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Becker, White House staff meet on pressing climate change challenges

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker speaks in Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2013.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker speaks in Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2013.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The White House came to town on Friday to hear what climate change challenges are uniquely problematic for Salt Lake City: air pollution, wildland fires, and protecting the watershed.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker hosted White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs David Agnew and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley during a discussion on choices leaders can make to craft more climate-resistant communities, and where and how the federal government should help.

Afterward, details of the discussion were highlighted in a media event appropriately hosted at the Salt Lake Public Safety Building, which is the nation's first "net zero" energy building — meaning it generates as much energy as it consumes.

Agnew said the challenge of building cities that are more adept at withstanding the damage of hurricanes, fostering neighborhoods less ravaged by floods or erecting mountaintop structures not as combustible by fire is not a job any single level of government can accomplish.

"I don't think any one level of government can drive this train by itself," Agnew said, stressing it takes local, state and federal government working in tandem to arrive at breakthrough solutions to problems posed by a changing climate.

The Friday event, which tapped the input of a diverse group of Utah residents, was held as part of the ongoing work of the newly formed White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Becker was one of 14 mayors across the country chosen last year to serve on Obama's task force, which is co-chaired by Agnew and Sutley. The two have been traveling the country, checking in member cities or states to build on a framework for moving forward.

For Agnew and Suttley, the visit in Salt Lake City was an opportunity to see examples of municipal planning that is already in place to craft a city less vulnerable to natural disasters or extreme weather events.

In particular, Agnew said the visit unfurled information about Salt Lake City's watershed protection strategies that have already been implemented, its embrace of mass transit or bicycles as options to move people around and thus reduce pollution, and its long-term planning to enhance "livable" downtown communities.

He specifically pointed to the newly-operational Sugar House Street Car as an example of Salt Lake City choosing "sustainable" transportation options for its residents.

"You can see these projects on paper but it is another thing to see them," he said. "Getting out brings a texture and really a depth of knowledge to the conversation you don't get in D.C."

Becker told reporters the community session was a give and take of blunt, candid conversations about how the federal government can help cities in the planning and implementation process, and how it can help things go more smoothly by breaking down the barriers between its own agencies.

As leader of a city that wants to add to its bank of available renewable energy, Becker pointed to a planned 300-megawatt solar project in Millard County and how the federal government could be an integral player in helping Provo-based Energy Capital Group channel some of that solar energy north to the Wasatch Front.

On the immediate front of challenges, Becker said the city has to perform a curious dance of sorts when it comes to looking out for its supply of water from the mountains because that watershed is housed on federal Forest Service property.

And, as winters continue to bring more rain instead of snow, Becker said the challenge of maintaining and protecting that water supply will only become more complex.

"It is the biggest reality of what we are facing today," in terms of ensuring those protections, he said.

Becker also noted that the Wasatch Front's poor air quality gave the White House staffers a timely view of how air pollution threatens the livability of not only the city, but the region.

"From our vantage point, air quality issues are front and center," said. "It is so detrimental to our region, to our residents. The problems of a changing climate go hand in hand with air quality."

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