Government

Profile: New sustainability position brings new focus in Cedar Rapids

Eric Holthaus is Cedar Rapids first sustainability coordinator

Cedar Rapids Sustainability coordinator Eric Holthaus stands near a new solar array installed on the roof of the Northwest Transit Garage in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. It is a new position for the city. The array generates 90 kilowatts and supplies over half of the power needs of the garage throughout the year. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Sustainability coordinator Eric Holthaus stands near a new solar array installed on the roof of the Northwest Transit Garage in northwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. It is a new position for the city. The array generates 90 kilowatts and supplies over half of the power needs of the garage throughout the year. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Idling vehicles may not sound like a big deal, but spread out over a fleet of hundreds it has a noticeable impact, said Cedar Rapids new sustainability coordinator Eric Holthaus.

He estimates Cedar Rapids in a year could save $86,000 and 35,000 gallons of fuel. A newly adopted idling policy requires turning off vehicles after 1 minute of idling unless it compromises safety or powers critical equipment and limiting preheating or precooling a vehicle to no more than 5 minutes.

“It can extend the life of the vehicle, we can save on fuel costs, and reduce emissions,” Holthaus said.

Holthaus is the city’s first-ever sustainability coordinator, and Cedar Rapids is just the third city in Iowa with such a position, joining Iowa City and Dubuque. He will focus on these types of initiatives sensitive to the planet, saving money and good social practice.

The concept of sustainability often is pigeonholed as just about environment, but the economic and social aspects are just as important.

“You can’t separate environment, economy and community,” he said.

Jeff Pomeranz, Cedar Rapids city manager, said Holthaus has an important role in bringing strategy and focus to sustainability. The efforts should have little costs, but rather should save the city money, he added.

“Many communities, including Cedar Rapids, have been working on these efforts for years,” Pomeranz said. “What’s different here is that we now have one person who is able to focus directly on these issues, creating a coordinated and strategic plan for ongoing improvements.” Holthaus, 29, came to Cedar Rapids after earning a bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of Iowa and master’s degree in urban and regional planning at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He worked as energy and waste steward at Luther College in Decorah, and then recycling coordinator and later sustainability manager at the UI.

Sustainability has a been a personal and professional commitment for years.

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“The only way forward is to talk about these challenges with facts and humility, get comfortable with complexity, and seize the opportunity to become better because of it,” he said. “If we raise the bar on what we expect of each other, our community will only be stronger.”

During his time as an undergraduate, he lobbied then-President Sally Mason for more emphasis on sustainability, served on the search committee for the first sustainability director, Liz Christiansen, and became the office’s first intern.

While in school, sustainability positions started popping up around the country, he said.

Christiansen called sustainability an emerging field in the past several years and most major communities, major businesses, universities and not-for-profits have someone responsible for implementing the sustainability agenda.

Since being hired last November, Holthaus compiled a 21-point community sustainability assessment. Among findings, Cedar Rapids has good water quality, but struggles with “food deserts” where vulnerable populations have limited access to food.

The first step is taking a look in the mirror, he said.

In addition to the idling policy, Holthaus has led a zero waste kick with a focus on composting and diverting waste from the trash, and an effort to require certified sustainable products in a cleaning vendor contract. He’s also has helped with the installation of a solar array at the Northwest Transit Garage.

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