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Green Volusia: All it takes is each one of us doing something

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Posted On: September 13, 2019

In the business world, as the adage goes, you have to spend money to make money.

However, when it comes to reducing carbon footprints and embracing green practices and sustainable living concepts, you can actually spend less and save more of your money. And it’s not that hard to do. Think about turning up your thermostat, not buying throw-away stuff, or riding a bicycle instead of driving. In the end, you just might be helping to preserve the planet and its natural resources in the process.

Still, questions abound: Are consumers willing to change their buying habits and forsake convenience in the name of protecting the environment? Are businesses willing to financially invest in the green philosophy to promote conservation and maintain a healthy community? Are residents even tuning in to the urgent messages about the need to be better stewards of the Earth before it’s too late? Now in the beginning of its second decade, these are among the weighty challenges facing the Green Volusia initiative.

Enacted by the Volusia County Council in June 2008, the program’s initial focus centered primarily on reducing waste and promoting conservation and efficiency in the operations of county government. While that remains an ongoing focus, Green Volusia’s emphasis has grown and expanded to incorporate a holistic approach to the entire spectrum of healthy communities – healthy citizens, healthy ecosystems, a healthy economy and a reduction of the man-made impacts on our natural resources.

Where all these issues intersect is with the daily choices people make and their effects – some helpful and some harmful – on the world around us, according to Volusia County’s environmental management director, Ginger Adair.

“Nobody wants to think it’s them. But it’s all of us,” said Adair, who recently sat down to take stock of the communal effects of Green Volusia some 11 years after it was first implemented. “What I do and what you do and what everybody else does is the problem. But what I do and what you do is also the solution. It’s all the decisions that we all make each and every day.”

Some of the decisions can have monumental impacts. Others are as seemingly inconsequential as not buying a single-serving, disposable water bottle or not using a straw as a way to reduce the harmful impacts of plastics on our environment and sea life. Either way, one person’s ecological impact isn’t terribly significant. But it’s the cumulative effect – the idea that everyone working together and doing what they can will result in real, measurable and sustained change.

That’s one of Katrina Locke’s key messages. As Volusia’s sustainability and natural resources director, one of Locke’s many tasks is to oversee Green Volusia.

“It’s the whole of the legacy that we leave behind and what that looks like,” said Locke. “We can just carry on as normal or we can make these changes and do small things that build every day.”

Volusia County certainly is doing its part, starting with adoption of Green Volusia. The initial idea was for the county to set an example by integrating green practices into its daily operations – things like being more environmentally sensitive, landscaping with native plants to lessen the need for irrigation, using more recyclable materials, and conducting an energy audit of county facilities to identify potential efficiencies. Another critical component of the plan was to mount an educational campaign to teach and promote green practices in the community.

By 2014, the new buzzword was sustainability. It’s an extremely broad term that touches on everything from clean air and water, recreation space, restoring natural lands and the efficiency of the transportation network to good jobs, conservation, wildlife corridors, reduction in energy use and fossil fuels, and how a housing development is laid out – in short, everything needed to make and keep a community a healthy, vital and attractive place to live.

In February 2014, the County Council adopted a highly detailed, 84-page Sustainability Action Plan. Funded by a federal grant, the plan contains a set of broad goals along with approximately 165 recommended actions to serve as a roadmap to achieving the goals set out in the plan. According to Adair, one important outcome of all that green talk is that it got departments brainstorming and coordinating with each other about how to work together to maximize their efforts.

“We had conversations across County divisions that you don’t necessarily think go together or even normally talk to each other,” said Adair. “That was a real positive.”

One focus of the Sustainability Action Plan was a massive assessment of all the energy consumed by the operation of county government, such as the electricity to run county buildings, the emissions and energy consumption generated by the county’s vehicle fleet, and the water usage and the waste generated by county employees and others using county facilities. The assessment was a real eye opener. As measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide, the analysis showed that the county’s operations in 2007 created and emitted the equivalent of 112,644 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly equal to the energy needed to operate 22,000 passenger vehicles for a year.

If nothing changed, the analysis predicted the number would grow to 124,244 by the year 2025. The county took the message to heart, implementing a number of changes that had positive impacts. The result: Due to a series of conservation efforts, energy efficiency measures and retrofits to several county buildings, the emissions actually went down by 2010 – from 112,644 metric tons of carbon dioxide to 110,300. The complex analysis was performed by a consultant funded by the federal grant. With the grant money exhausted and the consultant no longer on-board, the county is trying to come up with a plan to update the figures. The ultimate goal is to reduce the emission to 1990 levels.

The hope is that with county government leading the way, green initiatives will sprout up all around the community, in other government facilities, the business sector and right down to individual households. In fact, it’s stated right there in Volusia’s Sustainability Action Plan: “As a county government, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to use resources wisely, and to encourage others to do the same.”

So how did the county manage to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? As it turns out, just as Locke suggests, lots of changes here and there can really add up. For instance, the county’s fleet management has implemented more than 75% of the best management practices recommended by the Florida Green Building Coalition’s (FGBC) Green Local Government Standard. The county’s Votran transportation system’s bus fleet includes more than 20 hybrid or propane-fueled vehicles. The county promotes carpooling to its employees. Energy and water efficiency retrofits to county facilities resulted in reduced consumption. And that, in turn, resulted in reduced operational costs. It all paid off, as the county has earned the coveted FGBC Green Local Government designation since 2010.

