South-metro plowing crews have been overextended all winter, and the harsh weather has put a damper on outdoor recreation.
After 50 below-zero days and three straight months of snow on the ground, south metro snow plowers might be among the people most looking forward to the spring thaw.
“It feels like you’re living in your truck,” said Jeff Brooker, who has driven snowplows for Eagan the past eight years. He’s put in more than 50 hours each of the past two weeks. This season his department has worked an average of 75 overtime hours per person.
“We’ve worked most weekends,” he said. “We’ve worked holidays.”
The story is the same across the south metro, with public works directors and streets superintendents having their drivers come in on weekends and holidays, and watching their salt supply dwindle — especially the magnesium chloride-enhanced salt that can melt snow when temperatures get below the 20s.
“We just have to do what we do,” said Tim Plath, Eagan’s transportation operations engineer. Because not plowing isn’t an option, he said, overtime for snow plowers comes out of a citywide reserve fund. The city has also had to buy 20 percent more salt than it had planned for.
In Burnsville, said public works director Steve Albrecht, it all adds up to plowing operations that are 20 to 50 percent costlier than normal.
This year’s heavy snowfall, more than a foot higher than the historical average, is a major reason for the extra expense, but it’s not the only reason.
“The biggest thing we’ve had to battle is the temperature,” Brooker said. With such cold weather, the snow can’t melt. “When that snow gets packed down,” he said, the salt won’t melt it and “there’s not a lot we can do to get it off.”
That has made relatively warm days even more important this year. On a recent day with the temperature in the mid-20s, Brooker was getting his chance to scrape ice off the street with the plow fixed under his mammoth truck.
Another frustration has been the number of “snow events” that drivers must plow. Small amounts of snow still require them to fire up the fleet, and this year there have been many small snowfalls.
That means more working hours for Troy Grossman’s staff. The Lakeville public works director said his department plans for about 30 snow events each year, much fewer than there have turned out to be. As a result, he has had to spend more on fuel and repairs in addition to paying workers for overtime.
Other factors include wind and the timing of snow. This year, Brooker said, the snow has often fallen on weekends and afternoons when his shift is almost over.
There’s equal frustration among residents. Plath, the Eagan plowing director, said his team has tried to respond to that frustration by using more materials that have lower thawing and freezing points. But he said that “in the case of this winter, some of the temperatures we’ve encountered are beyond what we can adapt to.”
Most of the time, though, cities have been able to manage the plowing schedule, and most expect to have enough salt to last through the season.
“I believe we will have enough salt to survive this winter if the temperatures don’t get below zero again” said Bruce Loney, public works director for Shakopee.
The smaller cities of the south metro enjoy one big advantage over plowing in Minneapolis, St. Paul and larger metro-area cities: With newer, less trafficked streets and more garages, fewer cars need to park on the street, and cities can be more relaxed about winter parking. In Eagan, residents can park wherever they want at night. Others, like Apple Valley, Lakeville, and Shakopee, forbid on-street parking only in the predawn hours. Recently, St. Paul joined Minneapolis to ban parking at all hours on the even side of residential streets.
The heavy snow and cold also have made outdoor recreation difficult. In Burnsville, the cross-country ski trails had to close for a week while workers plowed the roads and streets first, and with a policy of closing at -19 degrees, its warming houses have been locked and its ice rinks officially closed at times.
A last resort: Snowblowers
Even the walking trails have been more difficult to plow. At this point in the season, the managers surveyed said the snow is piled too high on the sides of trails to plow. “Snowblowers [are] the only way through them this year,” said Lakeville’s Grossman. Despite the weather, he said the city has been able to keep all but one section of its paths clear of snow, though it has taken longer to clear them.
At Buck Hill, the cold has kept people off the slopes.
“There’s just so much pent-up demand,” said Don McClure, the ski hill’s general manager. “Our bigger days are bigger than they’ve ever been, and our slower days are slower.” Despite the swings in attendance, prescheduled school groups and racing events have provided consistent attendance, and “gross receipts are about even,” he said.
One benefit of the weather: With consistent snow, Buck Hill has “saved a considerable amount of money” by not having to use an artificial snowmaker. And with warmer weather, McClure expects good business this month.
Back in Lakeville, Grossman is preparing for when the piled snow finally melts. Last week, his staff started clearing the ice from curb grates. If they’re still frozen when the snow thaws, he said, the streets might flood.
“We’re hoping for a slow melt,” he said.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.