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Jay Evensen: Believe it or not, the air has gotten better

Haze settles in the Salt Lake Valley on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.
Haze settles in the Salt Lake Valley on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The caller was so angry she never gave the mayor a chance to respond.

“You simply must do something about the terrible smog in Salt Lake City,” she said. “I simply can’t stand it any longer.”

If nothing was done, she said, “I’m going to sell my house and move to Los Angeles.”

The call could have happened any time during the last week or so as skies along the Wasatch Front inched closer to the ground and the mountains disappeared faster than anything David Copperfield could have accomplished.

But it didn’t. The Salt Lake mayor taking the call was Earl J. Glade. The call came in December of 1949 and the reporter who memorialized it was Dan Valentine, who at the time wrote for the Salt Lake Telegram. He put it in his column as a comical side note, made funny because the caller threatened to move to Los Angeles, a city even then famous for smog.

Smog jokes tend to go over like a lead tailpipe these days, and I question how many people were laughing even 68 years ago. The following year, around Christmas 1950, the air was thick for 19 days, and newspapers talked about illnesses it caused. In those days, a lot of people heated their homes with coal, they still burned their fall leaves and they drove cars that, even when new, belched smoke.

The point here isn’t just to note that inversions have been with us a long time. Indeed, you can find evidence of smoky skies over the city as early as the 1870s. The unique geographical shape of northern Utah valleys — along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley, in particular — cause high-pressure patterns that trap cold air below in a stagnant, immovable mass.

That won’t change unless someone knocks down one of the mountain ranges.

No, the point is to examine whether anything has improved since the good old days. In 1950, the city was the hub of a metro area of 358,214. Today, it is the hub of a combined statistical area of about 2.5 million.

You would expect all those extra people to have made things worse. But while it doesn’t diminish the health effects of bad air to those who suffer, the truth is things have gotten better.

As I write this, the state Department of Environmental Quality reports an air quality index in Salt Lake County of about 170, which is considered unhealthy. A number of burn restrictions are in place and people are being urged to drive less.

But a long-term study of air quality by the University of Utah, making comparisons back to 1980, shows a steady improvement along the Wasatch Front. The yearly average air quality index score in 1981 was 141.76. In 2014 it was 45.82.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s newly released budget proposal for next year notes that, despite a population increase of 26 percent between 2002 and 2014, statewide emissions fell by 46 percent per capita during that time. That’s a result of strict new rules for industry, better automobile production standards and a public awareness that has made it impossible for me to find a seat on a train in recent days.

Sure, presenting these statistics right now is like telling someone who was robbed, beaten and left in a ditch that he should be grateful the overall crime rate is down. And, while the most vulnerable among us struggle to breathe, state leaders also must cringe at the damage done by news reports of foul air.

Inversions are natural events that can’t be twisted into anything positive. No one would go to an Inversion Days Festival or march in an Inversion Days parade, at least not without a gas mask. Photographers aren’t snapping smog shots for the next scenic Utah calendar.

But progress has been made, and there is room to make things better. For example, the state could adopt a more aggressive congestion-pricing plan for major roadways, where prices rise and drop according to traffic congestion. Tier III fuel standards could make cars even more efficient.

Those things probably wouldn’t stop angry people from calling politicians and threatening to move when skies are gray but, in the overall scheme of things, they might make the dreariest winter days a little more bearable.