In Fast-Growing Southwest Utah, One City Organizes to Protect The Night Sky | KUER 90.1

In Fast-Growing Southwest Utah, One City Organizes to Protect The Night Sky

Jul 26, 2019

IVINS — Around 11:30 p.m. on a recent, cloudless Monday night, Tim Povlick was hard at work measuring the brightness of the sky. 

At the city limits of this canyon town less than 10 miles from St. George, the Milky Way gleamed above as Povlick craned his neck upward and pointed a sky quality meter — a handheld device that measures ambient light — towards the stars. The high-desert rolled westward towards the horizon.

Beside him, with clipboard in hand and flashlight clenched between his teeth, stood Mike Scott. 

“20.75,” Povlick called out. “It’s ‘cause we’re closer to the city, right?”

“Right,” Scott replied, as he recorded the measurement. “You can see sky glow coming up from St. George.”

Scott and Povlick are members of the Ivins Night Sky Initiative, which started recording quarterly sky brightness measurements earlier this year. Their objective is to establish baseline data for their area so that it will be possible to understand how light pollution above the city is changing as Ivins grows.

What the group ultimately wants is for Ivins to become an “International Dark-Sky Community” — the first city to be awarded the distinction in fast-growing southwest Utah. City officials are on board, too, betting that starry skies free from light pollutionare good for the bottom line, not only as a benefit for residents but also as a tactic to save energy and attract tourists. Their strategy is to shape growth in a way that protects the night skies and create a resource that will set Ivins apart for decades to come.

To earn the classification, the city will have to demonstrate what the International Dark Sky Association describes as “exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky.” That means taking steps like recording quarterly sky brightness measurements, passing strict outdoor lighting ordinances and organizing educational events.

The challenge is an influx of people. 

Like much of Southwest Utah, the city has been growing fast: Its population doubled from 4,500 to 9,000 over the past 20 years and is projected to double again over the coming decades. Washington County, where Ivins is located, is expected to triple in population between 2015 and 2065, according to projections from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Roughly half the county’s 168,000 residents live in neighboring St. George.

Even if the city secures the designation, initiative co-founder Scott acknowledges that it will be impossible for Ivins to insulate itself completely from the light pollution in the surrounding area. Still, he’s hopeful that if the city does take this step, they can help others do the same. 

“By doing this, we’re learning a lot and we’re documenting it all,” he said. “We’re basically going to be a resource or a library for other resources to use.”

Light Pollution: The Big Picture

The local-level information collected by the initiative is invaluable, says Jessica Cleeves, the founder of the Utah Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association. 

“We don’t know we need the data until we need the data,” Cleeves said. “So those who are visionary enough to start collecting it, we’re incredibly grateful for those folks.” 

Ivins Night Sky Initiative volunteer Tim Povlick holds his Unihedron sky quality meter. It is the most widely used device for taking scientific-quality sky brightness measurements.
Credit David Fuchs / KUER

While precise city-level sky brightness data are not yet available in Utah, Cleeves said that light pollution is increasing across the state at a rate 2% faster than development, according to information gathered from satellite imaging. 

In other words, population growth isn’t the only factor contributing to Utah’s brightening skies. The other is technology. 

Older outdoor light bulb technologies — like high- or low-pressure sodium — tend to create a yellower, warmer quality of light. But as they start to fade, more energy-efficient LEDs are the most common replacement. 

“The unfortunate thing about the LED revolution is that we choose badly,” Cleeves said. “We thought we would want LEDs that mimic daylight and it turns out that’s a really bad idea.”

The daylight-like quality of LED lighting is rich in what experts call “blue light,” which Harvard Medical School and American Medical Association have linked to adverse health effects like disrupted circadian rhythms, obesity and cancer. Dark Sky advocates also point out that blue light has negative impacts on local wildlife, too.

In Ivins, however, the city has developed a homegrown workaround. 

Two years ago, when the city was struggling to replace dying, low-pressure sodium bulbs, the city engineer put out a call to various companies looking for alternatives. But it was the city’s fleet mechanic, Wilson Jimenez, who designed the technology that prevailed. 

His answer was simple: amber-colored acrylic inserts, specifically tailored to cover the various shapes of LED bulbs used in the city’s street lighting. But the design process was complex. 

Jimenez said it took him about six months and 20 iterations to design a solution that offered the same warm, amber color as the low-pressure sodium lights to which Ivins residents were accustomed.

Ivins Fleet Mechanic Wilson Jimenez fits a shield onto his light-filter prototyping station in the city garage. He designed the amber insert that adapts the city’s LED bulbs to be "night sky friendly" and has custom-built about 150 inserts to date.
Credit David Fuchs / KUER

Jimenez’s designs are poised to become widespread throughout Ivins as the city’s old-fashioned, pressurized sodium lights wear out. In late June, the city passed a lighting ordinance that cuts the maximum brightness of city-owned outdoor street lights nearly in half. Soon, all of the city’s outdoor LEDs will require one of his inserts. 

The Night Sky As An Economic Tool

For Ivins Mayor Chris Hart, reducing blue light is an easy and necessary choice. He first moved to Ivins from Idaho over 20 years ago and says the night sky has been part of the conversation at city planning meetings since the early 2000s. 

“We talked about the things that were worth preserving here, the things that were important that we wanted to plan to keep and that we didn't want to see messed up as development took place,” he said. “The night sky was one of those things.”

From Hart’s perspective, the night sky above Ivins isn’t just beautiful; it’s a distinct economic resource. 

He’s not alone in that view. Visitors will spend over $2.5 billion trying to see dark skies in the national parks across the Colorado Plateau, according to research from Missouri State University. 

Hart said his city is already seeing the effects of increased astro-tourism in the area

“We now have two major resorts,” he said. “And that is, in part, because we have developed the image of the city — of which this International Dark Sky designation would be a component — that set us apart.” 

But for volunteer Tim Povlick, protecting the night sky isn’t just about the money, safety or aesthetics. He said that something fundamental would be lost if younger generations aren’t able to see the stars. 

There’s no reason to [let the skies get brighter],” he said. “You steal something important from the generation growing up.”

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.

Correction 1:18 p.m. 7/26/19: A previous version of this article indicated that the population of Ivins had grown from 2,000 people to 4,000 people over the past 20 years. The city’s population has grown from approximately 4,500 people to 9,000 people over that time period.