It was a Sunday in May 1983. As mayor of Salt Lake City I was on the phone with Gordon B. Hinckley, who would later become president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints. "I know it is a Sunday, sir, that's why I called. You are the only person I know who can get 5,000 people downtown to throw sandbags. You see, City Creek is overflowing its banks and it endangers the whole city." I also called the Catholics, the Jews, the Episcopalians, the Baptists, the Buddhists and every other religious figurehead I could.
The religious leaders did their job and some 10,000 Utahns arrived on State Street. In one day they built the equivalent of a pyramid. Late in the day, some people were fishing and even running the Eagle Gate Rapids on kayaks.
It was truly lemonade made from lemons, and I am one to believe that such a massive turnout in times of need is something unique to this state. A Time magazine picture captured the essence of Utah caring: a young woman in a wheel chair passing a sandbag to the next person.
Fellow Utahns, we are in need again. Were I mayor again I could call religious leaders and make it simple. This problem is complex, and involves a far more insidious threat: Utah's deteriorating air quality jeopardizes our health and our jobs. Bad air is eroding our unique mountain valley beauty.
Yes, bad air days are episodic so most of the time we are OK. But on bad days, it is really bad. And though the air is still cleaner air than most of our history, it is dangerous and must be addressed.
That's why I took the job as director of Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR.) I hoped someone, anyone, had an answer.
UCAIR is not an advocacy agency. We do focus on giving people ways to improve air quality. We serve to educate and to provide partnerships with all groups working on the air issue. We award grants to those organizations to help them do a better job.
UCAIR is mostly a way of calling us to our deep cultural roots. Like when we scampered to the flood of 1983, UCAIR is again sounding the alarm for action. If you care, and I know most of us do, there are simple ways to have huge impact. We can see to it that our kids and grandkids grow up healthy. We can attract jobs created by companies that may be shunning us right now.
Could we all have a plan, at least for the episodes? It doesn't need to be a big deal. Why not run all your errands in a loop and avoid the cold auto startups, hours apart, that harm our air? Why not car pool? Businesses can help make this happen. Drive the kids to school, and take some of their friends, too. Give up spray bottles with volatile organic compounds. And please douse those wood-burning fires. They are thousands of times worse than a gas log. As a bonus, we have one of the finest public transportation systems in America. Give it a try?
Simply give a hoot if you don't already. And have a plan. Use the plan when the scientists tell us a bad patch of air is coming. Stick to it until the air clears. Think about doing it all the time.
I know you care. You are a Utahn.
Ted Wilson is director of Utah Clean Air Partnership, a nonprofit with the goal of cleaning our air with individual responsibility and methods. He is the former mayor of Salt Lake City and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.