Landfill space is cheap and plentiful in Texas. But, with Austin officials concerned with environmental conservation and sustainability, they set a goal in 2005 to eliminate all (or at least most) waste going to the city's landfill by 2040, says Matt Watson, policy director for Mayor Will Wynn. “We're not running out of space, but, landfills are not popular pieces of public infrastructure,” he says.

Because sustainability — planning for the most efficient use of community resources — is a complicated process, however, many cities and counties are enlisting consultants to plan waste reduction programs, preserve water resources and help measure carbon emissions. Austin already had a recycling program and incentives to encourage residents to produce less waste, however, Watson says it needed somebody with expertise to analyze how it could most efficiently achieve the zero-waste goal. “We determined that if we were really going to be serious about it, we ought to bring in some national-level expertise,” he says.

“[Sustainability consulting is] a new field. As we speak, the metrics of it are being written,” says former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, now a senior resident fellow for the Washington-based Urban Land Institute (ULI), a non-profit organization that researches land use and development issues. “From what I'm seeing, every major engineering firm will have a sustainability division [in the near future.]”

Taking out the trash

Solid waste planning can reduce a landfill's physical as well as carbon footprint — the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by sources in the community. In late 2007, Austin hired Loomis, Calif.-based Gary Liss & Associates to help the city reduce the amount of waste going to its landfill by 20 percent in 2012 and 100 percent by 2040. “They've been meeting with stakeholder groups, our solid waste advisory commission, our Solid Waste Department, and council offices,” Watson says. “They're coming up with some pretty detailed proposals about how we can achieve the next set of measurable increments of improvement.”

To reach the zero-waste goal, the city, in conjunction with the consulting firm, is introducing single-stream recycling — where recyclables are placed in one bin to eliminate sorting — that will encourage residents to recycle more. Austin also has limited the use of non-compostable plastic bags and requires producers of electronic devices to recycle their old products. “We've taken all the normal, progressive steps a city takes to try and have advanced waste management, but until now, we haven't really gone beyond that to achieve a zero-waste goal,” Watson says.

Watson says the city needed consultants because they have experience city employees do not have. “Since their entire business is focused on this, they've already run through a lot of the scenarios that we might think up, and [they can] help us anticipate which ones would work better here and which kind of strategies might not work so well,” he says.

While many best practices are freely available, Watson says they are not “one-size-fits-all.” Consultants can help communities pick the most cost-effective means for achieving their individual goals.

Protecting the source

Maintaining the water supply is increasingly important to communities across the country, especially in areas that have been experiencing severe drought, such as the Southeast. Florida has the second-highest water consumption rate in the nation, according to the Office of Sustainability at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. There, the average person uses 150 gallons a day, more than twice the national average.

Tampa Bay Water, which serves 2.5 million people in three counties and three cities, depends heavily on groundwater, but growing demand has been placing stress on the aquifer. In the last several years, the utility has considered alternate water sources, says Water Quality Assurance Officer Christine Owen.

The utility turned to several consultants to help determine what water sources to use, when to use them and how to best manage them. “On our groundwater sources, we would like to operate in a way that's consistent with sustaining that resource for generations,” Owen says. “That is looking at systems — ecological, natural water systems — and seeing how much of the system can [be used and] can [the system] rebound from that use. Not pushing a system too far, but getting what you can out of it.”

The utility works with New York-based Hazen & Sawyer to create computer models that predict the reliability of water sources based on supply and demand. The models, which predict future use, allow the utility to balance the amounts of water it extracts and puts into the reservoir, which holds only a six-month supply. “Our surface waters are pretty ephemeral, [and] the availability from stream flow is [seasonally] dependent,” Owen says.

Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch also helps the utility manage demand for water and forecast demand growth patterns, Owen says. “A lot of people don't think of [controlling demand] as an actual water source,” she says. “If we can manage demand, that actually puts off the need to develop a new supply because it structures your existing supply.”

The utility is using alternative water sources, most notably seawater. Its 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant began functioning in 2003 and became fully operational in January. The plant uses reverse osmosis membranes to remove salt and minerals from seawater at high pressure, and has produced 2.5 billion gallons of drinkable water since March 2007.

However, the desalination plant and other alternative sources require more energy to operate. “What we want to be able to do is choose the right kind of processes, put them in the right order and places, so that we have the best life-cycle cost benefits,” Owen says.

The new growth industry

While many cities want to take steps to protect the environment — evidenced by the more than 800 that have signed the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement — most officials lack the technical know-how to make the changes necessary to achieve sustainability goals. “If you asked most mayors a year ago ‘How much carbon did your city produce in 1990, and, if you're going to reduce it by 12 percent, how are you going measure [the reduction?]’ nobody knew how to measure it,” Murphy says. “If you can't measure it, it's hard to figure out how you're doing in reducing it.”

Today, consultants are expanding to fill those needs, such as carbon emissions measurement, which includes collecting data on local transportation, waste and energy consumption, according to Oakland, Calif.-based ICLEI, a non-profit provider of emissions measurement software. Once communities know how much carbon they are producing, they can take steps to reduce that amount or trade with lower-producing communities for credit. Carbon trading allows cities to buy carbon “credits” from companies or cities that produce “surplus” emission reductions through new technology or the use of renewable energy. The credits count toward achieving overall emissions reduction goals.

America's Climate Security Act, proposed by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent of the 2005 level by 2050, could feed the market for buying and selling carbon reduction credits by setting the rules and standards for carbon trading, Murphy says. “It will create a whole new market in carbon trading, and it will require calculations that [most local officials are not] going to be able to do,” he says. “So, you're going to need lots of consultants to help.”

ICLEI, formerly called the International Conference of Local Environmental Initiatives, presents a plan to its member cities about ways to reduce their emissions and make their communities more sustainable, says Annie Strickler, ICLEI communications director. The organization, which has 800 members worldwide and 375 member cities in the United States, offers its members “Clean Air Climate Protection” (CACP) software, which calculates the emission level in the community and by how much it needs to be reduced to meet a set goal. “[The emissions inventories] are different for every case,” she says. ICLEI also offers member cities extra services, including performing emissions inventories, developing climate action plans and organizing training workshops.

For all the advancements in the field, today's sustainability consultants may not be going far enough, says Steamboat Springs, Colo.-based environmental consultant Bill Wallace, author of “Sustainability 101: The Basics Every Consulting Engineer Should Know,” a presentation written for the Washington-based American Council of Engineering Companies. Trendy approaches to sustainability, such as energy efficiency upgrades for buildings, have a certain value but do not address the global issue of sustainability, he says. “Global warming has demonstrated to people that this is a bigger deal than this type of accessorizing will deal with,” he says. “Most consultants seem to be helping their clients feel good about being green, but only a few are doing something substantively, [such as] projects that radically reduce [the clients'] consumption of resources.”

Instead, sustainability consultants need to take a completely different approach to engineering, Wallace says. Consultants in different disciplines should find a way to work together to achieve maximum effect, he says, but an even more difficult challenge will be replacing the nation's current infrastructure. “To be sustainable in the truest sense, you need to change the way infrastructure is designed,” he says. “[Local government planners must] step back and revisit the entire infrastructure and [ask], ‘What do I have to have to reduce the use of resources and energy and really try to achieve super conservation?’”

Ed Brock is the associate editor for American City & County.