Arizona's ground is finally moistened enough to head off dust storms for the immediate future, but Steve Christy wants the state Department of Transportation focused on preventing dust-caused accidents in the longer term.
"This is an issue very near and dear to the citizens of Pima and Pinal counties who have to travel up and down the interstate to Phoenix," Christy said Friday at a meeting of the state Board of Transportation.
Christy, a former Tucson car dealer, is entering his third year on the board.
Early in his tenure, he asked if anything could be done about the conditions that had just killed three people, including two Casa Grande teenagers, in a blinding dust storm on Interstate 10.
He was told then it was an intractable problem.
This year, after two more dust-storm fatalities and a series of towering "haboobs," he resurrected his concerns.
At Friday's meeting in Prescott, which Christy attended by phone from his office in Tucson, he listened to a brief report from Jennifer Toth, the ADOT's state engineer, about the first meetings of a newly formed "Dust Task Force."
The internal working group has held three meetings, she said, and is looking at a variety of solutions - identifying locations most prone to accidents, improving prediction of storms, installing dust monitors and enlisting broadcasters to more widely provide warnings about blowing dust.
Christy urged them to also work on identifying property owners in areas most prone to blowing dust.
Christy said the Department of Transportation can't solve the problem on its own. It needs cooperation from other agencies and from the landowners whose parcels are contributing to the dust. "If I owned that property, I would be horrified and seeking help to prevent it from happening," he said.
Christy said dust has become the single biggest concern of his Tucson constituents, who tell him they fear driving to Phoenix on dry, windy days.
Christy said he recently asked two of his daughters to make a trip to Phoenix the night before and stay over, to avoid the afternoon winds.
One of the constituents bugging Christy to do more has been George Kalil, president of Kalil Bottling, who has made ending Arizona's dust storms a personal crusade.
"People are scared," he said.
Kalil, a legendary Wildcat booster, said he never drives to Phoenix unless he's in a bus with the Arizona men's basketball team, heading to a game.
But his company's drivers make the trip, he said. He's worried about them and about the image Arizona gets from national news about the giant storms that blew north into Phoenix this past summer.
"My primary interest is, 'Can we stop the dust from blowing so that we don't end up with the (Dust Bowl) reputation that you read about in school?' "
"I would like to see the same weight put on elimination (of blowing dust) as we are on prevention of accidents," he said.
Ken Drozd, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tucson, said he's seen "more progress than we have had in a while in the Phoenix I-10 corridor."
"A number of agencies have gotten together on both the state and federal level," he said.
He said his office has recently spoken with University of Arizona atmospheric scientists about creating better dust-storm forecasts and has spoken with the ADOT about identifying how sensors could be used in the most problematic areas.
Mike Leuthold, systems administrator at the UA's Institute for Atmospheric Physics, said he has heard talk of up to 20 to 30 weather stations that would record visibility and ground moisture.
Those would aid in modeling the effect of thunderstorms and wind fronts on the terrain, especially if coupled with UA forecasts that have higher resolution than the ones used by the National Weather Service, Leuthold said.
Leuthold said those predictions could be used to close the freeway when dust storms are predicted, or at least prepare for closure.
"It would be very risky to preemptively close the freeway based on a computer model, but you can say the conditions are likely and preposition DPS (Department of Public Safety) or whoever to close the freeway at a moment's notice," Leuthold said.
On StarNet: See photos of one of the I-10 wrecks caused by a haboob at azstarnet.com/haboob
The National Weather Service is getting ready to add technology to its Tucson radar that will allow it to differentiate among light rain, hard rain, snow, sleet and dust.
It won't be real helpful for spotting dust storms, however, because they mostly fly under the radar.
Tucson's Doppler radar station is at 5,000 feet in the Empire Mountains, southeast of the city, said Ken Drozd, warning coordination meteorologist for the Tucson office. Only the biggest dust storms get up that high.
It could spot dust storms at similar elevation in Southeastern Arizona, Drozd said.
Phoenix, which recently added "dual polarimetry" to its lower-elevation radar, might have a better shot at seeing dust, he said.
Currently, the Doppler radar sends out pulses on a horizontal plane. Dual polarimetry adds a horizontal element that lets it differentiate the size and shape of objects it encounters.
The upgrade will be most useful in summer, Drozd said. "It will help us with precipitation estimates during monsoon season and more accurate flash flood warnings."
Glen Sampson, meteorologist in charge of the Tucson office, said in a news release that the "upgrade will help us provide better forecasts and warnings of hail, heavy rain and snow for the residents of Southeast Arizona."
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.