MARICOPA — In spring and fall, dust blows west to east over the desert floor. It’s not the wall of dust we see on the evening news or social media videos that causes most accidents.
“The 100 feet of dust that causes low or no visibility and then you get to the end of that and find clear skies, the isolated channels of dust, that’s what typically causes most accidents,” said Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Public Information Officer Erin Jordan.
And blowing dust can lead to serious and potentially deadly crashes. Many lives, as well as hours of work and time with family and friends, have been lost over the years along Interstate 10 in Pinal County due to gusty winds over the open desert, creating dangerous dust storms.
During a monsoon storm, dust quickly reduces visibility to near-zero for drivers. Last week, the ADEQ officials met to consider timely continuation of the agency's work to reduce sources of this blowing dust for fiscal year 2019-20.
ADEQ recently applied soil stabilizer to 98 acres of open or disturbed desert in Pinal County. This environmentally friendly, biodegradable product binds together the loose soil, increases moisture and reduces the potential for blowing dust without harming plants or animals. ADEQ treated the plots with the same substance in 2017.
ADEQ used several methods to select areas for treatment, including analyzing dust storm origin points and satellite views, visiting parcels of land near I-10 and discussing potential problem spots with partner agencies.
By treating the acreage, ADEQ hopes to reduce the shallow dust storms that are created when westerly winds — the most problematic winds — blow across open desert.
These channels of dust do not extend high into the sky, but they can quickly impact visibility for drivers on the highway.
“These smaller dust storms are just as dangerous for drivers as the massive walls of dust created from extreme winds originating from powerful monsoonal thunderstorms,” said Daniel Czecholinski, ADEQ acting Air Quality Division director. “By targeting our treatment to open desert near the highway, we could potentially reduce the threat for people living and traveling in the area.”
ADEQ is also funding a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, led by Joseph Blankinship in the Department of Environmental Science, to determine the effectiveness of soil stabilizer and a second treatment — mulch created from recycled landscape materials — for reducing blowing dust.
Over the next year, the team will conduct a study on an additional 3 acres.
“Once soil structure in the desert is disturbed and plants disappear, it is difficult to re-establish landscapes resistant to erosion,” Blankinship said.
This has already happened in much of the desert land in and around Pinal County.
“Helping to glue together and protect the soil in the short term with the application of soil stabilizer and mulch will likely reduce blowing dust but could also encourage long-term plant growth that will ultimately stabilize the soil naturally once again,” Blankinship said. “The goal is to find the best way to do that.”
Both of these projects follow a successful application of soil stabilizer on 56 acres in the same area in 2017. The surface of that soil remains intact with noticeable plant growth at the site, compared to a neighboring plot of land that was not treated.
To date, 155 acres have been treated with soil stabilizer. The parcels treated with soil stabilizer include private property and Arizona state land. Each private property owner must be contacted by the state prior to the application process and must agree to give permission.
“The team that does this is prompt and amazingly good at locating these owners and obtaining their approval for us to move forward,” Jordan said.
ADEQ is part of an I-10 Dust Workgroup that has taken measures to address blowing dust during periods of high wind along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix. This soil stabilization project complements the Dust Detection and Warning System currently being installed by the Arizona Department of Transportation along I-10 in Pinal County, as earlier reported by PinalCentral.
The I-10 Dust Workgroup includes representatives from other Arizona state and county agencies, as well as tribes and neighboring state agencies.