The air is clean out here on the lake, for now. The hustle and bustle of the city takes its toll on me, and life is busier than I ever imagined it. I come to Great Salt Lake to go sailing and some days just to hike on the island.
It is now winter, there are a few of us hardy sailors dressed in our warm winter duds still out on the water. The cold lake offers peace and tranquility that we simply can’t find in the city. Standing on the bow, I look out over the horizon towards Salt Lake City, at a brown smudge full of toxins.
It reminds me of photos I had seen of Los Angeles when I was young. You may remember seeing photos of what was then the worst air quality in the United States. I always thought to myself, “I never want to live there or breathe that toxic air.”
Yet here I am, a Utahn breathing toxic air. It is common for us to have at least a handful of days during the winter season where Salt Lake, Logan, and Provo are consistently ranked by the American Lung Association in the top ten worst cities in the nation for air quality due to acute spikes in air pollution during a 24-hour period. I have lived in this great state for 46 of my 48 years on this planet, and I could have moved; but I love it here. Where else can you go sailing and skiing in the same day?
Even though the mountain ranges here in the Salt Lake Valley create a natural trap for air pollution, the air quality hasn’t always been like this during my lifetime. During the last five winters, I have had to carry an inhaler. It is well known that inhaling smog irritates the airways, thus increasing the risk of serious heart and lung diseases.
There are days when my eyes and throat burn, and if I start coughing, which I often do, I cough and wheeze as my body attempts to expel the toxins. The medicine in the inhaler helps open my lungs to receive more oxygen, but because of where I live, I inhale more contaminants instead of clean air.
Poor air quality affects our unborn children, youth, elderly, and our pets that make their homes along the Wasatch Front. Breathing in these tiny particulates could eventually kill my husband, who already needs a heart valve transplant. We Utahns spend our winters with shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, and fatigue.
When will we realize that our health, our air, and even our lake are worth protecting? Even changes to this lake will affect us. Utah’s proposed Bear River development project would divert 20 percent of this primary water source that feeds both the Great Salt Lake and the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the American West to provide more municipal water to the Wasatch Front, most of which will be used to water lawns. The diversion will further lower lake levels, destroy massive sections of wetlands, and displace migrating birds. Even worse, it will leave miles of exposed lakebed to become airborne with the next storm, further lowering our already poor air quality.
I sit here on the bow of the boat, miles away from Salt Lake City, the namesake of this beautiful lake, and reflect. Utah is a beautiful place but how much more it could be if its leaders enacted policies that show they care about the environment and the health of their constituents. Utah is a spectacular state full of opportunity, but also a place where leaders are neglecting the environment and the health of their constituents.
The boat gently glides across the still and nearly frozen waters, the sun slowly dips below the horizon, and we again face a fiery sunset, as tiny, dirty particulates create another breath-taking spectacle—beautiful until we realize just how much that view costs us.
Soon I will head home to yet another day of inhalers, coughing, and retching as my body tries to clear the toxins from itself. But for now, I wait for the sun to set on the Great Salt Lake and on a community of people who have promises to keep so we can all breathe a clean, collective sigh of relief.
Nicole Anderson is a Utah-born communication professional and freelance writer. She holds a master’s degree in Strategic Communications from Westminster College and is a former volunteer member of the Nature Conservancy’s Speaker’s Bureau. When she isn’t teaching or writing, you will find her outdoors hiking, camping, or sailing. b. 1969