Improving Truckee’s winter air quality has challenges |

Improving Truckee’s winter air quality has challenges

Photo by Paul RaymoreA Catrans street sweeper works Highway 89 north at Donner Pass Road.

From its unceremonious exit from the back of a sand truck to its floating in the air, a grain of sand can go from de-icer to pollution in a matter of hours.

As the primary tool of state and town crews working to safeguard motorists in and around Truckee, sand is used in the tens of thousands of tons on area roads in the winter. And a significant amount of that total finds its way into the Truckee basin’s air and water each year. But keeping sand from becoming pollution is a difficult task that has largely frustrated local and regional efforts.

Keeping motorists safe is the first priority for road crews. However, after road sand is applied and the substance becomes unnecessary, both Truckee and Caltrans have street sweepers to pick up the excess. Neither the town nor Caltrans had official estimates on how much sand they recover with the sweepers.

Truckee owns three sweepers and Caltrans uses four, with one operated part-time. But sweepers ” by the very mechanics of their operations ” fling sizable amounts of the sand into the air, exacerbating the air quality problem in the short term.

Town crews have attempted to solve the problem by wetting the ground in front of the sweeper, said Truckee Public Works Director Dan Wilkins, but that practice is only effective in warm temperatures when frozen moisture won’t seize up the sweepers moving parts. In Truckee’s climate, that is obviously a problem.

“In the wintertime, and especially at night, we have to run the sweepers dry,” Wilkins said.

Alternatives to sand have their problems, too. Some are less effective than salt and sand, and others have raised concerns over their effects on water quality.

New technology has helped Caltrans minimize unnecessary sanding, said Jeff Waters, Caltrans’ Interstate 80 Superintendent. Equipment that reads road surface temperatures helps sand truck drivers know when and where sand is necessary, said Waters.

“A lot of the guesswork has been taken out the of the equation,” he said.

The town has also moderated its sand use over the years, Wilkins said.

“Ten years ago I think it was ‘when in doubt put down sand,'” said Wilkins. “Now there is more of an emphasis on minimizing the sand output where it can be done safely.”

Despite these efforts, Truckee still exceeds state air quality standards, on average 40 to 60 days a year, due primarily to sand kicked up by vehicles in the aftermath of storms.

The air problem is such that the Northern Sierra Air Quality District will likely have to report to the state on measures the region is taking to reduce air pollution.

“We’re rapidly approaching the point where the air district is going to have to address this issue,” said Joe Fish, deputy air pollution control officer at the district.

Where the region stands, as far as air improvement goes, is harder to judge, since there is often a lag between what the region has done to improve air quality and the actual improvements that register on local air monitors.

“You can start things and not see the result right away,” Fish said. “You can do things for years and not see the fruits of your labor.”

Part of the monitoring problem goes back to air gauging equipment that the air quality district replaced recently. They had found that the monitors ” located on the downtown Truckee fire station ” had been reading inaccurately low measurements for an indefinite period of time. New monitors are giving hourly readings, but the reliable data from previous years is restricted to monitors that gauged air quality only once every six days.

The new monitors show Truckee exceeding state standards more often than with the old monitors, said Ryan Murano, who runs the Truckee station for the air district.

Using the monitors that calculate air quality every six days, Truckee failed air quality standards in 10 days. If the air was monitored every day that number would have reached much higher, said Fish.

Town of Truckee officials have said that they will work with Caltrans to come up with joint sanding guidelines aimed at minimizing impacts to air quality. Such efforts, however, won’t be started within the next year, as originally hoped.

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