Lean And Green

By Russ Bosanko

The Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Department in Washington is the largest land steward in the county, and its parks, trails, and open spaces contribute to the clean water, clean air, healthy forests, and great beaches residents enjoy. The park system boasts more than 11,000 acres, 107 park properties, hundreds of miles of trails, and more than 47 miles of fresh and saltwater shoreline. Major regional park assets such as the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, Kayak Point Park and Golf Course, Lord Hill Park, and the Centennial, Interurban and Whitehorse Regional Trail systems host local, regional, and national events that draw more than 4-million visitors each year.

Snohomish County Parks is recognized as a leader regionally and nationally for its efforts in creating a fully sustainable park system. This focus on sustainability is divided into three areas:

  • Social equity
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Fiscal sustainability.

The park department has found that these three areas are intertwined and, in particular, that improvements in environmental stewardship have furthered the goal of fiscal sustainability. Annually, the department generates 74 cents for every dollar provided from the county’s general fund. By continuing to build on successes in environmental stewardship improvements (e.g., water and power efficiencies), the department anticipates further growth in the return on investment (ROI) that is realized, which supports continued provision of an amazing park system.

More With Less
In recent years, the park department has responded to increasing pressure to operate with reduced resources, while, at the same time, continue and even expand the number of facilities and services provided. In 2000, the department managed 3,824 acres of developed parks and 4,300 acres of undeveloped land. As of November 2015, the figures were 7,145 and 4,284 respectively. This increase has occurred while the number of full-time staff has decreased from a high of 78 in 2008 to a current level of 67, and general-fund operating budgets have been reduced over $200,000. To address these challenges, the department has identified and prioritized resources around the following strategies:

  1. Fiscal and environmental sustainability in the context of an entrepreneurial-based system, focused on exceptional customer service, efficient staffing models, and strong ROI.
  2. Building brand and stakeholder equity while lowering maintenance and operations costs through volunteerism, leveraged labor, community investment, and cooperative interagency agreements.
  3. Strategic capital investments that honor long-term commitments in creating new parks and amenities with a strong emphasis on lowering maintenance and operational costs and leveraging capital funds in public/private, public/non-profit, and city/county partnerships.

Saving Money With Sustainability
Environmental sustainability improvements have supported fiscal sustainability efforts, and the following are examples of completed projects and associated savings:

  1. Installation of Maxicom irrigation controllers. Use of these units throughout the park system has become the standard and allows application of water based upon site-specific weather conditions. This system has allowed the application of irrigation to match the plant evapotranspiration rates and reduce waste. In addition to water savings, fertilizer needs are also reduced because the fertilizer is not being washed out with over-watering. There is a third benefit in protecting nearby water bodies from inadvertent fertilizer loss. We expect that water consumption will be reduced by 30 percent through the use of this type of system, which roughly equates to $20,000 savings in water per year.
  2.  Zero Waste Fair. The department operates the second-largest fair in the state with approximately 340,000 attendees per year. In 2015, previous efforts were expanded to divert waste generated from this event away from landfills and implement a “zero waste” strategy. This strategy was implemented through placement of 50 zero waste stations, which provided options for recycling, composting, and (some) trash. Volunteers were on hand to help fairgoers utilize the new system, and by the end of the fair, 40 tons of waste were diverted from the landfill. In addition to the environmental benefits of this effort, the department also realized almost $14,000 in savings in trash handling fees.
  3. Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting retrofits. At one park alone, replacing standard light fixtures with LED resulted in a savings of over 40,000 kWh per year. This equates to an annual savings of $3,500 and an avoidance of 30 metric tons of carbon emissions. This same work has been pursued at other parks, and a total savings of more than $26,000 per year is anticipated based on these upgrades. In addition, occupancy sensors that automatically turn off lights and ventilation fans when the building is not occupied have been installed.
  4. Installation of a 44 solar-panel system on new park shelters at a universally accessible park and playground. The supporting shelter was specifically designed for solar panels, and the shelter slope and aspect were planned to maximize solar collection. In Snohomish County, energy collected via solar panels is being used to offset site-power needs and can also be net-metered back into the energy grid at a payback rate of 54 cents per kWh. In total, the panels are expected to collect enough solar radiation to cover all energy needs of the park; during the first 6 months of operation, the panels collected 4,500 kWh and saved nearly $300 in energy savings. 

Besides the efforts outlined above, other strategies the department has implemented for environmental/fiscal benefit include:

  • Replacement of tank water heaters with on-demand units for power savings
  • Installation of automation systems that allow for timer-based unlocking of facilities for reduction of staff travel
  • Installation of occupancy-based light and ventilation controls for power savings
  • Replacement of hundreds of trash cans with centrally located dumpsters for reduction of staff travel
  • Seasonal closure of some facilities where use is low in the off-season for reduction of staff travel
  • Expanded use of smart phones for tracking work orders and sharing of documents for efficiencies in completing projects.

Working Together
With a finite number of full-time employees available and a limited seasonal/part-time budget, we continue to work closely with union workers and representatives to find areas where Friends groups, Boy Scouts and Eagle Scout candidates, foundations, juvenile-offender work teams, college interns, local church and civic organizations, contract county-jail inmate crews, and numerous non-profit organizations can help manage and operate some park assets and amenities that could not be provided to the public at the same level without their assistance.

Looking Ahead
As we get closer to this goal of 100-percent sustainability, the incorporation of additional energy, water, and operational efficiencies will be a key component. We anticipate replacement of aging infrastructure with newer, more efficient models, implementation of new technologies, data tracking of existing systems, and constant evaluation and re-evaluation of everything we do while remaining lean and “green,” yet continuing the mission of providing a great park system to the citizens of the county.  

Russ Bosanko is the Park Capital and Operations Division Manager for the Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Department in Washington. Reach him at Russ.Bosanko@co.snohomish.wa.us.

Sharon Swan is the Parks Principal Planner for the Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Department.

Garrison Marr, Jeremy Husby, Bridgid Smith, and Rich Patton contributed to this article.