Stanislaus, Merced counties' green efforts lag

SACRAMENTO -- California is more aggressive on addressing climate change than other states, but attitudes in much of its Central Valley seem a world apart.

And leaders throughout Stanislaus and Merced counties appear to be dragging their feet more than others in the already regressive valley, presenters said Wednesday at the 11th annual Great Valley Center conference.

"It's been very slow in the valley," said Rollie Smith, chairman of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization. Only five cities have signed its manifesto promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with but one -- Stockton -- in the north valley.

The two-day event continuing today, subtitled "Green Momentum," should help kick-start valley acceptance of green principles, including solar and wind energy and planning compact, walkable communities, several experts said.

The good news -- aside from pioneering strides by California as a whole -- is the valley's resources that could lend to a green explosion, Smith said. They include abundant wind and sunshine and a formidable agricultural engine that could drive biofuel production, he said.

Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor and president emeritus of the Great Valley Center she founded 11 years ago, said the nonprofit's brain trust chose the Green Momentum slogan "with a lot of careful thinking. We knew a lot of people in the valley would say, 'That's a bunch of funky stuff; I'm not going anywhere near there.' We also knew there would be people who would say, 'Yes, this is right on; I want to be a part of it.' "

Local government leaders around the Northern San Joaquin Valley haven't embraced the state's emissions-reducing strategy making national headlines. Presenters gave glowing reports of ground-breaking efforts in Bay Area locales, but lists of best practices showed no contributions from the valley.

Visalia recently broke out by hiring a full-time sustainability officer to examine energy savings potential in each city department. Former Modesto Councilman Tim Fisher said Modesto ought to do the same, but surely won't because the sagging economy has forced leaders to slice millions of dollars in services.

"One of our tasks is to get leaders of cities to do something. Right now, not many are doing anything," said Fisher, the Modesto-based Great Valley Center's green energy coordinator with projects in Chico and Sacramento.

Desire for area government action

Visalia and Stockton are joined by Fresno, Tulare and Lemoore in public commitments to reduce emissions, said Paul Johnson, interim executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

"Some (agencies) like to watch others out of the gate and build on their experiences," said Ken Loman of the California Institute for Local Government.

A Yale University study revealed that 74 percent of Americans "want to see more action by their local governments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Loman outlined a four-step strategy that could culminate with public recognition from his group: commit, assess current emissions and practices, create a reduction plan and measure progress.

Joshua Channell, an environmental planner with the CirclePoint consulting firm, said it's critical that regular people engage in any such process.

Fisher said valley builders have shown more interest than cities and counties in green development standards on new construction. Knowing that state law eventually will require all government levels to address climate change, building industry leaders in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties are exploring uniform requirements.

"They know it's coming," he said, "and they want to be part of the process rather than have something shoved down their throats."

Washington Post land-use columnist Neal Peirce said cities and counties must "attack sprawl head-on" by paving the way for compact, walkable communities ideally clustered around transit stations, "rather than developing still further out onto farmland." If leaders don't adopt consistent standards, he said, "less conscientious developers will be able to cherry-pick places with the easiest rules."

Peirce said California's high-speed rail vision, to go before voters statewide in November, is intriguing. "But I worry that it might just be creating more sprawl" by creating more access to buildable farmland.

"We see a very political movement" backing bullet trains, with the valley even more susceptible to becoming bedroom communities to the Bay Area and Southern California, said Diana Westmoreland-Pedrozo of the Merced County Farm Bureau.

Valley people can resist being run over "by getting your act together and using political pressure" on Sacramento, Peirce advised.

Venture capital flows to state

Energy efficiency expert Doug Henton, co-founder and president of Collaborative Economics, said California attracted an impressive 49 percent of the nation's venture capital for clean technology in the first half of 2007.

"There is a strong business case for green innovation and energy efficiency," Henton said. "California is at the cutting edge of this opportunity. California is poised, and the rest of the world knows it."

Whiteside, ever optimistic, said, "It's my hope and my belief that this region will indeed be the place that the Silicon Valley and other parts of the country will look at and say, 'We wish we could be like them.'

"We have an opportunity," she continued, "to leap forward and do something that's not only good for the valley, but good for the state, good for the planet and good for our grandchildren."

The Great Valley Center's annual conference continues today at the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento.