Caltrans is keeping tabs on road sand, pollution |

Caltrans is keeping tabs on road sand, pollution

Caltrans has spent $9 million researching how to reduce pollution coming off highways in Lake Tahoe so it can comply with strict water quality standards here.

Last year, the agency conducted a pilot study on a portion of Highway 50 using a mined salt product called Ice Slicer. The product is more expensive but reduced the need for sand by 80 percent. But the salt contains some phosphorous, which could feed algae growth in Lake Tahoe.

The product is being reviewed by UC Davis scientists and Lahontan Water Board to see if it would be appropriate for more widespread use.

Caltrans’ sand use has steadily and dramatically declined in the past 10 years, according to their de-icer report, which they must provide to the Lahontan Board each year. In the winter of 1994, the agency used 23,000 tons of sand on Tahoe roads. Last winter, they used 5,000 tons.

The Tahoe Daily Tribune reported in January that jurisdictions throughout the lake used 10,000 tons of sand last year in snow removal operations.

Caltrans was responsible for almost half of that total. At the same time, street sweepers and vactor trucks removed 4,000 tons of debris from roadways in the same year, 90 percent of which was sand.

Caltrans’ salt use has remained steady over the last decade, hovering around 1,500 tons per year.

Agencies must keep close records of sand and salt use because it can affect Lake Tahoe’s clarity when it is ground into fine particles by vehicles and blown into the air as dust.

They also keep daily tabs for liability reasons. Caltrans puts aside $35 million a year in a fund for settling lawsuits. Every year the fund gets exhausted, said spokeswoman Jan Mendoza.

“Safety for the public and employees is always at the top of our concerns,” said John Holder, who is in charge of making sure the agency complies with environmental standards set forth by the Clean Water Act and Lahontan Water Board.

The balancing act comes when you have to make sure icy and snowy roads are safe and at the same time meet strict water quality standards.

In Tahoe, standards for the water that flows off the highway and into the ground are stricter than those for drinking water, Holder said.

The standards are in place to protect Lake Tahoe’s clarity and long- term health, said Robert Erlich, an environmental scientist with Lahontan who works closely with Caltrans.

“We are continuing to monitor Caltrans activities,” Erlich said. “They’ve got a lot of roadways, but even 5,000 tons of sand is a lot. We are interested in seeing Caltrans continue to develop (techniques) that will help reduce pollutants from roadways and help them achieve their permit requirements.”

The agency is monitoring large man-made basins along Highway 50 near Lake Tahoe Airport to see if newer techniques could help further reduce pollution. A number of pollutants were tested for in water coming out of the pilot projects. The agency has narrowed it’s focus to reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and fine sediment, the major pollutants responsible for Lake Tahoe’s declining clarity.

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