A string of "nuisance storms" bringing small but perilous snowfalls has kept Washington County snowplow drivers on the road repeatedly for about a month.
Twenty drivers clearing about 650 lane miles of county roads have been put to work again and again this season, said Don Theisen, the county's public works director.
"The reality is you have guys out working 10- and 12-hour shifts to get 1 inch of snow off the roads," he said. "These 1-inch nuisance storms take as much work as 6-inch snowstorms."
Frequent Alberta Clippers, Theisen said, create havoc for drivers but haven't yet left the county's snowplowing budget on slippery ground. Annual wages for the county maintenance department will total about $1.1 million in 2014. The budget includes $60,000 for overtime costs.
Doug Johnson, the county supervisor who oversees snowplow operations, said drivers generally start plowing at 3 or 4 a.m. and travel an average of 18 to 21 miles before they finish. Often they're notified on a moment's notice — although Johnson tries to avoid that — and work until the job is done.
"They're a great bunch of guys, very committed to their jobs, and morale's real high," Johnson said. "They've all been through it so many times that I don't have any problems with them. They all answer the phone."
The nuisance storms, which can leave roads slick and dangerous, require as much salt as bigger storms. About 300 to 400 tons of salt — "it's more than a person would fathom" — will be used in a 1-inch storm, Johnson said. At least 5,000 tons of salt will be applied to county roads before spring, he said.
Johnson, having worked at the county's public works department for 42 years, knows the unpredictable nature of snowplowing. Storms arise at unhandy times, such as Christmas Eve last week.
Johnson monitors weather reports and relies on the Sheriff's Office patrol division for guidance.
"Sometimes it's not snowing in Forest Lake but it's snowing like mad in Lake Elmo," he said. "You can have these long days without these 10-inch snows. We try to get the guys home soon as we can, but we also want to get the traveling public to where they want to go, too."
Johnson said he occasionally hears from people who offer advice on how to better plow the roads, but more frequent calls come from residents whose mailboxes are knocked over from the weight of flying snow.
"It's frustrating for people that can't get their mail," he said. "First chance I get we'll take a box of Sheetrock screws and some boards and we'll patch it back up."
Johnson's motto all these years?
"Just another day in paradise," he said.