November 30, 2011 By Lauren Katims Nadeau
In Norman, Okla., partnerships are key to making changes – and improvements – to the city’s environment and technology programs.
The Norman, Okla., Green Team has much to boast about this year. This interdepartmental group of city leaders recently helped Norman purchase its third natural gas refuse hauler, reducing exhaust by up to 94 percent. The compressed natural gas (CNG) haulers are an addition to the city’s 13 CNG vehicles. In another effort, the police fleet’s new auxiliary batteries are reducing engine idling time and allowing emergency equipment to run up to five hours on battery backup. Norman also qualified recently to be an official bike-friendly city.
“We’re constantly working on things,” said Debra Smith, environmental services coordinator for Norman’s utilities department and Green Team leader. “We’re on the forefront of attitudes.”
Norman has been recognized for its green efforts as the winner of the Keep Oklahoma Beautiful award for the past three years, including the recipient of the 2010 Environmental Excellence award.
Now the city has also made a name for itself in the field of technology. This year, Norman Public Schools became the first school district in the state, according to Norman school officials, to launch its own full-service mobile app for Apple and Android platforms. The app is free and is available to anyone – from grandparents to students to political leaders.
A GPS feature gives directions from the user’s location to any Norman public school. It shows lunch menus, achievement reports, Google calendars and offers direct access to the Parent Portal, social media channels and sports and activities updates. Emails or phone calls can be sent to teachers, staff or board members through a tap feature.
The app was developed by School Connect, a company within the Norman Economic Development Coalition’s eTec business accelerator program that specializes in K-12 app development. School Connect is currently working on launching free apps for school districts in Oklahoma City, Moore and Midwest City-Del City, Bixby and Tahlequah.
“One of the keys to engaging and being transparent to a 24/7 public is communicating and reporting where people are—and where they are is mobile,” Norman Superintendent Joe Siano said in a prepared statement. “We could continue to post school board agendas on schoolhouse doors and websites, or we could push them to citizens through mobile apps.”
School budgets in Oklahoma have been cut about 18 percent, and securing funds for mobile communications is not an option, Siano said. That’s why the help of sponsorships and partnerships is necessary to get a project like this off the ground.
City officials apply the same philosophy to starting new environmental projects.
“It’s important to address for environment reasons, but by doing this you save money,” said Smith.
Norman has received grants from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, private developers and the University of Oklahoma to help improve water quality in the region. OU students are working with a private developer to study over a five-year period the effects of rain gardens—four-foot holes filled with a perforated pipe, sand-like material and plants to help soak up pollutants in runoff water. Water wells and stream water buffers are also being analyzed for efficiency.
The concern is that polluted runoff drains into Lake Thunderbird, the region’s main source of drinking water that’s been labeled “impaired” because of phosphorus overload, most likely from fertilizer. “It’s happening all over the country,” said Bob Hanger, Norman’s storm water engineer. “Forty percent of the waterways and bodies of water are impaired.”
Lake Thunderbird’s pollution levels reached seven times over the state’s limit last summer. If nothing is done, the lake could be shut down and deemed undrinkable, said Hanger.
Hanger has led an effort to educate the public about fertilizer use, stormwater conservation and low-impact development. Plus, the rain gardens that are being added to a select group of newly-developed homes are expected to offer insight into how to fix the problem.
But other nearby cities haven’t been as eager to jump on board. “It’s a lot of trouble and time. You have to hire an engineer to design something,” Hanger said. “Unfortunately some cities won’t do it until you just force them. A moratorium [on development] could be forced upon the city of Moore and Oklahoma City. That’s how serious this could be.”
In the next couple of years, through testing and experiments, Hanger hopes to get a better idea of exactly what’s causing the pollution and how it can be stopped, and to motivate other Oklahoma cities to get involved in cleaning up the region.