In Cottage Grove, all traffic signals will be switched over to energy-efficient LED lighting by the end of this year.

In Oakdale, new public buildings, including a new fire station and the Discovery Center at Oakdale Nature Preserve, are required to be built with such features as thicker insulation, recycled construction materials, native habitat landscaping and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems.

In Lake Elmo, the unglamorous but vital task of effective stormwater management is recognized as among the best in the state.

In ways large and small, sometimes highly visible and sometimes less obvious, cities across Washington County are going green as the nation prepares to mark Earth Day for the 43rd year Monday.

Those cities are not just saving energy and water — they also are helping their bottom lines.

Seven Washington County cities — Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo, Mahtomedi, Newport, Oakdale, St. Paul Park and Woodbury — are part of the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program, which offers communities a goal-setting road map for putting sound environmental practices to work. Only Hennepin County has more communities participating.

Mahtomedi was among the first cities on board when the program started in mid-2010.

"Our city is very committed to the environment, and it's really just a continuation of the things we have been doing," said Scott Neilson, Mahtomedi's city administrator.

Mahtomedi formed its Environmental Commission in 2008, and when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) subsequently launched GreenStep, becoming a participant was a logical move, he said. Mahtomedi is now at Step 1 in the three-step program, with the goal of moving to Step 2 by the end of this year.

Under the program, cities set goals to use environmentally sustainable practices in five specific areas: buildings/lighting, land use, transportation, environmental management and economic development. There are 28 specific practices, entailing everything from recycling and finding new uses for old buildings to more efficient ways to run city vehicles. For Step 2, a city has to complete eight of those practices, and double that number to reach Step 3. More steps might be added this year.

As cities meet those laid-out goals, they move up a step. It costs nothing to be in the program. Along with providing help to cities in finding smart ways to be green, the program also recognizes those efforts with awards.

"What it does for us is to give our Environmental Commission the direction to do more," Neilson said. Taking the extra time and effort can be a challenge for a smaller city like Mahtomedi, which has 15 full-time staff members, but residents have also pitched in. "I think a city has to be committed to make this a priority."

Some of the things Mahtomedi already has done as part of the GreenStep program save money, but they also enhance the city's quality of life, Neilson added. For example, the city set a minimum level of green space, including a requirement that new subdivisions have open space set aside. With a population of about 7,700, Mahtomedi has 15 parks encompassing about 144 acres — about 7 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents.

The program also entails simpler steps that, taken together, save resources. Those steps include setting water use restrictions for lawns, encouraging residents to pay utility bills online and a city purchasing policy requiring it to buy recycled paper and energy-efficient equipment.

St. Paul Park is the latest city in Washington County to join the program, signing on in February. The city is already aiming for Step 2 this year as well, said Addison Lewis, a sustainability expert with WSB & Associates, a consulting firm that has worked with Mahtomedi and St. Paul Park.

"Sustainability is a value for residents in that community," Lewis said of St. Paul Park's decision to join, and the program has proved to be a valuable tool to reach those goals. St. Paul Park, like many cities, had already incorporated those green-friendly practices even before joining the program.

GreenStep, backed by the League of Minnesota Cities, also offers a way for cities to share ideas with each other on those practices, Lewis added.

"It's a continuous improvement project," said Philipp Muessig, who coordinates the GreenStep Cities program for the MPCA. There are 54 cities in the program, with more joining all the time.

Its benefits are tangible and intangible, he said. First, cities make a solid commitment to sustainability, and just having that conversation is valuable, Muessig said. Then, the program "provides a framework, a structure to rally around, so there's value there," he said. And as communities go through the process of meeting the program's requirements, sustainability becomes an ingrained part of how cities are run.

Besides the assistance given to cities, the program's recognition awards are an added incentive, Muessig said. And if that isn't an inducement, being part of the GreenStep Cities Program can provide an edge when communities are vying with others for grant money for environmental projects.

Ultimately, he said, issues like sensible city growth, ample park space and transit that are tied to the environment are really about making more viable and attractive communities. "We really try to emphasize those social benefits."