Department stretches salt supply
The harsh winter is testing the limits of the city’s Public Works department, as well as its supply of road salt.
A series of big snowstorms, punctuated by last Thursday’s blizzard, has Public Works Director Mike Tate’s team of 11 at full throttle.
“We do factor in some overtime, but that’s pretty well used up this year,” he said on Tuesday.
Same goes for the 1,300 tons of salt Tate ordered last spring to last through this winter. A typical winter in Forest Lake requires about 600 tons, Tate said, but only 50 tons remain.
“We are mixing it 50-50 with sand to make it last,” Tate said. “We might even make it 70-30 (sand).”
If the salt supply is exhausted, the city will use sand alone. Sand provides more traction than salt but does not melt ice as well and washes into the sewer system rather than dissolving.
City crews are also limiting areas to treat and spreading lighter layers.
“We are using light shots and keeping it to a minimum,” Tate said.
A year or two in the late 1980s brought winters similar to this, Tate said, but this one has been unique in that almost no warm weather has come along to melt some of the snow.
The remains from last week’s storm are particularly treacherous, Tate said. It was a wet snowfall, so it compacted and froze on streets “like glue.”
It also had strong winds, which led to significant drifting. Tate said in some areas his crews had to blow cuts 5 feet tall for several hundred feet.
Public Works employees hit the road at midnight on Friday and punched the clock for 30 hours by the end of their workday on Saturday.
“With a normal snowfall, in 10-12 hours we pretty well have things taken care of,” Tate said.
Problems are emerging as the piles grow. Residents are blowing snow into the streets, impairing the roadway and frustrating neighbors. The city may need to haul snow away from areas with no room for additional banks and piles.
The sustained chill is also affecting pipes. About 10 water mains have burst, compared to three or four in a normal winter. A main broke outside the police station on Feb. 14 and began to flood the building. At Monday’s City Council meeting, Police Chief Rick Peterson thanked Tate for his department’s quick response.
Even service lines connecting water mains to houses are freezing. About 10 such incidents have taken place. Tate urges residents to call his department if they notice their water measures 34 degrees or colder. He said service lines down to 7 feet underground are being affected.
“This is something new for us; it hasn’t been an issue in the past,” he said.
The department is not out of the woods yet. A sudden thaw could lead to flooding, while an on-and-off thaw could lead to more water main breaks as pipes shift.
If the department’s man-hours exceed the budgeted overtime amount, Tate said it will have to dip into other areas of the budget, such as the equipment repair line item or gravel or blacktop funds.