Vision of an Emerald Valley

Mayor Kevin Johnson imagines a greener Sacramento, now we need to create the plan to get there

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Sacramento leadership team were depicted as eco-superheroes for an SN&R cover story, “Super Green!” last summer. The fellow with the outstretched hand, in the suit and tie in the center, is, of course, the mayor himself.

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Sacramento leadership team were depicted as eco-superheroes for an SN&R cover story, “Super Green!” last summer. The fellow with the outstretched hand, in the suit and tie in the center, is, of course, the mayor himself.


Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

On January 20, at the annual State of the City address hosted by the Sacramento Metro Chamber, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson will announce his plan to transform the Sacramento region into the Emerald Valley, the greenest region in the country.

When the mayor first announced his goal of creating an Emerald Valley last May, he said he wanted to have a bold vision, to think big. And he did. He organized eight well-attended community meetings, bringing nationally prominent speakers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tom Friedman, Robert Kennedy Jr., San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and Van Jones to Sacramento. He assembled a local all-star cast of team leaders for his five environmental task forces, including John DiStasio of SMUD, Mike McKeever of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and UC Davis Graduate School of Management Dean Steven Currall. The mayor hoped that the ideas generated by these task forces and community meetings would form the foundation of a Greenwise plan for our region.

Greenwise Sacramento has accomplished a lot. It has brought a diverse group of Sacramentans together to focus on environmental issues. The impressive group of speakers helped us understand how our local issues fit into the broader global environmental picture. And the mayor has provided a vision of what the Sacramento region could become: Emerald Valley, the greenest region in the country. This vision imagines not only a healthier place to live, but also green jobs for many, from high-school graduates to doctorate holders.

However, we cannot transform our region into the Emerald Valley just by having community meetings and developing a vision. Our region has some of the worst air pollution in the country. We use nearly 300 gallons of water a day per person. We are one of the few cities in the Central Valley that does not remove ammonia from its wastewater. We are struggling to fund our mass-transit systems. We have a long way to go to reach the Emerald Valley goal. In other words, it is one thing to have a vision of sending a man to the moon. We also need to build a rocket ship that can get there.

On January 20, Kevin Johnson has set himself up to present us with a green rocket ship. This is a tall order.

How can we build this green rocket ship? Given governmental budget cuts and the dismal economy, this is a difficult problem. We need to combine the energy, the passion, the focus and the political will that Greenwise has created with the solid planning, the expertise and the know-how already existing in our area’s infrastructure. We need to rearrange our priorities and adjust our spending. We need a specific plan that details how we are going to create change. To get this plan accepted, it will need to be self-financing. In other words, the expenditures that will be required in education and job creation will need to be financed by savings from reduced infrastructure costs. Only with a specific, detailed and self-financed plan will we get to Emerald Valley. And at the same time that we make our region greener, we can also significantly improve our economy. As we build our green rocket ship, here are five components to include in the plan:

1. Eat more local produce.

John DiStasio, general manager and CEO of SMUD, is the Greenwise team’s energy leader. Question: How many jobs could be created if SMUD expanded its community role to include the creation of a local energy-conservation corps to plant trees and weatherize homes and businesses?


Even though we live in one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas, with a yearlong growing season, wonderful soil and a supply of water, only 2 percent of our $1.6 billion worth of food purchases comes from our region. We have a massive amount of fallow acreage. We have underproducing local farms. If we increased our local consumption from 2 to 10 percent, that would increase local food sales by $128 million or so. That obviously would create a lot of jobs. And these increased local wages would provide a huge boost to the economy.

In addition, purchasing food grown locally saves the energy costs and emissions associated with packaging and shipping produce long distances. And there are health benefits that come from eating fresh produce that is in season.

We should encourage local residents to purchase locally grown and seasonal produce by celebrating our local farmers. We could apply pressure to local supermarkets to carry regional produce rather than purchasing food grown by large corporate farmers or importing food from other countries.

