The Challenges Droughts Are Causing For California’s Roads

In Dust Control, EnviroKleen®, Surface Management by Frank Elswick

Impact on road quality is just one of the unpleasant side-effects of drought. Dust is another. What are California and other regions doing to reduce the drought’s impact, and what technology exists to help in these efforts?

Drought, like any other natural disaster, can devastate entire regions. Roads crack, buckle and melt in the dry and hot conditions, causing not only damage to cars and trucks but also resulting in accidents that can injure or kill.

Crops are ruined from both a lack of water and dust storms, which can lead to a loss of earnings for farmers and in some instances, famine for those who rely on those crops for food.

While it’s tough to argue with Mother Nature, some states, including California, are using clever ways to save water and companies are working hard to create machinery that works to support life during drought.


The impact that drought has on roads can be catastrophic. A lack of rainwater and the heat that often comes during a time of drought can damage roads significantly and cost thousands of dollars in repairs. Roads can warp, buckle, crack and shift due to the intense heat and dry conditions.

But as well as damage to the road itself, there are some secondary impacts that drought has on roads.

Wildfires that are caused by immensely dry forest areas can be problematic for road users for several reasons. Not only can the intense heat create damage to a road surface, but wildfires can lead to road closures, meaning people may be diverted or, worse still, stuck on a road for hours waiting for it to be reopened.

Of course, the impact of the forest itself is devastating, not only destroying all flora and fauna and the habitat for wildlife, but also on the income of those who work with timber.

Another impact on roads is tumbleweeds. Often an image used for its comedy value, the damage caused by these rolling, thorny bushes is no laughing matter. They can obstruct roads, rivers and residential areas too, getting caught in fences and potentially injuring anyone brave enough to tackle its removal.

They travel for long distances and can displace tens of gallons of dust, dirt and soil along their travels. The impact this can have on farmland can be severe, and unfortunately, tumbleweeds aren’t the only thing farmers must contend with in a drought.


California isn’t the only state suffering from drought at the moment. While not many will remember the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s, according to an article on the BBC Website, recent dust storms in the area have born a strong resemblance to those of 80 years ago.

Farmers’ livelihoods have been ruined by the drought of recent years, losing not only their crops, but their soil too.

Oklahoma has been suffering a drought for more than four years, and according to one article on National Geographic’s website, it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. The issue is not only in the lack of water for crops, but also the parched soil becoming dust-like in consistency and effectively blowing away.

As described in the article, “drifts of sand pile up along fence lines packed with tumbleweeds, and tens of thousands of acres of dry-land wheat have died beneath blankets of silt as fine as sifted flour.” Once this process begins it is very difficult to stop and soon vast swaths of land are left desolate.

As one farmer in the National Geographic article describes, his options are incredibly limited. The only way to retain his soil is by “plowing deep furrows, as was done in the 1930s.

This churns up big clods, which weighs down the soil and creates ridgelines to break up the wind.” While far from ideal – because it leaves the land drier than ever and if no rain comes, it will be impossible to plant anything in it the following year – it means he will at least have some soil left.


Californians have struggled in the face of drought. Since it was announced, water usage has only decreased by 5%. This is far from the expected target and still means that conditions in the state are critical.

Many argue that the environmentally-friendly state is already water-conscious, with water saving devices fitted in many homes, but most believe more could be done to save water. The measures that have recently come into place aim to do just that.

It is times of trouble that often create unity between neighbors. However, California has turned this idea on its head. The government has asked communities to not only encourage each other to save water, but to tattle on anyone seen to be using water wastefully.

As detailed on the New York Times website, people are now celebrating brown, dry lawns with signs saying “Gold is the new Green” and reporting those lush, thriving lawns to the authorities. Likewise, water-balloon fights, washing sidewalks and even taking long showers are being frowned upon.

An example as shown on the New York Times website of the reporting that is happening by ordinary people

While support of the masses is one thing, it cannot help those people for whom drought impacts their livelihoods and daily lives.

Instead it is technology that comes to their aid. Dust, as described above, is one of the most difficult environmental factors of drought, and many companies are working tirelessly to counteract the effects it has on drought-ridden areas. One of those companies is Midwest, with their EnviroKleen.

Midwest’s EnviroKleen in action

EnviroKleen is a dust control solution from Midwest that works on “runway or roadway, concert venue to construction site to unpaved open area”. Put simply, it covers the surface in a binding material that prevents dust or soil from being blown, brushed or trodden away. It could be the answer to the problems caused by dust in drought situations.

While drought can have devastating consequences for some, and often means a big change in behavior for most, there are people working tirelessly to reduce the impact that these dry spells have.

Whether it is advising friends and neighbors, or even shaming them into acting more responsibly, or developing the technology that can support those most heavily impacted, it’s clear that while Mother Nature might have the upper hand, we’re sure ready to fight back.

Frank is the sales unit manager of Midwest's road construction and natural paving markets.