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City’s greenhouse gases dropped, but council wants specific targets to cut future emissions

While total emissions in the city dropped 8.9% between 2016-2019, transportation was one of the areas in which emissions increased, according to a report presented to the city council Tuesday. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Harrisonburg’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped nearly 9% over a three-year period, according to a new city report, and now the council wants its environmental committee to review ways to reduce pollutants and set targets to further cut those emissions. 

Between 2016 and 2019, emissions dropped 8.9% overall for the city and 16.3% in the municipal sector, which includes city government and public safety operations, as well as schools, according to Harrisonburg’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory report. The report, presented to the city council at Tuesday’s meeting, shows that the most emissions came from transportation and commercial sectors, with the largest single source of Harrisonburg’s emissions being electricity.

Sean McGinnis, the director of green engineering at Virginia Tech who was hired by the city to help complete the inventory, said the information in the report is like the starting location on a road map. 

“But without the baseline and the year after year of steps, you can’t tell where your biggest opportunities are and you also can’t tell if you’re making progress where you plan initiatives,” McGinnis said. “So now that you have the baseline in 2019 data, any steps that the environmental planning group takes can be measured in future years.”

The report also mentioned that overall emissions are lower, at least in part because Harrisonburg’s electricity — which comes from Dominion Energy — now comes from more diversified sources, including biogas, and less from coal. But transportation emissions have increased slightly, at 1.8% over three years.

Solid waste also increased 36% over those three years, but McGinnis said solid waste can vary from year to year, “just because there can be big swings in demolition of buildings or the amount of waste that comes and goes to a landfill.”

Council member Laura Dent underscored the importance of the last line in the report, which reads “the key is that local action plans start as soon as possible to reduce emissions sooner than later to minimize environmental and societal impacts.”

“While the city can lead by example, it’s going to take the whole community doing whatever measures we can implement to introduce renewable energy at the residential, commercial, community, even industrial factors,” Dent said. “Where the city can lead is both by creating our own renewable energy where we can, and by education and outreach and where possible, incentive programs in the community.”

The council formally asked the city’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee, of which Dent is a member along with many community members, to review the inventory report and take the next steps toward recommending policy decisions. 

For instance, the next phase of EPSAC’s work involves inventorying other aspects of the community — like maintaining and increasing a healthy tree canopy — while EPSAC’s Phase 3 involves establishing targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a certain year.

Dent said she was eager to get the inventory in the hands of EPSAC, “where we’ll be hashing out these processes in more detail” for those next steps. 

Water supply update

In his annual update on the city’s raw water supply, director of public utilities Mike Collins offered the council several recommendations to secure enough gallons in the future, especially during droughts. 

While the city needed 9.8 million gallons a day to handle peak demand during drought conditions, the city could need as much as 15 million gallons a day by 2070 because of population increases, Collins said. 

Collins said the city heavily depends on water from Dry River and Switzer Dam, which has been a primary source of water for the city since 1898. 

And “that’s a little risky,” he said. “The second week of August we had almost 60% of our water supply running across the top of the ground evaporate. And I had never seen such a high number, and it caused a little concern.”

He said he’s seen a drought in which no water entered the dam twice in his lifetime, and while it’s a sustainable source of water, it’s not reliable enough to continue to depend on.

The North River, another source of water for Harrisonburg since 1970, will soon cease to be as dependable for the city because of an environmental stewardship agreement to not remove more than 12% of the water supply in times of drought.

Collins said the South Fork of the Shenandoah River is poised to become the drought supply, with the potential to provide 9.1 million gallons of water a day, leaving the city short of its goal.

“At that point in time, down about 2040, 2050, we’ll have to look for a little something,” Collins said.

He also said the city is providing their future successors some flexibility.

“Even in my short lifetime here, I’ve seen this go in directions I’ve never imagined before,” Collins said. “My only concern is that maybe we have to make the dam bigger, or maybe we have to sink a well up there to feed into the dam during drought, those are the kinds of things I worry about. But do I see it happening? Not until 2040 or 2050, and then things may look different than they do today.”

Also in the meeting …

The council appointed Donna Armstrong to the City Planning Commission.


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