The sustainable path: Snowmass takes layered aim at increasing efficiency, decreasing emissions
Editor’s Note: This is part of a three-story series published in the Dec. 25 Snowmass Sun looking at sustainability efforts in the village.
In early 2008, Snowmass town government started to engage with locals to create an environmental sustainability plan for the village.
After a year of collecting community input and working with the Rocky Mountain Institute to identify and prioritize the local environmental issues the village should address, the plan was finalized and adopted by Town Council, according to town documents.
The 2009 plan didn’t include any implementation strategies that required budget appropriations or staff resources. Instead, it detailed a set of 10 issues deemed critical to the sustainability of Snowmass Village — including energy conservation, climate protection, resource conservation and transportation — and specific goals to address each.
A plan update in 2015 carried out by the town’s Environmental Advisory Board showed a 76% overall performance score in addressing these issues, and little has been made public about the town’s progress since, except for a broad section in the 2018 comprehensive plan and an “updates and successes” word document on the town environmental health webpage.
But according to current Environmental Advisory Board members, the town has done a lot behind the scenes over the past year to continue to chip away at some of these longstanding sustainability feats and is on track to meet its 2020 goals of reducing village emissions by 20%.
“At the end of the day, the deadline to lower our carbon footprint is in our face,” Travis Elliott, assistant town manager and town liaison for the Environmental Advisory Board said of the town’s 20% reduction by 2020 goal. “We have the ability to be a leader in renewable energy and an opportunity to be on the forefront of sustainability initiatives.”
According to the United Nations, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
This broad definition can apply to environmental, economic and social needs, and is often discussed as the key development strategy to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
In the 2018 Snowmass comprehensive plan, “promoting environmental and economic sustainability and resiliency” is the town’s second-to-top strategic initiative, and the village’s sustainability plan highlights energy conservation and climate protection; affordable housing and community-serving commercial; land use and open space; water; and resource conservation, recycling and solid waste as the topics and areas most critical to the sustainability of Snowmass Village.
And according to a handful of town officials, sustainability really does shape the day-to-day decision-making of the departments that overlap with these critical areas, serving as a work in-progress that can always be improved on.
For the past several years, energy conservation and efficiency has been a main focus of Snowmass Village officials.
“Per capita, we have a higher carbon footprint than other communities, but that’s no reason to put our heads down,” Elliott said. “It’s the opposite. It requires us to focus on sustainability, especially since we rely on tourism and depend on snow.”
And since it started tracking emissions levels, Snowmass Village has seen success. Between 2009 and 2017, the town experienced a 17% reduction in carbon emissions, according to the village’s 2017 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report.
This downward trajectory puts the town on track to meet its 20% by 2020 emissions reduction goal, the report states, and attributes the majority of the village’s greenhouse gas emissions — 76% — to energy use in buildings.
Part of the town’s success in reducing its carbon footprint stems from Holy Cross Energy’s commitment to a greener grid and local energy conservation actions, which helped decrease electricity emissions in Snowmass by 34%, the report shows.
Snowmass Village is a part of HCE’s PuRE program, which allows town governments, businesses and individuals to become 100% clean-energy users by choosing to pay for a renewable energy source that offsets their non-renewable energy usage.
HCE is supplied by 39% renewable energy, meaning PuRE program participants are responsible for offsetting the remaining 61% with renewable energy like wind, hydro or solar, according to the company website.
But although the valley’s greener grid has been a huge help to Snowmass in reaching its 20 by 20 goal, the town has also implemented a few renewable energy initiatives of its own.
After receiving Town Council approval in spring 2019, town staff got the ball rolling on a renewable energy project with five moving parts, including the installation of solar panels on four town buildings, along with a micro-hydro turbine that will use the natural flow of water to create hydroelectric power.
The solar panels are set to go online in early 2020, and the custom turbine should be installed and producing energy by late spring, Elliott said.
Elliott also acknowledged the village’s improved snowmelt system — which includes two new boilers for Carriage Way that debuted this winter season and an infrared sensor system that ensures snowmelt is only activated when needed — and the partnership with Transit, an app that will allow locals and visitors to better navigate the Village Shuttle system.
Transportation and aviation emissions are both on increasing trends in Snowmass, and town and county officials are working to encourage more locals and visitors to utilize public transportation as a result.
SUSTAINABILITY BY DEPARTMENT
While renewable, resilient energy and public transportation initiatives seem to be the most common topics of sustainable conversation in Snowmass, there also are a handful of other departments with goals focused on efficiently meeting the needs of locals and visitors for years to come.
From housing to solid waste, the town is working to address the sustainability spectrum on a multitude of layered levels. For example, Betsy Crum, director of housing, is focused on finding ways to “tuck in” 200 additional affordable housing units to the existing village landscape, while Julie Ann Woods, community development director, and her team ensure any future development meets a plethora of land-use, community purpose and building codes and guidelines.
And while Crum and Woods focus on living space above the surface, Snowmass Water and Sanitation District Manager Kit Hamby has his eye on the water being pumped throughout the village below and whether its enough to support current and future locals and visitors.
Since 2005, Hamby said the district has worked to ensure it has enough water secured, whether that be through water rights or storage capacity, in case there is a shortage or major decrease in flows of the town’s main water source, Snowmass Creek.
And over the past 20 years, Hamby said the district has decreased the millions of gallons it pumps through its treatment facility by more than 30% due to more than a dozen efficiency and sustainability measures put in place.
“Some things are out of our control, but it boils down to long term planning,” Hamby said of maintaining water sustainability in the Snowmass area.
That’s the planning mindset Dave Ogren, solid waste and recycling superintendent for Snowmass, is often in, too.
According to Ogren, the solid waste and recycling department gets nearly 100% community participation in its recycling program, which is offered at a reduced rate, and about 60% of the town’s total waste on average is recycled.
Although Ogren said the program is successful, he said it’s important to look at the larger, longer term picture, which is that recycling in Snowmass actually has a fairly large carbon footprint because all of the material has to be trucked to a center in Denver for sorting, and then often taken elsewhere for processing.
“If you want the real truth as far as impacting the environment, we’re so far away from so many of the markets here in the West that it’s really not that environmentally friendly,” Ogren said of recycling.
Ogren said what it comes down to is how locals shop. If isolated, mountain communities want to be greener, Ogren feels it’s especially important to purchase items with less packaging and to look at how waste decisions contribute to the town’s larger carbon footprint.
Despite town officials’ efforts to pursue all-encompassing sustainability efforts in Snowmass, elected officials know they won’t be truly successful until the whole community takes a part.
For Town Council members, that community cooperation means not only should locals work to decrease their carbon footprints as individuals, but also bring their thoughts and concerns about the future of Snowmass to the Town Hall council chambers.
“The town needs to uphold its sustainability plan and goals, but the larger entities need to follow suit,” Councilman Tom Goode said. “We do as much as we can as the town, but we need businesses and individuals to buy in, too.”
Mayor Markey Butler expressed similar thoughts, suggesting the potential for the town to create incentives for locals to pursue more sustainable life choices and to voice their opinions.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it’s about protecting the community, the world, your grandchildren and the future generations,” Butler said of pursuing sustainability as a community in Snowmass. “It comes down to what we need versus what we want. … As a community, we need to be conscientious, studious and ethically grounded.”