Why the Air in Metro Phoenix is Fresher These Days

PHOENIX – The Phoenix area is famous for its warm spring days and wealth of outdoor activities, but it’s also known for something less flattering: some of the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association ranked the Phoenix-Mesa area as the seventh worst for ozone pollution, behind Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities.

Evidence of that ranking is the brown cloud that often hovers over metro Phoenix, but because of a looming cloud of a different sort – COVID-19 – many residents are staying home and out of their vehicles.

“We’re seeing less of the emissions that come out of the back of cars,” said Nancy Selover, the state climatologist. “So the brown cloud, the brown cloud is very much reduced in the Phoenix area.”

In just one week’s time, daily traffic delays plummeted approximately 32% across Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people.

The time that commuters spent in traffic fell from nearly 56,000 hours a day during the second week of March to about 38,000 hours in the third week, according to a travel time delay index by the analytics company INRIX. This means that on average the time Maricopa County travelers spent in their cars to get to a destination decreased.

Data from Descartes Labs in New Mexico also suggests a downward trend in Maricopa County’s mobility through its m50 index. This index looks at the median distance people in a given area travel from where they started the day. This lack of mobility is something Selover has noticed as well.

“Because the traffic is less, we’re seeing less air pollution,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is collecting data on how COVID-19 has impacted emissions as people drive less. Gov. Doug Ducey on March 19 ordered gyms, bars and most restaurants in Maricopa County to close their doors to contain the spread of COVID-19, and on Monday extended the stay-at-home order to all 15 Arizona counties. That means people must remain at home unless they need to access essential services, such as the grocery store or the pharmacy.

“Vehicles driving on the roads are the biggest contributor to the man-made ozone in the Phoenix area and produce the majority of nitrous oxides (NOx) that are needed to create ozone,” Erin Jordan, ADEQ’s public information officer, said in an email.

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone higher in the stratosphere is produced naturally, and it’s necessary to protect against ultraviolet light. It’s the man-made ozone, produced by cars, manufacturing and power plants, that causes problems in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Jordan said metro Phoenix was below average for moderate ozone days for the month of March, but she noted there could be many factors, including Phoenix’s recent wet weather, which can wash pollutants out of the air.

Other agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, are detecting similar trends. Air quality has been good in the Los Angeles area, said Bradley Whitaker with the South Coast district, but weather factors into this, too.

“There’s been a lot of day to day changes in the weather and weather tends to be the most important factor that impacts air pollution concentration,” he said. “I would say, just generally, levels of emissions tend to drop during times of reduced economic activity, which we’re certainly in right now.”

And better air quality isn’t just being seen in Phoenix and Los Angeles but across the globe. Countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China and Italy, have seen significantly lower emissions. In China, emissions have gone down by more than 25% since the initial outbreak in late December in Wuhan, a major commercial hub.

That trend isn’t new. Emissions have historically dropped in times of crisis, for instance, wars and periods of economic uncertainty. During the Great Recession, economic activity slowed and emissions dropped, Whitaker said.

The brown cloud usually seen over metro Phoenix this time of year has been reduced in part because people are driving much less due to the coronavirus. In fact, March saw below average moderate ozone days, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Although more time is needed to study how COVID-19 has impacted emissions, Selover said this decrease will be just a blip on the radar when it comes to the larger impact on climate in Arizona – at least for the immediate future.

“At this point in time, they’re not going to see those changes and emissions have any immediate impact on climate,” Selover said. “Temperature is not going to drop because of that or any of that kind of stuff.”

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With so many people staying at home, some might expect energy use to go up, but Arizona Public Service – the state’s largest supplier of electricity – reports that home energy use has seen a flat line of services. This means power use is more evenly spread throughout the day, leading to an increased opportunity for solar use during sunlit hours.

“We’re early right now in terms of the load forecast or what we are seeing. We are certainly seeing a decline in overall system load right now,” APS CEO Jeff Guldner said at the March 23 meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Regardless, some, such as Laura Dent, the executive director of the advocacy organization Chispa AZ, encourage people to think about the role emissions play in their daily lives. She hopes people will learn from this stay-at-home experience, adding that it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to achieve reduced emissions and other sustainability goals.

“We’re coming together for the safety of everyone,” Dent said. “It has been really inspiring to see the collective action across stakeholders in our community, individuals and families. We’d love to see that similar movement, build and grow in relation to this longer-term crisis related to climate change.”

Dent said recognizing the environment’s value is more important now than ever before. She sees that happening with people, who are staying at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, now turning to the outdoors as a way to get out of their homes, and remain physically distant from others.

“In the very early stages of self-quarantine, millions of Americans are recognizing the importance of public space and parks,” Dent said. “I think all of us can recognize that there’s so many added values, not only to making sure that our society continues, but also that we have, you know, quality of life and well-balanced for our families moving into the future.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

At least 2 well-metering bills at Arizona capitol

Multiple bills in the Arizona Legislature are tackling well metering due to the lack of groundwater regulation outside of central Arizona.

This comes after a series of recent reports in the Arizona Republic showing large industrial farms in rural counties are drilling deeper wells, but these companies are not required to disclose exactly how much water they are pumping.

Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) is proposing a bill to let the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources require a meter on wells outside of “Active Management Areas,” which govern the central part of the state. The director could also require an annual report.

Kavanagh said it’s the first step in addressing overuse.

“Everybody’s saying we don’t have the information. So this gets the information,” he said. “Then nobody has an excuse not to act. People can’t be willfully blind in the face of a possible impending water crisis for some residents of our state. And I feel sorry for those residents.”

Meanwhile, a bill from Kirsten Engel (D-Tucson) would simply require well meters outright for large-scale irrigation.

Kavanagh said he had not spoken to House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) about his bill and didn’t know if he supported it. Bowers told the Associated Press last week he was concerned about overdrafting.

“If nothing else, this will start the conversation and maybe it will cause this to be placed into one of the other water bills that are moving forward,” Kavanagh said. “But you can’t stay willfully blind. There’s no excuse for that.”

Rep. Regina Cobb (R-Kingman) said she will soon propose a bill to create an additional regulatory tool called a rural management area.

“I don’t even want to reduce agricultural growth if it can be recharged. If it’s not recharging, we’ve got an issue. If it’s taking away from municipalities that have been there already, we’ve got an issue. If it takes away from their growth and development, we’ve got an issue,” she said. “So we have to look at all those parameters and come together with a decision for that community. And I think that’s where a rural management area works.”