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A bumpy road without mag chloride

Drivers who dealt with snow- and ice-packed roads in Basalt long after the big dump Dec. 20 can blame Mother Nature, not the town’s decision to stop using a popular liquid deicer.

Basalt public works director Gerry Pace said the Town Council’s decision to stop using magnesium chloride hasn’t made winter street maintenance any tougher for his staff.

So why, some drivers have asked, did it take until Dec. 29 to get the town’s streets clear of rutted, bumpy snow and slick ice?

The answer, said Pace, is natural causes. The midvalley was blanketed with between 13 and 15 inches of snow Sunday, Dec. 20, then immediately hit with a blast of Arctic air.

As fast as the snow was falling that Sunday, Pace said he didn’t think it would do any good to call out the streets crew. The snow that fell packed onto the roads and any intensive efforts at removal were delayed by the deep freeze.

In case anyone has forgotten, it got bitterly cold, down to 20 below at nights, right after the storm. Daytime highs hovered around zero for a couple of days.

Pace said efforts to peel the snow and ice pack off Basalt roads were useless until the temperatures warmed to near freezing. When plowing at temperatures that cold, the plows just ride the top rather than dig in, he said.

South-facing streets on the slopes above town that normally clear off due to solar energy remained snowpacked in the deep freeze, he noted.

When temperatures finally warmed enough at the beginning of this week, his crews got out with a road grader and a loader to scrape the streets clean.

Until that happened, the town’s main drag, Midland Avenue, and major arteries like Willits Lane, remained caked with thick layers of ice and bumpy mounds of snow.

For the record, Eagle County also waited until Tuesday before attempting to peel the hard-packed snow off its midvalley streets.

Nevertheless, armchair quarterbacks, or in this case armchair plow drivers, second-guessed the town’s efforts. Some drivers theorized the decision not to use magnesium chloride left the streets department unprepared to deal with a snowstorm of that magnitude.

The Town Council unanimously voted earlier this winter to stop using the deicer until more is known about its long-term environmental effects. They directed Pace to go back to using sand.

Pace said mag chloride use wouldn’t have quickened his ability to clear the streets, at least not by much.

“The cleanup took eight days. Magnesium chloride could have saved us one day,” he said.

He noted that Highway 82 also remained snowpacked for several days after the Sunday storm even though the Colorado Department of Transportation uses the chemical. When temperatures neared 28 degrees toward Christmas weekend, the deicer worked its magic and turned the ice and snow to water.

The chemical may also make it easier to peel the snow and ice off once temperatures warm up, Pace said.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t think those benefits make it worth using, until the environmental concerns are addressed. “I can’t advocate its use to the board,” said Pace.

The public works director is well aware there was some second-guessing after the last big storm. Some people called, Pace said, to tell him “right on for not using mag chloride, but get up here and clean my streets anyway.” Others said they were writing to the Town Council to lobby for the deicer’s use.

With snow forecast for New Year’s weekend, the debate could be renewed – and it could go on all winter. Some Town Council members said they will dig to find out more about mag chloride’s environmental consequences.

Pace remains philosophical about the issue and the season’s first big storm. “It was just a big dumper, and I appreciate everyone’s patience,” he said.


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