Pilot project tests salt on frozen Siskiyou Pass

Using salt to curb snow and ice buildup on the Siskiyou Pass may be cutting the number of traffic accidents in half and significantly reducing delays and road closures, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

ODOT began using salt on the pass a year ago to improve road conditions and consistency on the freeway from the California border to about 11 miles into Oregon.

Last winter saw 29 chain restrictions on the Oregon side of the pass, down significantly from 57 restrictions during the 2011-12 winter. Complete holds of traffic also went down, from 18 two winters ago to just eight last winter.

Salting is being used for the first time ever in Oregon as part of a five-year pilot project by ODOT to test the effectiveness against any potential harm it could cause the environment or cars.

ODOT spokesperson Gary Leaming said the salt has been very effective in lessening the number of road closures and chain restrictions on the pass, and he has yet to find any measurable environmental impacts, something he said the department is monitoring closely.

"It is a big deal for us, because we are an environmentally conscious state," said Leaming. "We're not taking this lightly."

Local environmental groups may have a different perspective on whether it's a good idea to salt the roads.

"Do a Google search. It's well documented that salt has negative impacts on the environment," said Forrest English, director of Rogue Riverkeeper, a branch of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

English said his organization is not doing any direct monitoring of salt use on the Siskiyou Pass, but said there's plenty of literature that documents the dangers of salt on vegetation and in waterways.

The University of Minnesota in 2009 studied more than 50 lakes and waterways near where salt was used on roads and found that up to 70 percent of the salt is retained in watersheds. The increased levels of sodium in the water can be harmful for aquatic life and affect drinking water, the study said.

Leaming said district ODOT managers met with watershed officials to discuss possible impacts to the area waterways and said that no impacts have been reported. Visual inspections of roadside vegetation also revealed no damage from the salt, he said.

The Department of Environmental Quality requested that ODOT continue monitoring as the pilot project continues, but English said the DEQ's policies for issuing storm-water permits are years outdated.

English said he's discussed the outdated policies with DEQ officials, and believes it is on their list of things to update.

"This is an issue we'll want to take a hard look at when the DEQ finally gets around to updating the permit," he said.

Leaming said safety over the pass has improved because of the new consistency of road conditions across the border.

"Before, you'd have drivers come in from California, and as soon as you hit the border you go from bare pavement to snowpack," Leaming said.

Oregon has partnered with California to share a Caltrans salt shed in Hilt. If salting continues after the pilot program, Oregon likely will get its own salt shed.

After last Friday's snowstorm, Leaming said ODOT was able to lift chain restrictions in less than 24 hours — by early Saturday — because of the salt. He said staff believes the restrictions could have lasted two days longer without salt.

He also noted that drivers probably noticed a "marked difference" north of milepost 11 — outside the pilot project — where bare pavement turned to snowpack.

Just six accidents were reported to ODOT between the California border and milepost 11, the southernmost Ashland exit, between Friday and Tuesday. Thirty-two were reported between mileposts 11 and 24, the Phoenix exit.

Leaming said ODOT isn't typically prepared for so much snowfall at such low elevations, as was the case with last week's storm.

"We're not staffed for a low-elevation snowfall event," he said.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance reporter living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

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