St. Anthony used to dump 18 water towers' worth of storm runoff and other water into the Mississippi River each year. Then it turned around and pumped 24 towers' worth of groundwater to sprinkle the lawns of Central Park and City Hall.

"What a waste. We were just throwing it out like it was free," said public works director Jay Hartman of the combined 10 million-plus gallons.

That changed several years ago when, in connection with a road project, the city built an underground tank next to City Hall to collect runoff and use it for irrigation. Three fountains sit atop the tank, and the site has become a popular spot for wedding portraits.

The initiative is one of more than two dozen that St. Anthony has undertaken to be more eco-friendly and that it has reported as part of Minnesota GreenStep Cities, a voluntary statewide program aimed at promoting such efforts.

GreenStep provides participating cities with information, giving them an easy-to-follow list of how-tos. Since its inception four years ago, 69 cities have joined and reported 1,600 projects. St. Paul, Duluth and Coon Rapids are among the latest to join.

The goal is to make it easy for city and small-town leaders to institute policies and projects that are environmental and cost-effective and improve quality of life, said Philipp Muessig, GreenStep Cities program coordinator.

GreenStep is a public-private partnership led by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that has an annual budget of about $500,000, a majority from the nonprofit McKnight Foundation.

"It's a big landscape and people say, 'Just tell me what to do,'" Muessig said. "There are thousands of good things to do. We have winnowed down what resonates for the culture of Minnesota. It makes sustainability more real and helps cities realize you don't have to change everything at once. You just have to be a little smarter."

Not environment vs. economy

It's also about making sustainability and environmental considerations part of cities' standard operating practices — not just an occasional, above-and-beyond gesture.

"There is still this knee-jerk reaction [that] if it's environmental, it costs more. We are not about that," Muessig said. "It's not the environment vs. the economy."

GreenStep zeros in on 28 best-practices areas, including transportation, land use, buildings and lighting.

Cities work at their own pace, and projects ranging from the ambitious to the minute are embraced, such as:

• Swapping out incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact fluorescent at City Hall.

• Converting stoplights in a city to energy-efficient LEDs.

• Making it easy for residents to walk or bike by including trails, sidewalks and bike racks in development plans.

• Changing how cities bid out and award capital projects, allowing sustainability to be a factor in decisionmaking.

"It's changing all the little tiny rules. Cities have embedded in their operations and routines all these little rules that are unsustainable," Muessig said.

Many cities require that projects be awarded to the lowest bidder. GreenStep suggests: Don't just look at the capital costs. Have bidders supply figures for annual operations costs for the first 10 years.

In that context, green projects look more competitive, Muessig said.

A city's particular circumstances may create opportunities. In Grand Rapids, for example, hot waste water from the paper mill is used to heat the public library.

"They cut their heating costs by 70 percent by that hot water reuse," Muessig said.

St. Anthony partnered with Hennepin County, St. Anthony-New Brighton Schools and the local watershed agencies to build the $1.5 million water reuse facility — the first in the state. The reconstruction of Silver Lake Road was the catalyst for that project, because runoff was something that had to be dealt with as part of the road construction anyway.

St. Anthony, population 8,200, saves about $16,000 a year by reusing water. The city also has seen a 55 percent reduction in surface water discharge, meaning less runoff, which hurts water quality in lakes and waterways.

Cost questions

"Most cities get worried it will cost money and take a lot of staff time. Yet if they look at what they are doing, they are probably … leaning in that direction anyway," said St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust. "It just takes a commitment. Every time we do something, let's think about how we can do it better in a sustainable, green fashion. In some cases, it doesn't cost you anything. It just causes you to think."

Hartman said, "We are a small city in the metro, and look what we've done. It can be done."

Going green can be a tough sell in some suburbs. Some local politicians think that going green takes too much money or that their small contribution won't amount too much.

Muessig said a few cities have politely rebuffed membership. "There are cities for whom anything smelling of government is suspect," he said.

For the St. Anthony mayor, the green projects are popular with constituents, and he says it's the right thing to do. "You protect future citizens by what we do now," Faust said.