of trash per person per day by 2030.

Santa Monica controls only two-thirds of its water supply, sharing the remaining third with other municipalities. In 2013 the City’s water usage was split between single-family residences (22 percent), multi-family residences (39 percent), commercial (27 percent) and other users (12 percent). The total residential sector (61 percent) has shown the greatest decrease in water usage. From 2005 to 2013 residential water usage dropped 6 percent as the population increased 7 percent from 86,643 to 92,472. During the same period, the commercial sector’s usage increased by 12 percent. This is an 18-percent difference between the two sectors. Clearly, the business sector growth and usage is outpacing all others.

Ironically, the residents’ conservation efforts have resulted in water rates being raised 9 percent in 2015 to cover administrative costs and needed capital improvements. In the subsequent years, a 13-percent annual increase is forecast. Most of these rate increases will be used to finance a needed $28-million upgrade to the City’s water infrastructure. Are these improvements necessitated due to the onslaught of new developments? If so, wouldn’t it make sense for those responsible to bear a larger share of the capital expenditures? As it stands, the proposed water increase will be spread across all sectors. In effect, the residents are subsidizing those responsible for the increased costs. Some of them may not even live in the City. This is not right.

What was not approved as part of this measure was an additional $5 million to pay for an Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) system. Since the commercial sector is where conservation is most needed, this decision seems shortsighted. If enacted, it would have enabled more frequent and accurate metering of water usage in buildings with multiple tenants. This is of particular importance in commercial buildings where there is often just a single meter for the entire structure. This makes it more difficult to ferret out those whose water usage exceeds the mandated 20-percent reductions from 2013 levels. This same system might have also been effective in the multi-residential sector for apartments and condos where water wasters are also more difficult to identify. An additional $5 million might have been a small price to pay for the potential water savings by those whose water use is the highest.

Santa Monica has had a law on the books since 1992 that requires all newly constructed condos and apartments to provide separate water service and metering for each unit. Although new units may have been plumbed separately, their individual meters, in some cases, were never installed. An often-cited excuse has been their inability to locate the new meters in the public right of way. The City should make every effort to remove any remaining barriers to the implementation of this ordinance. The new technologies available for individual and remote metering remove any excuse to avoid individual metering. The AMI system described above might have also provided a solution to insure that our new residents are doing their part to save water.

In the area of refuse collection, the commercial sector generates the most waste. In 2014 the sector breakdown for waste was: single-family residences, 18 percent; multi-family residences, 36 percent; and commercial, 46 percent. Another way to look at these figures is that homeowners produce 50-percent less waste than apartment dwellers and 40-percent less than most businesses. When it comes to keeping waste out of the landfills, the figures are equally revealing. The residential sector recycles 58 percent of its waste while the multi-residential recycles only 13 percent and the commercial sector 20 percent. Although these figures are still higher than the residential sector, they are still a 50-percent improvement from 2011 levels for both businesses and apartments.

The commercial sector’s improvement may have as much to do with the methods of trash collection as the increased recycling on the part of the business community. The City continues to improve its methods and expand the types of materials it can divert from landfills. The greatest improvement has been in the recycling of organic materials. Commercial waste recycling increased 60 percent in just 3 years between 2011 and 2014. The Resource Recovery and Recycling Department, managed by Kim Braun, continues to innovate and find new ways to keep city waste out of the city’s landfills and make the system more efficient. For example, new public trash containers are now “smart” and able to notify the department when they are full and have built-in compactors that can increase their capacity and extend the time between pick-ups.

In 2006, the total amount of trash generated per person per day was 7.7 pounds. This figure came down 50 percent to 3.6 pounds in 2011. Unfortunately, it has since gone back up to 4.6 pounds in 2013 due to the increase in our daily population, a better economy and commercial growth. This has put us further from our goal of 1.1 by 2030. In the future, Braun envisions Santa Monica having its own reprocessing plant to convert organic material into energy or useful products, such as fertilizers. As the sorting technology improves, she envisions a time when residents will no longer have three cans (green waste, recycling and trash) but only two: one for wet waste and one for dry materials. The methods of recycling also continue to become more sophisticated and may one day be what Jane Jacobs envisioned in her book “The Economy of Cities” — a resource to be treasured rather than buried.

Thane Roberts for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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