Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
Is Pinal County becoming the new dust bowl? This past summer dry conditions, high winds, and a destroyed ecosystem created a series of perfect storms.
Dust storms of Biblical proportions formed in Pinal County’s scraped-clean, barren acreage, blew into Phoenix, and made national headlines when multiple haboobs engulfed millions of Phoenicians.
Subsequent dust storms created fatal driving conditions along Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. A series of dust storms caused multiple pileups on one October day– leaving one person dead, 15 injured, and more than 16 vehicles destroyed.
What is the state’s answer to this dangerous situation? Two days after that horrific October day on I-10, state officials shrugged their shoulders and blamed motorists for the accidents. From the Arizona Daily Star…
State officials say that motorists – not a lack of safeguards – are to blame for dust-related crashes such as the multi-vehicle wrecks on Interstate 10 on Tuesday.
And there are no plans for state agencies to collaborate on strategies to reduce collisions related to dust storms.
“Dust storms don’t kill people; highways don’t kill people. Drivers kill people,” said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety. “They panic and they do the wrong thing and something bad happens…” [Note that state officials are using the same argument that they use to justify taking no action on gun control.]
In cases of unpredictable dust storms, Graves said, “there is virtually no way we can do that.”
The state is being lazy on the issue of dust storms, and I was glad to see Tucsonans calling them out in today’s Arizona Daily Star story about dust storms and hazardous driving on I-10.
Unfortunately, the article primarily focused on high-tech methods to predict dust storms and not on ways to prevent them.
I have lived in Arizona long enough to remember when there used to be vegetation along I-10. Leaving Tucson on the way to Phoenix, mature palo verde and mesquite trees lined either side of the freeway and filled the median for miles. This green belt was so beautiful– especially after a desert rain when the palo verdes were in bloom. Beyond the trees on either side was other desert vegetation like creosote and jojoba bushes, cacti, and yucca. On the way to Wilcox, mature ocotillo and wild flowers like Mexican sunflowers and sacred datura filled the median. In the spring, the view toward the Dragoons was a riot of color with miles of blooming fire-red ocotillos mixed with the yellow and white wild flowers. Along the sides of the freeway were more wild flowers, desert shrubs, cacti, and other native plants.
These hardy desert trees, shrubs, and wild flowers not only decorated the freeway and made the drive more pleasant; their roots held the soil.
I never knew why the plants and trees in the median were removed. One day the trees going west and the ocotillos going east were just gone. All that was left was dirt, rocks, scrub grass, and maybe an occasional wild flower.
Overgrazing, over cultivation, and over zealous (but uncompleted) development destroyed the ecosystem along the freeway. Vast stretches of dirt line I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix. It’s no wonder haboobs are whipped up and no wonder that Pinal County has air quality problems.
In addition to– or instead of– high-tech gadgetry to predict dust storms, Arizona should mount a freeway planting program. (After all, as the Star article points out, what are you going to do after you predict a major dust storm? Shut down the freeway? Halt commerce on the interstate because a computer model tells you to?) The median and the easement along the freeway should be replanted with desert trees, shrubs, and wild flowers. Other states have vegetation along their stretches of the interstate highways. We have dirt and, therefore, we have dust storms. Along I-10, on the way to Palm Springs, mature salt cedars line the freeway for miles and provide a buffer between the dry desert and drivers.
In addition to a state-sponsored replanting program, landowners who allow their acreage to sit uncultivated or undeveloped should be fined. They are creating a public health and public safety problems for the residents of Arizona; they should pay for remediation.
Another step the state can take is to make commuting between Tucson and Phoenix safer is to move forward on the I-10 corridor commuter train. Not safe to drive? Take the train.
Arizona’s state government should stop shirking its duty to protect the health and welfare of the citizenry… and start planting.