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City program focuses on sustainability

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When California cities were told it was time to green up their acts, the city of Santee took it to heart.

In late 2008, the eastern San Diego County city started a project called “Greening Santee,” which has evolved into “Sustainable Santee.”

The program is composed of 22 goals ranging from auditing the energy use of all city buildings to improving reverse osmosis drinking systems at fire stations.

“We’re all over the place with what we’re trying to do,” said Assistant to the City Manager Kathy Valverde, who is spearheading the efforts. “We’ve got our fingers in a lot of different things.”

Valverde volunteered to take on the greening project about a year and a half ago. Unlike some cities, Santee did not hire a new employee to take on the task of getting the city up to par with the latest environmental regulations.

However, Valverde said she was more than up to the task.

“I believe global warming is like politics or religion: You just don’t talk about it. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help the environment,” she said.

The Sustainable Santee program has started off slowly with smaller projects like replacing street lights in order to save 50 percent of their energy costs.

Valverde said she and her team of 12 people from various city offices have tried to complete projects she describes as “low-hanging fruit.”

Valverde and City Manager Keith Till initially thought the project might be something where they could create a check-off list and have it taken care of by the end of the year.

However, Valverde quickly discovered that it was going to be more involved over the long run.

“There’s always something else that can be improved,” she said. “It’s like a volcano. There’s a lot more going on under the surface before you see an eruption.”

The city is not using any of its general funds to finance Sustainable Santee goals. Funding, said Valverde, has been the single biggest hurdle the program has faced so far.

Valverde has sought out grants, bonding and low-interest loans in order to move forward with measures such as updating city hall’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning system as well as retrofitting it for efficiency.

Until the city can obtain more solid funding, projects like installing solar panels have been put on hold.

However, that doesn’t mean Valverde is not looking into it for the future.

Over the past year, she has investigated what it would take to get a power purchase agreement with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), but it is still a work in progress.

She said the city is in talks with a couple of companies about how to make it work.

Already, Santee applied for a Clean Renewable Energy Bond (CREB) in a regional effort to bring solar power to various cities using federal funding.

Valverde said regional efforts have been a large part of why Sustainable Santee has gotten off to a good start.

In the past year, Santee has become a formal member of CleanTECH San Diego, SANDAG’s Sustainable Communities Program and the Local Energy Efficiency Partnership Program.

The “Greening Santee” working group was a pilot program through CleanTECH and has since expanded its relationships to include the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, Grossmont Union High School District, the Santee School District and the University of California, San Diego.

The relationships have been key to learning more about sustainable projects and helping the greater community learn about the city’s “green” efforts, Valverde said.

Additionally, to inform citizens about the program, Santee has set up a Facebook page and is gearing up to create a Twitter account.

She said the social media outlets will hopefully help even the most skeptical Santee citizen understand what Sustainable Santee is trying to accomplish.

“You can’t go wrong doing right by the environment and saving taxpayer money,” she said.

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