Color-coded flags may be appearing outside of local schools as the state environmental agency launches a new program, which also includes a website, designed to help residents plan outdoor activities several days in advance.
The new program acts as a guide, rather than a “bureaucratic designation,” for residents to use dust forecasts in their daily lives, said Henry Darwin, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), at a press conference at Nogales City Hall on Monday.
The announcement follows on the heels of two forecasting projects, conducted from 2010 to 2012 on devices at the U.S. Post Office on Morley Avenue, which predicted the speed of winds carrying dust into Nogales.
The new program ties such information to an air-quality index, which is health-based, said Edna Mendoza, director of the ADEQ’s Office of Border Environmental Protection.
“Just telling the community of Nogales that they are in non-attainment for particulate matter isn’t necessarily helpful for them in deciding what they are going to do on a day-to-day basis,” Darwin said.
The website is color-coded with green for “Good,” yellow for “Moderate,” orange for “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” and Red for “Unhealthy.” For those who are interested, they can receive daily e-mail updates on air quality.
This is only the second time in Arizona that such a program has been created outside of Maricopa County, Darwin said, with Yuma being the first instance. “We’ve actually gotten quite good at this at ADEQ,” he said.
ADEQ also announced the Air Quality Flag Program, which gives local schools the option of flying similarly color-coded flags that will indicate that day’s air quality.
An invitation to participate in the program was sent out Monday morning to all elementary and middle schools in the Nogales Unified School District and Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, said Patti Molina, manager of the program at Mariposa Community Health Center.
The EPA recently acknowledged that Nogales, Sonora contributes to pollution north of the border, Darwin said.
“In recognizing that problem, it actually opens up some money that would be available through some border infrastructure financial institutions that have been set up for this very issue,” he said.
Much of the particulate matter coming from Nogales, Sonora is in the form of dust from roads and from heating houses, he said.
Environmental protection, including dust abatement, was part of the sisterhood agreement between Ambos Nogales that was signed last year, said Mayor Arturo Garino.
“It is very important that we deal with air quality, both cities together,” he said.
City Manager Shane Dille noted that “a big part of our problem” comes from Nogales, Sonora, but that “we have to do our part.”
The city government, which incurred no cost from the programs announced on Monday, has also taken steps to lower the level of dust in the air, Dille said.
In terms of dust abatement, the city has an “active street-sweeping program,” Dille said. In addition, permits for new buildings contain dust-abatement requirements, such as paving the parking lot, he said.
There are no unpaved city-owned streets in Nogales, added Deputy City Manager John Kissinger.
In contrast with the city, many of the county’s 900 miles of roads are unpaved, said County Supervisor John Maynard.
He said that the county’s share of highway-user funds has dropped from $4.5 million to about $3 million. “It’s greatly reduced our ability to pave some of the unpaved roads we have, which are probably at this point between 45 and 50 percent of those 900 miles,” he said.