Mila Dunbar-Irwin

[Courtesy Photo]

Mila Dunbar-Irwin is five months into her role as Moab’s sustainability director. Her biggest project right now is to create a new sustainability plan for Moab, one that sets goals that will do enough to protect the natural resources that surround the city while also being achievable.

“[We’re] only trying to make things better, now and in the future, to make the Moab community more resilient in the face of whatever it is that will happen with the changing climate,” she said.

You’d be surprised at the things a city can get done with the support of a community that cares as much about the climate as Moab’s does, Dunbar-Irwin said—her role feels very inspiring.

And yet, the City of Moab has hardly any official policies in place that support sustainability. That’s what Dunbar-Irwin is attempting to change.

“At the same time that it’s a really inspiring place to be, with a lot of low-hanging fruit, it’s also a little overwhelming, because there’s so much to do,” she said.

The city has tried in the past to create sustainability frameworks. In 2009, the city passed a “2020 vision plan,” which outlined six goals concerning water conservation, water reuse, energy efficiency, sustainable construction, retrofitting for sustainability, and community awareness. The plan outlined specific objectives for 2020 such as, “reduce the City of Moab government’s proportionate use of non-renewable fuels by 20%” and “increase the number of homes retrofitted with energy efficient home improvements by 40%.”

Of these, Dunbar-Irwin said, the only goal that was actually tracked was the one that concerned water conservation: “reduce per-household, per-business and City-owned facilities’ water use by 20% by the year 2020.”Since 2009, Dunbar-Irwin said, the city has been using less total water, while increasing population. But it didn’t manage to meet the goal of using 20% less.

The reason that data was tracked so meticulously is because of Moab’s water conservation plan, which is its largest current sustainability project, and which is mandated by the state. The city is currently operating out of the plan that was passed in 2016—one of Dunbar-Irwin’s first projects was a 2021 update to the plan, which is currently in the draft stage and will come before a public hearing this fall.

Of the other goals—2020 has come and gone, without any official mention of the 2009 vision plan.

In 2019, the sustainability director at the time, Dr. Rosemarie Russo, tried to create a Sustainability Action Plan, which outlined ambitious goals, even for Moab. The goals included a “reduction of community greenhouses gases by at least 80% in 2040,” “reduce trash by 20% per capita by 2032,” and “decrease construction debris landfilling by 50% by 2024.”

But the plan fell apart as it was brought before the City Council. On its fifth draft version, Councilmember Kalen Jones criticized the document for not including council members’ previous suggestions, such as a better plan for public transportation, and for numerous grammatical errors. On its sixth version, Evan Tyrrell, then the manager of Solid Waste Special District #1, noted that his district was almost entirely excluded from the plan, and the Community Recycle Center was completely omitted. Plus, he said, the landfill data in the plan was out of date.

“I know it’s not exactly what everyone wants,” Russo said at the time, “but it’s a great document and I think we should just approve it.”

The seventh draft version of the plan was supposed to appear before the council on November 26, 2019, but never did. The plan never reached past the draft stage. Russo left the position in early 2020. Carly Castle, then the assistant city manager, had filled in the gap between when Russo left, and when Dunbar-Irwin was hired earlier this year.

Dunbar-Irwin’s Sustainability Action Plan will draw on past sustainability measures, including the 2019 plan, but will have newer, more relevant goals, and more community engagement.

The plan will have 11 sections: energy; transportation; water; air quality; economy; health and wellbeing; community and engagement; procurement, materials and waste; land use and planning; ecosystems; and buildings and maintenance.

Dunbar-Irwin is also putting together five technical advisory groups, made up of local experts, community members, and city staff. The groups will review the goals that were laid out in 2019 and make suggestions for edits.

The timeline for the plan would ideally have the plan being adopted in February 2022. In September and October, technical advisory groups will convene; in October to November, the plan will open up to public comment; and in December to January, the plan will be workshopped in City Council meetings. By then, there will be two new council members, replacing Mike Duncan and Karen Guzman Newton, and a new Mayor, replacing Emily Niehaus, but Dunbar-Irwin said she wants both the old council and the new to have a say in the sustainability plan.

There will also be a “Community Future Vision Session” on Thursday, September 30, facilitated by Dunbar-Irwin at City Hall. During the session, community members can voice what they think Moab’s priorities should be in its sustainability goals.

The sustainability department is largely grant funded, Dunbar-Irwin said. Finding money for sustainability projects can get “a little bit tricky,” she said—certain funding sources require a percentage match from the community that receives the funding, and the city currently has a backlog of over $60 million in capital improvement projects.

In the long term, Dunbar-Irwin believes the new sustainability action plan will do enough to conserve Moab’s natural resources. She uses the S.M.A.R.T. goal setting framework to set goals that are “specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely.”

“We’re not going to be setting goals that are ‘we’re going to build a giant bubble around Moab to stop climate change,’” she said. “Ideally, through this technical advisory process and conversations in the community and the council, we’ll be setting reasonable goals that we can meet with certainly a bit of a stretch, and some good effort, but nothing that’s completely unachievable.”

“It’s really amazing working with this community that has so much support for these kinds of things,” she said. “It’s inspiring.”