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Interview with EPA Region 9’s Karen Irwin

At the Sustainable Cities Network, we have maintained contacts within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 9, the subdivision of the EPA serving the Pacific Southwest–including Arizona. Many resources are available through the EPA but the representatives within municipalities may not know about these resources, how to navigate them, or that the Region 9 Office can provide more targeted assistance. Karen Irwin, our primary contact at Region 9, has answered some questions to let us know how to best connect with the Region 9 office and resources.

Karen is an Environmental Protection Specialist in the U.S. EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office. Her work involves forming strategic partnerships with local governments and other entities to advance sustainability objectives such as renewable energy, waste reduction and recovery, and green streets and landscapes. Karen’s projects encompass developing informational tools and resources and providing technical assistance. She developed three national scale online tools published on EPA’s website. Prior to her current job, Karen served in EPA’s Air and Water programs acting on local rules and regional plans to meet national air and water quality standards. She received a Masters of Public Affairs from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Q: What resources and opportunities does EPA Region 9 offer to Arizona communities?

A: EPA offers a wide range of informational and analytical tools to help local governments move forward with sustainability initiatives in their communities, as well as grant and contractor technical assistance opportunities in certain focus areas. Sustainability initiatives supported by EPA encompass smart growth/walkable & transit-oriented communities, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste reduction & materials reuse and recovery, sustainable water & wastewater infrastructure, and green fleets, among others. Our tools often highlight best practices and exemplary programs implemented in urban and rural communities across the U.S. that can serve as case studies or templates for other communities.

Learning more specifics about the types of sustainability initiatives that Arizona local and tribal governments are interested in pursuing, as well as local needs and priorities, can help me identify which EPA tools and resources would be the most relevant and useful, as well as available resources from other organizations. I can also facilitate connections to Region 9 staff with topical expertise, if not myself, to offer support. For example, one of Region 9’s offices works to expand pollinator habitat; conversations fostered through the SCN network have led to interest by this office in pursuing a pilot project with an SCN member community to develop a pollinator protection plan, along with pollinator habitat.

Q: What activities are happening in other EPA Region 9 states that can benefit Arizona communities?

A: Several California communities (urban and rural, small and large) are leaders in sustainability, benefiting from State programs and funding that support implementation of environmentally beneficial practices. EPA Region 9 tracks many of these activities and can share with Arizona communities successful examples from California that are replicable in other areas.

Q: What are some opportunities that you can see for communities to improve their sustainability efforts? Low-hanging fruits?

A: There are many ways communities can incrementally improve their sustainability efforts – one of the lowest-hanging opportunities is to expand the objectives of a current project a local agency is already pursuing to add complimentary sustainability elements. For example, if a public works agency is re-designing a road to make it more pedestrian friendly, the re-design can integrate other ways to make the road project more sustainable, such as tree canopy, landscaping that infiltrates water, greener paving practices and pavement (e.g., to reduce urban heat island effect and use recycled materials), energy-saving light fixtures, pollinator-friendly plants, and clean construction equipment. Many of these elements can be implemented at equivalent or lower cost compared to conventional practices. Other low-hanging fruit opportunities exist with local government procurement and contracts, building permit review & approval, water and wastewater utility projects, fee structures for trash and recycling, and donation of edible food that would otherwise be wasted.

Q: How can cities get in contact with you and EPA Region 9 as a whole?

A: I encourage cities to reach out directly to me by phone (415) 947-4116 or email (irwin.karen@epa.gov). I’m also happy to connect Arizona communities to other EPA Region 9 staff who address various aspects of sustainable approaches for water, air, and land.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

A: EPA Region 9 is a resource! I see great opportunity with ASU’s Sustainable Cities Network structure to exchange ideas, consider how EPA assistance may be beneficial in securing robust local outcomes, and to share information on successful examples and how to overcome obstacles.

 

Since its convening in 2008, the Sustainable Cities Network has maintained contact with EPA Region 9. This ongoing connection has allowed for each body–Region 9, ASU, and Arizona communities–to learn and share knowledge, case studies, and resources, so that each’s lexicon of sustainability best practices steadily expands and so partnerships may emerge when interests align.

 

Interview conducted by Erin Rugland, SCN Student Assistant, via email