Dwindling supplies of road salt have Minnesota transportation officials keeping a close eye on the skies while betting that they can outlast a winter onslaught that has created shortages in other parts of the nation.
"We have salt supplies on hand and we feel pretty comfortable about the rest of the winter based on averages," said Kevin Gutknecht, Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman. "However, winter has a say in this and we'll have to play it month by month."
Transportation officials in some states already are rationing their dwindling mounds of salt because some suppliers say no more will be available for the season. And what is available is getting pricier.
Minnesota officials, with a long history of planning for long winters, are monitoring salt inventories.
Although the Twin Cities had its eighth snowiest January last month, the 39.7 inches of snow that have fallen this season is only slightly above the normal of 35.2, according to the National Weather Service.
Still, it's taken a toll.
In Minneapolis, city officials have called five snow emergencies so far this season compared with the historical average of three, said Mike Kennedy, who oversees the city's road crews.
"It's just a bigger winter, and severe low temps are causing us to use more salt than average," he said. "We're watching our supplies. … We'll probably be OK, but we're monitoring and trying to be conservative."
Washington County has about 2,000 tons of salt left from its annual 10,000-ton supply, County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said.
"It's not like we're running out, but this winter has been very tough on our salt and equipment," he said.
"The next month will be key," Sandberg said. "We'll be watching the short-term and long-term forecasts." But we're not going to run out. If we have to buy off the open market, we'll adjust our budget to do so."
Highway departments sign contracts with their salt suppliers for the year and then hope they've figured right. "How much salt we order is somewhat of a science," said Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer. "We are playing a commodities game."
The county has bought the most salt that its contract with Cargill allows, Fischer said Tuesday.
Anoka County has bought 22,500 tons of salt this year at a cost of $1.3 million and had another 3,000 tons in storage from last season. It now has 5,500 tons left. And if needed, officials have contingency plans, including cutting its salt with sand and using more chemicals with the salt. Crews also could pretreat roadways with chemicals.
"We are taking it on a week-by-week basis. If it were snowing right now, we'd be in contingency-plan mode," Fischer said.
Still, Minnesota may fare better than states that usually don't face long, fierce winters.
Then again, all planning is based on averages, said Gutknecht of MnDOT.
Salt stores were pretty low by the time the last snow fell in May last year, he said. "If we had gotten snow in June last year, we might have had a problem."