What must a city do to make itself sustainable?

Burnsville — the first city in the state to answer the question with its own sustainability plan — says it’s a matter of promoting development that maintains or enhances economic opportunity and community well-being while protecting and restoring the natural environment.

The city follows 14 practices that cover everything the city buys, the energy it uses, the emissions it makes, the land and trees the city owns, and all the drinking and surface water in the city’s care. And since adopting the plan in 2009, the city has noted and reported all its victories.

There are small ones, such as buying five big banners made entirely of recycled plastic water bottles and handing out pencils for school and scout presentations made out of recycled tires. And there are big ones, including a 54 percent reduction in electricity use at the city’s water department.

“These are important, big things that have a long term impact,” said Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, who was a key proponent of the sustainability plan. “I think we only have a few more [traffic] signal lights, and then we will have every light that the city owns all transitioned over to LED.”

The idea of conserving and renewing community resources sprouted in Burnsville in 2006 during discussions about the city’s future. Residents said they wanted the city to take care of the environment and the City Council responded by spending more than a year studying sustainability and adopting a plan.

“It’s very important to me that we fulfill what we said we would do,” Kautz said. Although it took a while for the staff to get their arms around what sustainability means, they are enjoying the program now because the rewards as so great, Kautz said.

“Sustainability is an easy thing to get behind because we all live here and want the environment to be in the best shape it can be,” said Daryl Jacobson, water resource specialist for the city. “What sustainability means is you are able to use things or have things in a manner that can be done for a long time.”

Efficient use of energy and attention to the environment “is city wide, every department,” said environmental specialist Sue Bast. “As projects come up we have a whole checklist to make it more sustainable.”

The water department was targeted for improvement when a city survey showed that two thirds of the city’s electricity use went toward drinking water production.

The remedy was a new $13 million city water pumping station at the Edward Kraemer & Sons limestone quarry on Cliff Road.

Underground water rises to the surface during the quarrying process, allowing the city to pump 4 million gallons a day for city use. The quarry water is combined with water from 17 municipal wells and treated for drinking.

This arrangement produces 8 percent more water using 54 percent less energy than in 2009. The energy is saved both by using the deep well pumps less often and by using variable-frequency pumps at the quarry, said Utilities Superintendent Linda Mullen.

Doubling the benefit to the environment is the fact that 4 million gallons a day of quarry water that was previously dumped into the Minnesota River is now being put to good use.

The city also reaped significant savings from a $5 million renewal of the Burnsville Ice Arena in 2010. The ice maker, heating and cooling system, lights, and the dehumidifier were replaced with new energy efficient equipment resulting in annual energy cost savings of $77,000 per year and a 43 percent reduction in energy use.

Although sustainability was a concept many cities were learning about at the same time Burnsville did, others dropped it when the recession hit in 2007, said Brad Emons, at Emons & Oliver Resources (EOR), who wrote Burnsville’s sustainability plan.

In recent years, many municipalities have followed the state’s Green Step Cities program. That is a good way for a city to get going on sustainable practices but it does not deliver the benefit of an sustainability plan built around community priorities, Emons said.