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DEQ’s Legacy of Clean Air, Land & Water

by Dianne R. Nielson, Ph.D.

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Dianne, far right, with Governor Mike Leavitt

Governor Mike Leavitt (Dianne Nielsen, far right)

Congratulations and thank you to Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) employees and board members for 25 years of outstanding work and commitment helping to protect, improve, and sustain the quality of Utah’s air, land, and water.

As Utahns, we value our special places, from our own backyards and communities, to our parks, open spaces, streams and lakes, snow-capped mountains, and canyon bottoms. We expect to be able to work hard during the week and play or relax on weekends, all while breathing clean air, drinking clean water, and enjoying clear vistas and healthy landscapes throughout the State.  For a single agency, no matter the size or budget, this is a daunting task. But working together, we are doing just that.

From DEQ’s early beginnings, Governor Bangerter, working with the Legislature to establish the department, recognized the importance of an environmental quality department that could provide the scientific expertise and on-the-ground perspective to meet Utah’s environmental challenges and work with federal agencies to ensure that the federal regulations were implemented through workable state primacy programs. DEQ had to earn the trust of the public, business, and the Legislature and dispel fears of over-reaching regulation.

Dianne with Scott Anderson, now the division director of Waste Management and Radiation Control

Dianne with Scott Anderson, now the Director of the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control

Governor Leavitt recognized that it was not just what we did to protect the environment, but how we did it. Not only did individuals, businesses, and interest groups have a stake in the success of environmental plans; there were agencies at the state, local, and federal level, as well as Native American nations, which had authority and responsibility for the lands and resources involved. Talking together, sharing concerns and desires, working together in a transparent, collaborative process to meet common objectives, as partners, we developed and implemented countless programs and environmental clean-ups. Many of the partnerships and collaborations continue today.

Under Governor Walker’s leadership, steadfast commitment to clean air and water, and clear vision of the state’s potential, we worked to improve and sustain a quality environment.

When federal leaders failed to develop a comprehensive national energy policy, states took the lead. Governor Huntsman, joined by other western governors, recognized the environmental benefits as well as the economic development potential and strategic national importance of expanding our energy portfolio to include renewable resources and energy efficiency.

Utah DEQ is committed to effective environmental stewardship, with an on-the-ground perspective and the experience and technical experts who can help understand the science and interconnectedness of our environmental challenges and solutions. And yet, sometimes we struggle to improve air quality and water quality.

Dianne, center, at the DEQ Annual Employee Picnic

Dianne, center, at the DEQ Annual Employee Picnic

We have outgrown some of our early solutions. For example, vehicle emissions account for a significant portion of the air pollution along the Wasatch Front. Since the first State Implementation Plan was written to control harmful ozone emissions along the Wasatch Front, the population in Salt Lake County alone has increased by more than 50 percent. With cleaner fuel vehicles, increased rail and bus ridership, and better community tools and planning, we have been able to meet the air quality health standard. But now the sheer increase in numbers of people and vehicles offset individual technology improvements. Also, health-based standards change as we learn more about the impacts of pollution on people and the environment, again requiring collaboration and new/improved strategies and technologies to reduce emissions. Furthermore, changes in global and regional climate and the impacts of those changes – drought, wildfires, hotter temperatures, more haze and trapped pollution in the valleys, and transport of more pollution from other regions – make air quality and water quality standards harder to attain and maintain.

We all need to do more:

  • Know what you can do to improve and sustain your environment, and do it.  DEQ’s website provides information and examples to keep citizens informed and enable us to improve the environment in our homes, businesses, and communities.
  • Apply the lessons we have learned, to solve new problems. The examples from the past help us to understand how to succeed in the future.
  • Participate in the process. Follow the issues and provide your input. Let your political officials at the local, state and federal level know about your concerns and expectations for the quality of our air, land, and water. And Vote.
Our most important and lasting impact will be the environment we leave to our children and grandchildren. Make it great!

19september2016-dianne-160Dianne served as the Executive Director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, 1994-2007.  She also served Utahns as Director of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (1983-1994) and as the Governor’s Energy Advisor (2007-2011).