WEBER COUNTY — It takes a lot of work in the spring to clear snow from Utah's high mountain passes. This month, the Utah Department of Transportation tested a new method to melt that snow on one of the roads before the plows roll through, and it should save taxpayer money and time in the future.
"I don't think we expected it to work quite as well as it has," said UDOT spokesman Vic Saunders, referring to the new Black Sand treatment the agency is testing out.
Monday afternoon, we stood in the middle of state Route 39, next to a 4-foot snow drift, not far from Monte Cristo Summit in Weber County. Plow crews were able to break through the remaining drifts on the high altitude road with a little help from the very fine sand.
Kelly Andrew, the crew supervisor in charge of the plows, has a farming background. He said he's watched farmers use a similar technique to clear snow from fields.
"I've see it work for them," Andrew said. "If it worked for them, why not for UDOT?"
Three weeks ago, his crew used a farm fertilizer spreader on the back of a snow cat to spread a thin layer of the Black Sand over the snowy road.
"We applied it for a mile, then stopped for a mile, then started again, so we would have some good test sections," Andrew said.
They checked the test sections each day for the first week, and weekly after that. They collected a lot of data for a report, but their preliminary results and photographs clearly show the snow covered by the sand melted away much more quickly.
"It looked like it melted about twice as fast as the snow without the material on it," Andrew said.
"It collects that solar heat, and Mother Nature does her thing with that black surface," Saunders said.
In an average year, Saunders said it takes about a week and a half to clear the road over the Monte Cristo pass. Two years ago, with record snowfall in northern Utah, it took three weeks.
This year, after that Black sand had been on the snow for about three weeks, it only took one day to punch through the final drifts.
"If we can do that and cut down on the time it takes to open the road, and not have all of the equipment tied up, that's a cost savings benefit," Andrew said.
In turn, that will save taxpayer dollars, he said.
"It will give us that jump start that we need, so that we can come in here with our equipment and be more efficient in the removal of that snow," Saunders said.
The Black Sand is fine for the environment: 95 percent sand and 5 percent inert material, according to UDOT's analysis. The agency expects to use it in the future in years when the snow is especially deep.
Hot temperatures are melting a lot of snow now, but several mountain passes will remain blocked for a couple more weeks. Even though SR 39 is nearly clear, it won't open until 6 a.m. on May 24 — the Friday at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend.