Matt Petersen (right) with Eric Garcetti in June 2013, shortly before Garcetti took office Global Green USA

Matt Petersen is L.A.'s first chief sustainability officer, charged with drafting an ambitious plan for a city grappling with drought.

Matt Petersen, the first Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Los Angeles, has been dealt a tough hand.

He likes to start presentations by reminding his audience that L.A. has the worst air quality of any region in the United States. "We still are defined as a community by traffic, and, of course, made fun of on Saturday Night Live because of it," he says. The city experiences more extreme heat days every year, and with them, record energy use and an increased risk of wildfires. The possibility of an earthquake looms over every major planning decision.

And then there's the water thing. "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion," wrote Joan Didion in a 1977 essay on the precarious nature of the state's water supply. "Those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way."

Petersen, a California native and the former CEO of the environmental organization Global Green USA, has no doubts on that score. But the recent drought has made the case clear. "Unlike climate change, which is tough for people to see, drought is very evident. It's real," Petersen says.

In his hiring announcement last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti described Petersen's extensive purview: He helms "a citywide effort to make every neighborhood healthier, create green jobs, and hold every city department responsible for cleaner air and water." The press has labeled Petersen a "sustainability czar."

His job, in his words, is to be "a catalyst, a cheerleader, and a driver of change."

Pom-poms aside, Petersen's immediate, concrete task is drafting Los Angeles' first-ever sustainability plan. The document, which is expected to come out this winter, will make recommendations for how the city can accommodate the coming decades of growth in a landscape that looks less amenable with each passing year. The agenda will likely span goals from transit to air quality, renewable energy to healthy-food access.

Mayor Garcetti and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touring the L.A. River last year (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

It's modeled after New York's much-lauded PlaNYC, released by Michael Bloomberg in 2007; Bloomberg Associates, the consultancy staffed by members of the former New York mayor's brain trust, is one of the consultants on the L.A. project. By now, many other U.S. cities have rolled out their own sustainability plans, including Philadelphia, Denver, and Santa Monica, next door to L.A.

Supervising this comprehensive effort has been made more feasible, Petersen says, by a consolidation of authority under Garcetti. Where the previous mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, delegated to 13 deputy mayors, Garcetti has only four. ("Certainly reduces the number of people you have to go talk to," Petersen notes.)

Nevertheless, Los Angeles has a lot of ground to make up. In 2010, faced with recession-era budget shortfalls, Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council eliminated the city's Department of Environmental Affairs and 27 positions therein. Petersen, who represents the renewal of a centralized environmental policy, has a staff of four.

"He's got a giant boulder to move here, and not a lot of money or staff to do it," says Daniel Freedman, the board chair of the non-profit Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative. "There was no broader vision for a sustainable Los Angeles coming from City Hall, and that's the setting that Matt Petersen stepped into." Still, Freedman maintains that he's optimistic about what the Garcetti administration can achieve.

A Californian tends to her drought-resistant plants. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The current crisis may offer an opportunity to reform this vast and unwieldy metropolis. Just as Hurricane Sandy reinforced the necessity of adapting New York to a more volatile future, the drought has emphasized the essential vulnerability of life in Southern California.

"It's unfortunate that it took a crisis to mobilize that kind of support, but I think people are responding," Petersen told me. (The state's $7.1 billion water bond proposal, the first such measure since 2006, passed a referendum on Election Day by more than two to one.)

For example, he says, the single biggest opportunity for reducing Los Angeles' water consumption by 20 percent over the next few years—a step that Garcetti promised last month—is in replacing lawns. It's exactly the kind of situation where sustainability advocates have been perceived, in the past, as opponents of not just pollution and waste but of the American lifestyle itself. (Lawn grass is the nation's biggest irrigated crop, after all.)

As the city offers a $3.75-per-square-foot Cash in Your Lawn incentive, Petersen thinks the culture is changing. "Now people are really saying, 'You know what, I'm going to replace my lawn.'" Perhaps, instead of drought-resistant cacti and sunflowers, they’re installing Astroturf—but it's a start. "Just getting them to that place is something that wouldn't have happened before," Petersen says.

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