Other green measures, however, require more significant investments. Locke uses a solar farm as an example. The facility reduces energy costs and reliance on fossil fuels, a major goal of the green movement. But it can take years for such an investment to yield financial returns.

However difficult or complex, challenges don’t deter Adair and Locke. While the initial emphasis of the green initiative was to find ways to make county government more efficient and environmentally-friendly, their focus these days is on the bigger picture – going beyond the county operations and trying to change public habits and business practices. Because that’s where much greater impacts can be achieved.

For Adair and Locke, it’s all about public education and outreach. So a lot of their time is spent putting on workshops and learning academies, setting up informational booths at local events and speaking to citizen groups, chambers of commerce, business organizations, garden clubs – anyone who will listen – about things like green infrastructure, low impact development techniques, and water protection and preservation. They educate the public about the county’s fertilizer ordinance and the importance of reducing the flow of nutrients into rivers, lakes and springs. They participate in Project H2O, a collaborate effort to improve Volusia County waters and the Indian River Lagoon. They encourage community involvement and volunteerism in environmental causes and help promote awareness of local hotels that employ green practices.

Through it all, Adair wonders if it’s enough. It’s an easy message to sell to a captive and engaged audience that has already embraced the green movement. But Adair wonders how the county can refine its message and approach to reach and engage a broader audience.

“A lot of times, we feel like it’s an uphill battle. Are we really making a difference?” Adair asks herself. “We know that we can preach to the choir. We know we can do that well. But we also know we haven’t done a great job of reaching people who don’t already care about what we’re saying. We’re working on that.”

Environmental Management’s latest efforts to engage the community center around the current trend in the green movement – resiliency. Whereas sustainability focuses on creating healthy, thriving living centers, resiliency is all about a community’s ability to adapt to the changing environment and develop plans and best practices for overcoming and recovering from serious difficulties and challenges.

In July, the County Council agreed to adopt a far-reaching coastal resiliency action plan for Volusia and Brevard counties that was developed by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. The plan contains a long list of strategies for combatting the potential impacts of sea-level rise, such as storm surge, flash floods, stormwater runoff and erosion. Despite concerns over the cost of addressing these monumental issues, council members unanimously agreed they need to have a plan. In fact, the state requires it for coastal counties such as Volusia. The council also agreed to join an eight-county collaborative of Central Florida governments that will be working together to tackle resiliency issues. And a critical component of the work is community involvement and buy-in.

“There’s nothing more productive than collaboration and sharing best practices with others in the same field who are dealing with the same issues,” said County Council member Heather Post.

“We always have to think progressively,” added County Council member Billie Wheeler. “This is just a plan. I think it’s a good plan, and I support it a hundred percent.”

The county also is getting ready to roll out another community engagement resiliency initiative, this one for the Spring Hill community of DeLand. Funded by a $299,800 grant from the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund, the county will be working with Barry University to engage Spring Hill residents in discussions about addressing flooding problems in their community. The plan includes conducting an educational resiliency academy in Spring Hill to involve local residents in developing resiliency plans and solutions to flooding issues. Plans also are in the works to hold green infrastructure job training workshops for Spring Hill residents.

“It’s a fabulous project,” Adair told the County Council in August as the Council unanimously approved the project. “We’re going to do public outreach. We’re going to do education academies with residents of Spring Hill and really bring this idea of green infrastructure and resiliency to an area of our community that really hasn’t been engaged in this issue.”

As part of the Spring Hill resiliency project, the County – which is working with local agencies and organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, the Spring Hill Resources Center and the City of DeLand – has agreed to provide $16,000 in plant materials to help seed the program. It’s all part of a bigger effort to provide job training opportunities, tap into green infrastructure to decrease stormwater pollution, and help protect homes and businesses from flooding caused by destructive storm events.

In yet another undertaking, the county is teaming up with Stetson University to apply for a $60,000 grant from the state to pay for a green infrastructure and water quality project at the university’s Sandra Stetson Aquatic Center on Lake Beresford. If approved, the grant would fund native plantings, floating islands and rain gardens for direct nutrient treatment of runoff from a residential watershed at the aquatic center. The project is designed to help improve water quality in the lake.

County Council member Barbara Girtman, whose Northwest Volusia Council District encompasses both Spring Hill and Stetson University, was delighted about the two ventures. And she was particularly pleased that the county was partnering with Stetson in this latest green project. “I just want to acknowledge what a great partner Stetson is,” Girtman said from the council dais. “We’re grateful to have them in the district and in the county.”

In addition, the county is working on a program called “Save our Springs and Rivers,” funded by a $239,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to hold a series of workshops and develop a community-based social marketing campaign aimed at reducing nutrient pollution in the Blue Spring springshed.

So when it comes to Volusia County’s efforts to go green and promote sustainability and resiliency, there are a lot of promising efforts under way. But there’s also a lot more work to be done. After all, it’s a big job saving the planet. And, Locke and Adair remind us, everyone has a role to play. Each one of us can do our part.

“There are things that all of us easily can do to reduce our impacts,” said Locke.

For all the green efforts and progress, Adair is a realist. She knows that plans change over time as circumstances, politics, priorities and public sentiment dictate. That’s why she’s in it for the long haul. It’s a battle worth fighting, and one with global consequences. For Adair, Green Volusia will be an ongoing and continuing pursuit with no end.

“We’ll never be able to say mission accomplished,” said Adair. “We’ll never be able to say here was our goal, and we’re done. We’ll always be evolving our goals and our messaging and our level of knowledge. There’s always room for improvement in everything. All it takes is each one of us doing something.”