Will Salt Lake City’s Growing Smog Threaten Its Economic Growth?

With smog keeping children indoors during winter months, the area’s reputation for healthy outdoor living could be on the line.

The view looking down into Salt Lake City through the smog in 2010.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 17, 2014, 9 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Salt Lake City — the New West.

SALT LAKE CITY — The smog over the city grew so thick dur­ing Christ­mas break of last year that In­grid Grif­fee would not let her kids leave the house dur­ing the day to build a snow fort or go sled­ding. Schools can­celed re­cess on some winter days as well. “It’s so sad to think that adults are telling our chil­dren that the air is too bad for re­cess,” says Grif­fee, a 38-year-old moth­er of four and a vo­lun­teer act­iv­ist with Utah Moms for Clean Air.

This is a way of life now for Salt Lake City res­id­ents, as air qual­ity be­comes a grow­ing con­cern. The re­gion’s air-qual­ity prob­lems crop up dur­ing the winter months, and some­times in the sum­mer, when air particles and pol­lu­tion be­come trapped in the val­ley in which the city lies. Heavy storms usu­ally can clear the air, but that’s hardly the type of fix that res­id­ents can con­trol, or any long-term solu­tion. And while res­id­ents wait for the storms to ar­rive, they feel trapped in­side their houses or of­fices. 

This smog makes res­id­ents worry about their health and that of their chil­dren. But an­oth­er con­cern has re­cently cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the state’s law­makers, gov­ernor, and loc­al busi­nesses — the pol­lu­tion’s po­ten­tial eco­nom­ic ef­fect. Tour­ism re­mains one of Salt Lake City’s fast­est-grow­ing sec­tors. Yet, what vis­it­or wants to fly in­to the city for a ski va­ca­tion, step off the plane, and not be able to see those snow-capped peaks? The smog also threatens Salt Lake City’s grow­ing repu­ta­tion as one of the best places in the coun­try to live, boast­ing a high qual­ity of life and easy ac­cess to the out­doors. These fea­tures have helped lure com­pan­ies such as Gold­man Sachs to out­posts here, a trend the city wants to en­cour­age.

Of­fi­cials in­volved in the air-qual­ity is­sue, such as Robert Grow, pres­id­ent of En­vi­sion Utah, a pub­lic-private or­gan­iz­a­tion de­voted to think­ing through the city’s fu­ture, are quick to point out that Salt Lake City’s smog does not crop up year-round. “Three hun­dred days a year, Utah looks like this,” says Grow, point­ing out­side to the bright, sunny weath­er on a re­cent spring day. “It’s not like Salt Lake has the same on­go­ing air prob­lems as Mex­ico or L.A.”

The good news for Uta­hans is that air qual­ity has now morph­ed in­to a top polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic is­sue — even if act­iv­ists de­bate wheth­er the policies have gone far enough. “The last two years have been bad, and that’s raised the con­cern among the pub­lic. I see that as a pos­it­ive thing since it’s mo­bil­ized the elect­or­ate,” says Alan Math­eson, the gov­ernor’s seni­or en­vir­on­ment­al ad­viser.

The city of Salt Lake City, led by a pro­gress­ive may­or, has tried to do its part by build­ing out an ex­tens­ive pub­lic trans­port­a­tion sys­tem and try­ing to foster a bike­able, walk­able down­town. At the state level, law­makers worked on more than 25 air-qual­ity bills dur­ing the last ses­sion, ran­ging from le­gis­la­tion to fund a green­er fleet of school buses to bills that would have al­lowed loc­al of­fi­cials to raise more tax dol­lars to fund loc­al trans­it sys­tems. (Neither idea sur­vived). 

The Salt Lake Cham­ber of Com­merce, a power­ful busi­ness group, lists air qual­ity as one of its top policy pri­or­it­ies. And Utah’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor has both spoken out about the im­port­ance of the air qual­ity and put forth a plan to try to re­duce pol­lut­ants from cars, build­ings, and homes over the next sev­er­al years.

The ques­tion, of course, is wheth­er these meas­ures will ac­com­plish enough to ac­tu­ally re­duce the smog in a mean­ing­ful way. Roughly 60 per­cent of the re­gion’s emis­sions come from cars and trucks, yet Salt Lake City is sur­roun­ded by sub­urbs where res­id­ents still drive in­to down­town for work. “The city is one-tenth of the pop­u­la­tion of the re­gion,” says Salt Lake City’s Demo­crat­ic may­or, Ral­ph Beck­er. “We have done and will con­tin­ue to do a lot to di­min­ish our con­tri­bu­tions to the air pol­lu­tion and the val­ley, but the only way we’ll be able to make sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the air qual­ity is to take it on on a re­gion­al scale.”

Loc­al en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists, such as Grif­fee, are also quick to say that many bills de­bated by the Le­gis­lature dur­ing the last ses­sion dealt with the prob­lem at the mar­gins. “It great to see so many bills dis­cussed on the Hill, and they all did a small little piece, but they were not the sys­tem­ic changes that we hope could be ac­com­plished,” Grif­fee says.

There’s little in­dic­a­tion that the air-qual­ity is­sue will dis­sip­ate, es­pe­cially as the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion grows. From 2000 to 2010, Utah in­creased its pop­u­la­tion by 23.8 per­cent, out­paced in growth only by Ari­zona and Nevada, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of census data done by the Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic and Busi­ness Re­search, a re­search cen­ter housed at the Uni­versity of Utah. And by 2040, policy wonks pre­dict that the state pop­u­la­tion will double in size, bring­ing an ad­di­tion­al 2 mil­lion res­id­ents to the Wasatch Front that in­cludes the Salt Lake City metro area. “Can we really fit 2 mil­lion more people along the Wasatch re­gion and keep filling up this bowl with emis­sions?” says Steph­en Kroes, pres­id­ent of the Utah Found­a­tion, one of the state’s pub­lic-policy re­search groups.

For now, the only re­mind­er of the winter smog this spring sea­son is a tiny in­fograph­ic atop one sec­tion of the city’s daily news­pa­per, The Salt Lake Tribune. Every morn­ing it reads “Air Qual­ity Today” and of­fers up a fore­cast for the daily level of smog and haze. That’s not something you see in every town.

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