Environews: May 2018

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.

“I don’t want to be a god, even if I can. I want to be a servant of god, if by god we mean nature, life, the world. I want to be small in the world, belong to it, help it along, protect myself from its storms and try to cause none myself.” – Paul Kingsnorth

Population growth, traffic and roads

Utah’s population keeps growing, and traffic keeps getting more congested. Nobody wants to sit in a traffic jam, but counterintuitively, making driving easier causes a phenomenon called “induced traffic” that ultimately makes traffic worse.

The nearby Wasatch Mountains are reaching a crisis point. The Utah Department of Transportation says that on a busy day, more than 6,600 vehicles go up Little Cottonwood Canyon alone. The problem is, construction of a wider road or more parking would also ruin the scenery and natural beauty that people drive up the canyon to experience.

Recently a group of University of Utah engineering students considered the problem of how to mitigate Little Cottonwood traffic problems without widening the road. The students concluded that the cheapest, least environmentally damaging solution would be to charge user fees and tolls in order to persuade more people to ride busses. During the 2018 General Session, the Utah Legislature passed SB 71 “Road Tolls Provisions” with Little Cottonwood Canyon specifically in mind.

Improvements to bus service could also help. Ski areas already issue UTA bus passes along with season passes, but ridership is low. In past years, transit service has been inconvenient at the end of the ski day when everyone wants to go home at the same time. Also, busses don’t run in the summertime when peak crowding can be just as bad.

Other student ideas include traffic apps that would let people book a seat on a bus or reserve resort parking; building avalanche sheds to prevent road closure; and making minor improvements to facilitate traffic flow around parking lots.

The student project came at a good time since the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is currently preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for Little Cottonwood Canyon, anticipating that a draft for public comment will be ready by Winter 2019. Canyon transportation planning could be a model for other road projects because nobody wants to ruin the canyons. There is public pressure to take environmental considerations seriously and a willingness to consider options besides just building more pavement.

By contrast, overzealous planning for widening roads in other parts of Utah threaten to destroy the very places people are trying to drive to. In Davis County, UDOT plans to make Highway 89 into a freeway over understandably strong objections from people whose neighborhoods will be ruined (Residents’ Voices United on 89).

Likewise, the West Davis Corridor freeway expansion is already set to despoil neighborhoods and bird habitat in Farmington Bay. A citizens’ “shared solution” offered a better plan, but traffic took priority over preserving wildlife, farmland and neighborhoods.

Cottonwood Canyons planning offers a chance to do things a better way.

Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS: udot.utah.gov/littlecottonwoodeis/#to;

US-89 State Environmental Study: udot.utah.gov/us89/; Residents’ Voices United on 89: revu89.org

Keep Baldy Bald! (Alta Ski Area Expands)

In April the U.S. Forest Service approved controversial plans for new development at Alta Ski Area. The most obtrusive change would be a tram from Germania Pass to the top of Mount Baldy. The ski area claims the tram is needed to transport ski patrollers for avalanche control but Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, calls the tram “an abomination.”

Besides the tram, Alta is planning to build avalanche infrastructure on Devil’s Castle, and to construct a new lift. The resort also plans to expand parking lots despite already unsustainable levels of traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The cumulative impact of this construction threatens to damage alpine wetlands and wildflowers as happened during the replacement of Supreme lift in 2016.

Alta Ski Area has taken over summer management of Albion Basin. Starting this summer, the resort will charge a $6 fee to drive to park at trailheads for Catherine’s Pass and Cecret Lake and run a summer ski lift (for a fee) to carry still more hikers into Albion Basin meadows. Save Our Canyons is leading a campaign to “Keep Baldy Bald,” opposing the Forest Service’s finding of no significant impact from these projects.

Save Our Canyons: saveourcanyons.org; Alta Master Development Plan fs.usda.gov/project/?project=48903

Suburbs generate more CO2 than cities

A study of carbon dioxide emissions in Salt Lake City found that new suburban development emits significantly more greenhouse gas than similar population growth within an urbanized area.

The study on long-term urban carbon dioxide observations used a network of sensors maintained by the University of Utah that have been measuring CO2 in the Salt Lake Valley since 2001.

While it is not surprising that new development increases emissions, the finding that urban emissions did not grow suggests a strategy to limit global climate change.

The high level of greenhouse gas emission from suburban developments is mainly due to driving cars and large houses that require more energy to heat and cool.

State of Wasatch Front air, not so good

The American Lung Association says the Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem metropolitan area is among the most polluted in the United States. A report on State of the Air 2018 says that out of more than 200 cities, Wasatch Front cities ranked #8 for 24-hour particle pollution and #18 for high ozone days. The American Lung Association website has information about health risks and how to protect yourself from dirty air. See also Ashley Miller’s “Breathe” column in this issue.

American Lung Association State of the Air 2018: lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/

Stop the Inland Port land grab!

During the 2018 General Session, the Utah Legislature staged a surprise land grab of Salt Lake City’s North West Quadrant, 28,000 acres of largely undeveloped land in Great Salt Lake marshes near the airport.

Without holding public hearings or even warning City government what they were up to, the Utah Legislature passed a bill to create an unelected “Inland Port Authority,” overriding Salt Lake City’s own master plan for the area.

The inland port law limits environmental regulation of hazardous “natural resources” (like coal) and raises deep concerns about increased air pollution and other environmental impacts from a massive new industrialized area near the city.

The Great Salt Lake ecosystem is already under serious threat from the cumulative effect of many projects happening all at the same time: the West Davis Corridor freeway near Farmington Bay, a proposed new landfill on Promontory Point, construction of the prison and airport in the North West Quadrant, and de-watering the Bear River due to the Bear River Project (220,000 acre/feet) and a water grab of Bear Lake runoff (400,000 acre/feet).

Citizen groups, including the Audubon Society and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, are working to oppose inland port development or, as a last resort, to make sure public comment and environmental impact assessment is part of development.

Salt Lake City government has added a Northwest Quadrant website for updated information. You can also stay updated via the Facebook page “Community Coalition for Inland Port Reform” associated with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Salt Lake City Government: slccouncil.com/northwest-quadrant/; Community Coalition for Inland Port Reform (Facebook): bit.ly/2qMJ8A4

Heat waves in the West: hotter, longer, more often

Salt Lake City is in for some hot weather. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association say that by 2020 human-caused global warming will be the main driver of heat waves in the western U.S. (as opposed to natural climate variation). As the effects of climate change kick in, heat waves are expected to be hotter, longer lasting and more frequent than in the past.

NOAA Study: bit.ly/2qnf7Yr

Win prizes for Great Salt Lake art!

The annual Alfred Lambourne Prize for Great Salt Lake-themed art is open for submissions through May 15. The prize is sponsored by Friends of Great Salt Lake to celebrate the relationship between local artists and our inland sea. Prizes of $400 are awarded in each of four categories (visual art, literary art, sound, and movement). Finalists will be invited to display or perform their work at a reception on September 7. Mark your calendar. You’ll see Great Salt Lake in a whole new way.

2018 Alfred Lambourne Prize. (Submissions due May 15, 2018) fogsl.org/programs/alfred-lambourne-prize

This article was originally published on May 2, 2018.