Photo contributed by ODOT
Snow flurries are already starting to fly in northeast Oregon, foreshadowing what could be another unusually cold and wet winter for the region.
Forecasters say it is still too early to tell if this year’s winter will be as severe as last, when icy conditions forced highways to close for days at a time. The Oregon Department of Transportation, however, is preparing for the worst after purchasing five new tow plows — capable of plowing two lanes at once — and expanding its pilot program to use rock salt on more local highways.
Shelley Snow, ODOT spokeswoman, said the plows will be placed strategically along Interstate 84 through Eastern Oregon, including at Pendleton, Meacham, La Grande, Baker City and Ontario. The department is also building three new salt sheds along I-84 at Mission, Echo and Boardman, which should be completed before the end of the year. Each shed is capable of storing up to 1,000 tons of salt.
“Based on what we’ve seen on the interstates the last couple of years, this could be a really good thing,” Snow said. “I think statewide, there’s a trend where we’re seeing (winter) events that are potentially more catastrophic.”
According to ODOT, one person was killed and 92 were injured in 58 crashes on local highways just in December 2016.
The issue caught the attention of the Oregon Legislature this year, which included a provision in the latest transportation package requiring the Oregon Transportation Commission develop a winter maintenance strategy that includes the use of rock salt.
ODOT initially launched its salt pilot project in 2013, along Highway 95 in southeast Oregon between the Nevada and Idaho borders and along Siskiyou Pass at the Oregon-California border. The program has yielded positive results, Snow said, and this year ODOT is expanding the use of rock salt in Eastern Oregon to include I-84 between Idaho and Boardman, Interstate 82 near Hermiston and state highways 395, 207, 730, 331 and 11.
“We will still be monitoring things, seeing how often it is used and what it’s impact to the environment is,” Snow said. “Salt is not the best thing to use in all conditions. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”
ODOT plans to build two additional salt sheds near Meacham and the city of Umatilla, though Snow said those will likely have to wait until next spring.
Region 5 is also the home of five new tow plows, mounted to the backs of snowplow trucks, which will allow a single driver to plow two lanes of highway at a time. Snow said maintenance crews spent last week training to use the equipment and are now ready to go.
“They’re definitely going to be used there in Eastern Oregon, all along the interstate,” Snow said. “It will really help us to be more efficient.”
The new vehicles cost $405,000 each, though Snow said the region was already planning to replace its old trucks and buying tow plows made sense from an operational standpoint.
It may not be long before the plows are pressed into action. Snowstorms swept over the Blue Mountains Thursday and Friday, dropping as much as 4 inches over Tollgate and 10 inches near Ski Bluewood in Washington.
John Peck, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pendleton, said this year is shaping up to be another La Niña winter for the Pacific Northwest, which generally means colder and wetter conditions than normal.
The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a 55-65 percent chance of La Niña, Peck said. But he stopped short of saying the winter will be as bad or worse than last year.
The Climate Prediction Center will release its annual winter outlook for December through February on Thursday, Oct. 19. The latest seasonal outlook maps for January through March call for an equal chance of average, below-average or above-average temperatures, and a 40-50 percent chance of above-average precipitation.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.
The original version of this story included incorrect information about the cost of a snowplow. The information has been update.