Grand Junction, Colorado, seemed like the perfect spot for Jerry Nelson and his wife to retire from Champaign, Illinois, where he had been an economics professor at the University of Illinois. Ringed by stunning mountains and nestled against the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, the city of 62,000 people offered an ideal climate and plenty of hiking opportunities.
But in the winter of 2013, as Nelson flew into town after a business trip, he was shocked to look out his window to see a thick, yellow haze, not the crisp mountain air he was used to.
“It was like flying back into Los Angeles on the worst days of the L.A. smog,” Nelson said. “There was brown haze everywhere.”
A cold-air inversion had trapped polluted air in the Grand Valley, which encompasses the city. Rattled by the smog, Nelson joined Citizens for Clean Air, a group of local residents determined to find out what was causing the pollution. Members shared stories about morning-walk routines interrupted by haze and worsening asthma symptoms along the Western Slope, the part of Colorado west of the Continental Divide.
The 2013–14 inversion was the worst the area had seen in recent years, but the resident activists are fearful that a growing population, a seemingly endless wildfire season, and the Trump administration’s push to expand oil and gas drilling could make those smoggy days a regular occurrence. According to data compiled by the left-leaning Frontier Group, part of the larger Public Interest Network of advocacy organizations, Grand Junction had 86 days in 2016 in which the air-quality index for ozone or particulate matter registered “moderate” or higher, a designation that the air could be unhealthy for people with some respiratory conditions. That was the fourth highest in the state, and only 12 fewer such days than the much bigger city of Denver had experienced the same year.