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.

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.