Southern Utah looks to stay green as economy heads into the black
NASA is celebrating Earth Day by putting pieces of the Earth up for adoption for free. Video provided by Newsy
Crowds of Southern Utahns will gather in Springdale this weekend for the annual Zion Canyon Earth Day celebration.
Amid live music amplified by solar-powered equipment and art displays, there will also be demonstrations on local environmental issues, educational materials on renewable energy and native plant landscaping, and a general discussion about how southwestern Utah could become a cleaner, “greener” place.
A half-hour drive to the west, where the booming populations of St. George, Hurricane and the rest of Washington County are putting new pressures on the surrounding environment, there are no major celebrations scheduled for the day.
But there are some growing efforts to go green.
Eight straight years of economic improvement is fueling a regionwide boom in new growth and development.
The St. George metro area ranked as the sixth-fastest growing in the entire country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The local job market is the strongest in Utah, with the county adding jobs at a 6.4-percent clip in 2016 and average wages having increased by 5 percent.
A slew of new major building projects has buoyed a 12-percent annual rise in construction jobs, led by a $300 million hospital expansion, a $40 million main campus building for the Dixie Applied Technology College and dozens of new schools, stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
The rejuvenated growth machine has area officials and business leaders optimistic about future prosperity, and hopeful for younger generations to have better career opportunities.
But all that growth is also raising the pressure on quality-of-life measures such as open space and clean air.
Air quality measurements are starting to show increases in the number of days where ozone and dust creep above ideal levels, and water managers are warning that a drier climate in the future could contribute to an inability for water supplies to keep up with the growing population’s demands.
State projections suggest Washington County’s population, about 160,000 strong today, could triple to more than 580,000 by 2060.
“You can't just keep going indefinitely and not address all of the different impacts you're having on your environment,” said Bill Barron, an advocate for the Citizens' Climate Lobby, an advocacy group pushing for legislation to combat global climate change. “It catches up with you.”
Shades of green
Not that local leadership isn't aware of the problems.
Words like “environmentalist” don't always go over well in the deep red of Utah politics, but policy makers have long argued that being a Republican doesn't mean not looking out for the environment.
“The assumption is I'm Republican and I don't care about public lands and I don't care about conservation. Well, that's nuts,” Rep. Chris Stewart said Wednesday.
And out of necessity, green policies are starting to make their way through local governments.
Amid the rabid debate over the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, area water managers have incorporated increased efforts to promote conservation.
Local municipalities are implementing incentives for renewable energy and water efficiency and incorporating policies like LED street lighting to infrastructure requirements.
The BluCan recycling program, a curbside pickup service started last year across most of the county, recycled some 4,300 tons of material in 2016.
The City of St. George is using recently-purchased air quality monitors to get basic information on contributors to air pollution.
Communities across the region are working to implement new “active transportation” plans that incorporate cycling, walking and other forms of non-vehicle mobility to limit the number of cars on the road.
“I think you’re going to see it be a major part of what we’re doing moving forward,” said Marc Mortensen, support services director for the city of St. George.
Environmental advocacy groups have applauded recent steps by local governments to protect open spaces, as well as some acknowledgement of ideas long-contested locally, such as climate change.
The Washington County Commission surprised some earlier this year when members voted to oppose a proposal to allow oil and gas leasing outside of Zion.
The water district has been adamant about including the latest climate change modeling into their forecasts for future water supplies.
Thousands of scientists plan to march on Earth Day over what they see as governmental efforts to reduce the role of science.
A vision for the future
For years, elected officials and major figures on the community have talked about the need to manage the area’s fast-paced growth.
More than a decade ago, county officials joined with concerned citizens and developed a regionwide set of guidelines for long-term planning.
Called “Vision Dixie,” the community-driven planning effort outlined a set of priorities for developing into the future, with participating residents showing a clear emphasis on protecting views, maintaining air quality and conserving water.
A decade later, officials are split on how successful the last 10 years have been in working toward that vision.
At a forum hosted last week by the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, community leaders raised questions about how effective the planning effort has been so far but expressed optimism about seeing some gains in the near future.
Mortensen, who has worked for the city throughout that past decade, said he saw evidence of Vision Dixie starting to emerge in new developments such as a pair of new mixed-use developments expected to break ground this year in the heart of the city’s downtown.
New commercial areas are sprouting up in neighborhoods throughout the city, despite some reluctance from nearby residents, and the types of closer-knit, walkable communities described in Vision Dixie are finally starting to take root, he said.
“We all wanted something like that to happen, but the market just wasn’t there for it. Now we’re starting to see it,” he said.
But if that type of development is coming, it so far only exists on paper, others argued.
Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said he hasn't yet seen the types of smaller-footprint, walkable community development described in Vision Dixie, noting that the typical new residential lot is bigger than 12,000 square feet.
“I just don't think that sounds like what we're actually seeing in terms of new development,” he said.
Neil Walter, managing director at commercial real estate service NAI Excel, raised questions about some of the area’s policies driving construction, such as impact fees that appear to incentivize larger, more expensive homes ahead of smaller, more affordable multi-family housing.
There are also cultural factors at play, he acknowledged, noting that it takes time to change a community’s idea of what types of housing it wants, but he said policymakers have a chance to help shape those things moving forward.
“Changing the aesthetics and things like that takes time,” Walter said. “But right now is the opportunity to deal with some of those issues.”
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