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Trathen Heckman says when his Petaluma-based nonprofit environmental organization, Daily Acts, held its first "sustainability tour" 11 years ago, he did a Google search to find out other groups who were doing the same thing.

He came up with only one reference: His own tour.

When he Googles "sustainability tour" now, he comes up with 15 million hits.

It's a reminder to Heckman of just how far the world has come in a relatively short period of time when it comes not only to understanding the word "sustainability," but to incorporating its principles into everyday life.

It was in 1987 that the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development introduced the term "sustainability," defining it as meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Think of it as the global equivalent of living within your means, and not spending down assets you can't replace.

Whereas even a decade ago, however, few people outside of the environmental movement knew what the term meant, now many middle-of-the-road Americans are turning the philosophy of sustainability into what Heckman's group calls "Daily Acts."

They're dumping SUVs and buying smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. They're taking up bicycling. They're getting into vegetable gardening, composting kitchen scraps and recycling trash, replacing water-thirsty lawns with native plants, raising chickens in their urban backyards, toting their own canvas bags to the grocery store and farmers market and seeking energy efficiencies in their homes. Solar panels that appeared weirdly futuristic in 1999 are showing up on tract houses and public buildings at such a rate they no longer turn heads.

But it's not just aware citizens trying to do the right thing.

Cities and counties are on board. They have sustainability coordinators and offices devoting to seeking out more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of providing services and running government. Businesses are adopting green practices, not only for good public relations but because it's good for the bottom line. And universities are offering degree programs and certificates in everything from green business and human ecology to green fashion. Sonoma State University last fall began offering a certificate in "Sustainable Communities and Green Building."

In November, the city of Santa Rosa sponsored a conference, "Sonoma County's Strategies for Sustainability," to establish partnerships with other community, business and government organizations and turn environmental talk into policies, actions and practices. And on Friday<NO1>, April 26<NO>, North Bay businesses will gather at Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park for the Sustainable Enterprise Conference, aimed at promoting more sustainable practices in business.

"Eight years ago ... people were suspicious of sustainability as being anti-business. Now we've crossed the barrier. ... The question I now get instead of &amp;&lsquo;What are you trying to do?' is &amp;&lsquo;How does this work in my business?'" said Oren Wool, who oversees the Sustainable Enterprise Conference.

"There is a long and rich history of environmentalism in our county, but there wasn't as much focus on situations outright. The solutions were happening then, but they were fewer and far between," said Heckman, who in 2002 applied his degree skills in business and marketing to establish Daily Acts to foster more green-living practices within the immediate community, at the grass-roots level.

What's happening now, he said, is that private citizens, businesses, government agencies and academics are not just talking and wringing their hands. They're finding solutions.

"Cities are willing to work with other cities and nonprofits. This collaborative nature is enabling so much more to get done," said Heckman, whose group has partnered on many projects, like working with businesses, homeowners and government agencies to create graywater systems that reuse water from sinks and washing machines for irrigating their landscapes.

"We have a sustainability manager that is part of the city staff. She goes around and looks at light bulbs and energy consumption, and based on that they've switched work hours to four 10-hour days to save on electricity costs," said Dave Iribarne, a water conservation coordinator for the city of Petaluma.

Whenever possible, the city is replacing municipal vehicles with hybrids and electric cars. The city has worked with Daily Acts to transform the landscape around City Hall and other municipal buildings from turf to a food forest, complete with raised beds of veggies and rainwater catchment systems.

Municipalities such as Petaluma as well as the county of Sonoma are focusing on "low-impact development" to reduce potentially toxic stormwater runoff and maintain and filter it naturally on site.

Water conservation efforts promoted by the Sonoma County Water Agency and the state, which has mandated a reduction in water consumption of 20 percent by 2020, have led to Cash for Grass and other consumer programs to cut water waste.

Susie Murray, a water resources specialist for the city of Santa Rosa, said since 2007, the city's turf-removal incentive program has resulted in at least 2 million square feet of thirsty grass being replaced with low-water-use plants and permeable hardscapes.

Petaluma takes it even further. Their Mulch Madness program doesn't just encourage people to remove grass. Since that can result in lawns being ripped up and deposited in the landfill, Iribarne said the city gives homeowners virtually everything they need to kill their lawn. They can receive not only cardboard for sheet mulching but compost, mulch, kits to turn spray irrigation systems to drip and even starter plants in 4-inch containers. So far, 500 <HY0>homeowners </HY>have taken advantage.

On a larger scale, Sonoma County has an Energy Independence Program to serve as a central clearinghouse for information about energy efficiency, water conservation and renewable energy generation. The board of supervisors, in conjunction with the Sonoma County Water Agency, is exploring the idea of establishing a local public-power agency to boost support for renewable energy and spur investment in local power projects.

For all of the efforts and economic and environmental forces that have moved green practices into the mainstream, the transition to sustainability is still in the beginning stages.

It's difficult to actually quantify progress, said Ann Hancock, who founded Sustainable Sonoma County in 1998 and later the Climate Protection Campaign. But there are some positive indicators.

Sonoma County greenhouse-gas emissions totaled 3.8 million tons in 2011, according to a new report by the Climate Protection Campaign. The good news is that in the last three years, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 14 percent in Santa Rosa. Since 2008, emissions have fallen by 600,000 tons as the county and its nine cities work to meet an ambitious goal of dropping 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2015.

Advocates all say that for any meaningful progress to be made in slowing climate change, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, preserving water, cutting down on solid waste and conserving energy while developing new clean energy sources, there needs to be an integration of efforts among public and private sectors.

The collaboration is starting to happen, said Heckman, with individuals changing their lifestyles one act at a time.

"It's good for people to look around and stop and celebrate what's working in their lives and in our community," he said. "But it's also good to be really honest about what is at stake. There's never been a time in human history when choice mattered more. And it all comes back to daily acts and the power of relationships."

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.)

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