SACOG has created a Rural-Urban Connections Strategy that shows how this could be done and projects the tremendous financial and environmental impact that would occur if Sacramentans modified their eating habits.

2. Reduce urban water use.

Our region’s misuse of water is not only an environmental disaster, it is a national embarrassment. We use nearly 300 gallons a day per person. Sixty percent of Sacramento’s urban water is used for landscaping, and around half of that is wasted. Fortunately, a coalition of both public and private organizations put together a manual of river-friendly landscape guidelines that, if followed by Sacramento-area residents, could reduce urban water use by up to 30 percent. These guidelines encourage us to select plants that are native to or appropriate for our region. Rather than dumping plant debris into a landfill, they can be returned to the landscape through grasscycling, mulching and composting. Proper landscaping practices can help conserve water, energy and topsoil while reducing fertilizer use. We can use integrated pest management to minimize chemical and pesticide use. We could take the comprehensive information presented in this manual and create easy-to-follow, seasonally adjusted plans for Sacramento residents. If we put more money into water-conservation education efforts, the result would be less money required to pump and treat water.

3. Encourage energy-saving remodeling projects.

Our local utility company, SMUD, is one of the best, if not the very best, green utility company in the country. SMUD’s staff is full of people with incredible expertise that can be and should be used to help Sacramentans make better energy-conservation decisions. When SN&R remodeled a building in north Sacramento, SMUD helped us to identify the most cost-effective energy-saving choices we could make. Following their advice, we not only saved both energy and money but also made our building much more pleasant and healthy to work in.

Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, leads the urban design and green building team for Greenwise. Question: How much could we improve our local economy by building a truly sustainable city?

Photo By Don Button

Utilizing the expertise of SMUD, along with easy-to-get financing or rebates and an outreach campaign, I believe Sacramento homeowners, apartment owners and business owners would be willing to do more energy-saving remodeling. This would include such projects as installing insulation, skylights, water-saving toilets, florescent fixtures and whole-house fans, and checking heating ducts. If just 10 percent of the region’s homeowners and businesses did $10,000 worth of energy-conservation retrofit work, that would be close to a billion dollars pumped into the local economy to reduce our energy costs over the long run. Compared to developing new sources of energy, energy conservation is more cost-effective and it creates more jobs.

4. Create hundreds of conservation jobs.

SMUD could and should expand their community role. Yes, it already provides energy at a much lower cost than PG&E. But it is our community utility company. And right now, our community needs jobs as well as inexpensive energy. Even if it means having to raise energy prices a few percentage points, SMUD should take advantage of the low cost of labor to create a local energy-conservation corps. SMUD could take a leadership role by planting 5 million trees and instituting a comprehensive regional energy audit and weatherization campaign. SMUD could create hundreds of new conservation jobs now. Taking advantage of the current labor situation makes sense both financially and environmentally.

5. Recycle more and reduce our waste stream.

Other California cities such as San Francisco, San Jose and Fresno are doing a much better job of recycling and reducing their waste stream. A recent study indicates that Californians are willing to do more recycling, but are unclear about what they can and should do. With an educational campaign, Sacramento residents could learn how to recycle at the levels of S.F. and Fresno.

We are currently spending close to $150 million annually in the Sacramento region to collect and dispose of our household and commercial waste. Increasing the amount of recycling and decreasing the amount of waste generated could significantly reduce our region’s solid waste expense. With a small increase in educational costs, we could significantly decrease our waste bill and increase our recycling income.

There are, of course, many more things that could and should be done. But these five changes alone would get us on the road to Emerald Valley. While creating thousands of jobs, these changes could actually save us money.

Kevin Johnson has beautifully laid out the vision of a greener Sacramento. He has energized our community. And we have local tools and resources available to build our green rocket ship.

Let’s build it. Let’s make the vision of an Emerald Valley a reality.