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Reader Report: The New American Heartland: Sustainability in Southwestern Desert Communities
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By William M. Brown

The American Southwest confronts a rapidly changing identity. Symptoms of the current century's biggest challenges – skyrocketing population, climate change, ecosystems in peril, demands for a new energy infrastructure – are already glaringly apparent in this sensitive desert region. At the PASS Eco-Summit held last month in Joshua Tree, Calif., decision makers, researchers, industry professionals, and other desert dwelling citizens convened to discuss how the resourceful communities of the Southwest can transform their region for a livable future.

In July 2008, a report by The Brookings Institution identified the American Southwest in terms of newly recognized "super regions" or "Mountain Megas" of population growth and economic and demographic transition. These megapolitan areas include the Las Vegas, Nevada region, the "Sun Corridor" of Arizona, the Front Range of Colorado-Wyoming, the Wasatch Front of Utah, and northern New Mexico. During 2000-2007, populations of these regions grew at a collective rate of 20 percent, compared with the USA average of about 7 percent. Projections show an additional population increase of 11 million by 2040, with an accompanying demand for 7 million residential units, 9.4 billion square feet of commercial space, and the water and energy to support such growth.

The PASS Conference targeted solutions with a thorough approach to sustainability – examinations of physical science, economics, policy, social science, architecture, biology, food supply and every other system we must modify to move from an obsolescent culture of limits into a modern culture of abundance. Another major theme was the need for effective leadership – for desert communities to use their own local knowledge and experience to set water, energy and other policies and avoid being overwhelmed by the tide of demands pouring in from outside the desert.

According to attendees of the PASS Conference, opportunities for new leadership at the local level involve:

Current blueprints for future western power plants and transmission corridors exemplify antiquated thinking about maintaining and expanding an obsolescent generation and transmission grid. That thinking plans simultaneously for fossil fuel development and solar and wind power development. Yet it emphasizes solutions from the past rather than creating superior solutions for the future.

PASS attendees favored Smart Grid applications and widely distributed power generation (“DG”). These are economical alternatives to spending billions of dollars on isolated power plants and new transmission lines. Concentrating solar thermal power “CSP” plants that use as much cooling water as fossil fuel or nuclear power plants can be poor and unneeded choices for desert environments. Distributed Generation produces power very near where it is used, and reduces or avoids transmission losses and costs. The smartest transmission line is the one that is never built.

Green Building:
Whereas energy- and water-efficiency building codes are being widely promulgated for larger cities, few smaller southwestern communities are taking similar actions. The PASS challenge is to create desert communities of high-performance energy- and water-efficiency structures that are built to last while exhibiting beauty and unique style. Every building in every southwestern community should attend to on-site water catchment and treatment. Every southwestern community should have local energy systems and local smart grid technology. Every southwestern community should provide for its citizens to enjoy financial incentives for energy efficiency and on-site clean energy generation.

Local Government Tools:
Small communities are fully capable of creating sustainability solutions on their own using local expertise together with guidance of the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement the Western Climate Initiative and many other sources. Individuals as well as the commercial and government sectors have suites of new tools to finance sustainable construction and clean energy development.

The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index provides a systematic evaluation of energy use and costs for a home, and is used by the mortgage industry to offer financial incentives in energy efficiency mortgages. The HERS Index – as a potential centerpiece for new building codes – is highly appropriate for use by small communities lacking the staff to administer the far more complicated LEED for Homes programs.

Small communities need to know that high-performance construction does not mean higher development costs. Immediate and longer-term financial advantages of rebates, tax credits, reduced loan fees, and energy efficiency mortgages commonly offset upgrades. Modern code upgrades are much easier to enact if local officials are made the see the economic advantages.

Living Amid Federal Lands:
Southwestern communities can and should reshape their relationships with managers of the abundant federal lands in the region. The National Academy of Sciences in August 2008 stated that local public participation in federal land-use decisions is not just a formality required by law. It is more likely to improve than undermine the quality of federal decisions. It increases the legitimacy of decisions in the eyes of those affected by them, making implementation of the decisions more likely. Good scientific analysis often requires information about local conditions, which is most likely to come from local residents. The process itself builds citizens' knowledge of the scientific aspects of environmental issues, which increases their ability to engage in future decisions.

The PASS Conference focused on new ways of thinking about leadership at the local level in our American Southwest. We have a unique and timely opportunity to demonstrate desert sustainability to our nation and the world. In so doing, we can show how our people, our institutions and our lush and resource rich landscapes can contribute meaningfully to solutions of important problems of our time while providing an exceptionally livable future.

Editor's Note: We encourage "Reader Reports" -- submissions from members of Worldchanging's global audience who volunteer to write up their notes from travels, conferences, workshops and other worldchanging happenings they participate in. If you'd like to contribute your own report, please email editor[at]worldchanging[dot]com.

William M. (Bill) Brown is a principal with Sage West Consultants of Taos, New Mexico where the team is currently preparing a High Performance Building Ordinance for the Town. Bill is also a presenter for Al Gore’s The Climate Project and makes presentations on the climate crisis and its solutions throughout the American Southwest.

Photo credit: flickr/Airstream Life, Creative Commons license.

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