After last year's historically wet, snowy winter in the Mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon agencies are preparing to expand salt treatments on state roads.
Freezing rain, sleet and thick snowpacks created hazardous traveling conditions throughout the state, causing multiple car crashes and vehicles spinning out of control on Interstate 5.
"We actually spread salt on a nine-mile stretch of I-5 just south of Salem near Albany for the first time," said Lou Torres, the Marion County spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "The heavy snow and ice made travel through that area of hills and curves almost impossible."
In Salem, drivers slowly navigated the icy roads while Cherriots — Salem-Keizer's public transit system — experienced delays and cut morning service, and entire roadways were closed until crews could clear accumulated snow and slush.
While Salem city officials do not plan on using salt this winter — part of a decision officials made back in 1989 in an effort to be environmentally friendly in road clearing tactics — ODOT is expanding its salt treatments on two major roadway arteries in the state.
More miles of road may be salted
ODOT currently spreads salt as needed 100 miles north of the California border on Interstate 5 and 100 miles west of the Idaho border on Interstate 84. Salt treatments are expected to expand as needed to 200 miles on each route, said statewide spokesman Dave Thompson.
He said the department started testing salt treatments on highways in 2012 as a way to match surface conditions for travelers driving in and out of Oregon from California and Idaho.
"Let's say you were driving north on Interstate 5 from California, where they use salt right up to the state border," Thompson said. "During a particular storm with heavy snowfall, you'd run into a deeper and harder snowpack immediately upon crossing the border."
The result, he said, is hazardous driving conditions for regular passenger cars and freight vehicles carrying thousands of pounds of different goods and raw materials on Interstate 84.
Interstate 84 is one of the busiest highways in the state with roughly 177,000 vehicles traveling on the first 100 miles in the state daily, Thompson said.
"The traffic is greatly affected by ice that forms on I-84 and delays freight movement, causing people who drive regular cars to pile up behind them," Thompson said.
Roughly 50,000 vehicles travel in the first 100 miles of Interstate 5 in Oregon, which is mostly comprised of regular passenger cars.
ODOT also is currently building a number of salt sheds to house salt supplies in Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon. Salt sheds in Hugo, Baker, La Grande and Ontario will be up and running by mid-November. Sheds in Mission, Echo and Irrigon will be operational by mid-December. Two sheds in Meacham and Umatilla are expected to start construction in 2018.
Salt an environmental concern
While ODOT is expanding the area eligible for salt treatments during extreme winter storms, Thompson said salt is not their first tactic in battling unsafe road conditions.
"Salt is just a tool in our toolbox," Thompson said. "That doesn't mean we're going to use it every time. We're trying to minimize the salt."
ODOT primarily uses sand, deicing treatment and plows to clear roads and improve travel conditions throughout the state.
One reason for limiting salt is its potential impact on the environment.
Once spread onto the road, salt breaks into sodium and chloride ions, which research shows can harm trees and vegetation up to 650 feet away. It also accumulates in stream-side ecosystems and can disrupt how fluids pass through aquatic animals and endanger salmon and steelhead.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife also warns it can cause toxicosis and death when ingested by birds.
In rural areas, deer and elk will stop on a road to lick the salt, putting them at greater risk of being hit. And in urban settings, it can put pets at risk.
Other road treatments carry their own environmental risks and tend to be expensive.
ODOT crews monitor air temperatures, ground temperatures, humidity and precipitation in order to decide the best technique with the help of the National Weather Service.
If it's raining, officials typically don't treat roads with magnesium chloride, a liquid deicer. Deicer works for a period of time before it dilutes from the rain and is no longer effective.
When air temperatures reach freezing point, any fog that makes contact with roads can quickly become ice.
If the snowpack is deeper than 2 inches, officials don't use salt. If the snowpack is less than 2 inches, or if the storm is winding down, Thompson said officials may use salt to speed up clearing the road, drop sand to regain traction or just wait for the "sun to do its job."
Each of those techniques, with the exception of the sun's rays, have environmental effects. Sand can be blown into streams and harm salmon. Salt can roll past the edges of the road and into wildlife. It can even seep into cracks in the concrete of bridges and affect its steel rebar infrastructure.
"It's a complex conversation we explore to use the safest technique with the least amount impact on the environment," Thompson said.
Salem: Salt is the last resort
City of Salem officials ran out of deicer after multiple storms barraged the Willamette Valley this past winter.
Salem Public Works services supervisor Bruce Hildebrandt said officials couldn't access their magnesium chloride supply, which is typically delivered via train, because their contractor couldn't keep up with demand.
"The railcars just never got to the places where we can transfer, like Jefferson City and Clackamas, so we were left high and dry with no supply," Hildebrandt said.
After last winter's shortage, he said city officials are upgrading their deicing storage material facilities. Last year, they could store roughly 15,000 gallons of magnesium chloride and shared one tank with ODOT.
This year, Hildebrandt said they've ordered three 6,100 gallon tanks that can hold roughly 18,000 gallons of magnesium chloride. ODOT now has its own supply due to an expired intergovernmental agreement.
The deicer tanks were set to arrive by Thursday, Nov. 2, and should be installed by Wednesday, Nov. 15. The city's storage facility is near 22nd Street and Mission Street in Salem.
He said Salem typically sees its first freezing temperatures in late November but says snow is infrequent at this elevation.
"Our number one issue is black ice in Salem," Hildebrandt said.
He said that can be attributed to Salem's hills, where cold air is bottled up and settles during freezing temperatures, which causes ice.
This past winter though, Salem recorded several inches of snow and city officials were forced to change their strategy for the first time in more than 20 years.
Hildebrandt advised crews to leave a little bit of snow on the roads so sand and deicer could stay in place. Crews plowed roads and sprayed deicer at the same time, but roads iced over faster than crews could control.
"It was an unusual winter," Hildebrandt said.
Weather models forecast cooler-than-normal weather this winter, but it's unclear if it will be wetter or drier, according to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
"We're not planning on using salt," Hildebrandt said. "We want to lead the way in finding a more environmentally friendly way in keeping our roads safe."