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As residents and city crews continue to combat post flooding dust, climate change likely to worsen impacts

Clearing the dust

In this file photo from July, Dale Hallberg sweeps mud and ash back into Cedar Avenue as clouds of dust and ash hang in the air from passing vehicles. In the weeks since flooding has occurred, dust has continued to prove challenging as residents and city crews still work on clearing properties of silt. 

Nearly a dozen city officials stood in the Pondarosa Park parking lot speaking to a couple of residents as the one of the final rains of the official monsoon season began to drizzle lightly Wednesday night.

The meeting, with residents impacted by extensive flooding throughout the summer, was one of several organized by the Museum Flood Coalition to help bring local officials and residents together as they deal with ongoing impacts of the floods.

Across the street, a Sunnyside resident pulled into her driveway, passing over a thick layer of dirt and silt that still covered the entrance of the driveway, and kicking up a small cloud of dust.

That very dust has been one of those ongoing impacts of the flooding, said Museum Flood Coalition member Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom.

Weeks after the last flood event, the vast majority of streets across Sunnyside are largely clear of the silt and dirt deposited by the flood waters. But on private property and sidewalks, areas of silt still remain and some streets such as Grand View Drive and E. Dortha Ave still have large amounts of sediment.

“Anytime anyone drives by; the worst are delivery trucks that go by quickly and kick up big clouds,” Tewksbury-Bloom said.

While the issue is a new one for most Flagstaff residents, Mansel Nelson with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals said the problem of dust is one that impacts communities across northern Arizona and the country, and one that is only expected to worsen with the impacts of climate change.

“Specifically road dust, in this case coming from a paved road covered with dirt, is a problem in many communities. I work in Alaska as well and a lot of the communities up there have no paved roads, it’s all dirt roads, and they would tell you that it's a major quality-of-life issue as well as a health issue,” Nelson said.

Nelson said dust in the air can be particularly impactful for those who already have repertory issues such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, causing coughing, difficulty breathing and even more serious health impacts.

It’s an issue that will likely only become more prevalent with the expected impacts of continued climate change, Nelson said.

“It doesn't even have to be road-related,” Nelson said. “A significant percentage of our soil in this region are what they call ‘stable sand dunes.’ But they're only stable because they have vegetation on them, and as climate change impacts vegetation, impacts rainfall, impacts evaporation, we anticipate getting drier and drier, and more and more soil being available to blow in the wind.”

In impacted areas of Flagstaff, Tewksbury-Bloom said, the city has been working hard to clean streets, but it remains a challenge in many areas because it is up to individual residents to clear the debris and silt from their own properties.

Residents have been told when clearing their properties to throw that silt into the street where city staff can then collect it. That has worked well so far, said city streets director Scott Overton.

But Tewksbury-Bloom said it has meant that the issues seems to be never ending, as it can take time for residents to clear their properties fully.

“It's not like it's been ignored; it is such a huge undertaking,” Tewksbury-Bloom said. “There's still people who are now finally able to get to parts of their property, it’s just taken time and it can be really exhausting labor on top of everything else.”

Clogging things up

There have been several volunteer events that have worked to assist residents with clearing their properties.

Overton said streets staff have been hard at work clearing streets as best they can, but it is a time-consuming process, especially given the fine silt they are clearing.

“At the height of it, we had six sweepers working 24-hour rotations. And that lasted for about three weeks, until it was generally manageable,” Overton said. “It just takes multiple passes. So I would say on a really silted street, they probably made 100 passes before they could get it to where it was somewhat acceptable.”

But the effort has also taken a toll on their equipment, which is generally not designed for the intense level of sweeping that the streets department has been conducting. Overton said they have had to do much more maintenance than normal on those machines. Parts that would normally last them a month or longer have been replaces after only a week.

Overton added that those higher costs for labor and machinery will only continue if post fire flooding occurs every monsoon season, as is possible.

“Right now if we get six or seven years out of a sweeper -- that's pretty good. If we're going to use them like this every summer, we're probably now going to get maybe four or five years out of a sweeper,” Overton said. “But the credit, where it really is due, is to the sweeper operators. Those guys put in tons hours over the summer, and they've worked really hard and diligently and they take great pride in what they do.”

Tewksbury-Bloom, whose husband has recently recovered from COVID-19, said she is concerned over the health implications of the dust on both her spouse and other residents who have had the disease that is well-known for impacting the lungs.

Tewksbury-Bloom said the coalition has been lent several air quality monitoring devises to use by Nelson.

Similar to dealing with wildfire smoke, Nelson said residents concerned about dust can take small steps to improve air quality within their homes, such as closing windows and doors. That can be difficult when it is hot but easier as the seasons turn.

After that, purchasing a HEPA filter that can filter indoor air is a good next step.

Nelson said there are ways that residents can make their own filters on the cheap.

“Basically with a box fan and a high MERV rated furnace filter you can basically construct your own air cleaning device at a lower cost. And it'll do a pretty good job of filtering the air in your house,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he expects some kind of air filter to become a pretty regular appearance in homes as climate change continues.

But one of the best ways to improve air quality, especially from dust impacts is even simpler, Nelson said. Driving more slowly down dusty roads, and having fewer cars on those roads, can make a big difference.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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Residents in northern Arizona living outside of an official flood zone still may want to consider purchasing flood insurance. That was one of the messages from officials during a Monday meeting between the Flagstaff City Council and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. The meeting came ahead of an engineering summit planned for Thursday.

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