A new weather system capable of looking deep into the desert will eventually warn drivers on Interstate 10 about approaching dust storms.
It was one of the solutions to dangerous weather discussed at a workshop for state and local agencies Tuesday at Central Arizona College in Coolidge. Arizona Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the National Weather Service hosted the workshop.
ADOT staff delivered an update on its dust detection and warning system. It will include a Doppler radar capable of seeing 40 miles in every direction. When it detects a drop in visibility it automatically triggers electronic warning messages for drivers and lowers the speed limit along the stretch. ADOT staff in Phoenix will use cameras positioned every mile to monitor the storm and make adjustments to the speed limit based on conditions they observe.
ADOT spokesman Tom Herrmann says construction will likely take place at the same time work is done to widen I-10, “There are more drivers out there and when we have a dust storm there are more drivers out there who can get in a crash because of that dust. It adds a little urgency to the project to get those systems in place to get those warnings in place as soon as we can.”
Herrmann says ADOT staff believes the multi-stage system will be one-of-a-kind in the United States. The state anticipates asking for bids this summer. The entire project is expected to cost $80 million.
The dust workshop included discussion sessions about mitigating and responding to dust storms and the crashes they cause. There was particular concern about a stretch of I-10 near San Simon in eastern Arizona. Tuesday morning DPS closed the stretch of highway for the third time in three days because of low visibility caused by blowing dust.
This weekend, the National Weather Service Tucson placed a portable weather station in the area to monitor wind and dust. After several severe crashes last year, one including a DPS cruiser, county and state officials are trying to find ways to cut down on dust and the closures.
“Public safety is number one thing,” says Norm Sturm, Cochise County Emergency Manager who attended the workshop hoping to discuss potential solutions for the San Simon dust problem. “There were several serious accidents last year that prompted DPS to close that highway as a matter of course when visibility was reduced but in addition public safety there’s the inconvenience to business especially, trucking industry.”
Cochise County and state agencies believe much of the dust comes from one farm south of the interstate.
In 2016, the state Department of Environmental Quality spent at least $288,000 to control the dust coming from the farm. The farm owner spent $90,000, according to DEQ.