Snowfall has a way of infiltrating every bit of a Minnesotan's life, and many realize this extends to the local economy, parts of which depend on it.
In this region of Minnesota, snowfall has been abundant as anyone would say, but it's even significant when compared to the past 100 years of local snowfall records.
“I'm talking about Northern Cass, Leech Lake, Southern Cass and Crow Wing County, all those areas are in the 90-95% ranking,” said Steve Gohde, observing program leader with the National Weather Service in Duluth. “All the Upper Mississippi headwaters areas are an unusually high snow depth. Snow depth ranking in the top 10%. If you are looking at 100 years of snow pack information, we would probably be in the top 10 for most areas for snow depth at this time.”
This information was according to a survey of spring flooding information done by the state climatology office in St. Paul at the University of Minnesota as of Jan. 16. According to measurements at the Corps of Engineers in Crosslake, snow totals are ranging from 24-30 inches locally.
On one hand, the timing for those early snowfalls shut down local angling for quite a while, but on the other, anyone who deals in snow removal equipment, cold weather gear or snowmobile related services have seen a boon to their business like they haven't seen in years.
“It's 100 times better with the snow. We're able to rent snowmobiles and people are buying coats and clothing and gear,” said Steve Melby, owner of SPR Motorsport LLC. In Pequot Lakes. “I bet it's been eight years since we had our snow band.”
Reduced snow totals in past years had major impact on the way businesses operate, including restaurants and of course, SPR Motorsports as well. Melby said smaller snow totals in past years have led his business to focus on marine equipment more and more.
“We're pretty much out of snowmobile and atv repair other than our boat customers,” Melby said. “You'd do a repair on someone's machine and it would just sit. We basically either keep people busy on atv and snowmobiles or keep busy with marine. There's enough work on both sides you can't keep up on both of them.”
Even last year when homeowners were struggling with roof snow removal and constant plowing, snow totals weren't quite what Melby's business would require for snowmobile rental.
“Last year you'd get the snow but then it melted and went away or you only had an eight inch base,” Melby said. “I didn't rent last year because I wasn't going to rent on anything under 12 inches.”
In Pine River growing snow totals bolstered one local inventor, and former mayor, who improved upon the classic roof rake design, with little payoff the first few years.
“We put them together but Pequot Tool made them for me and I had a company do the swedging for me and it was 2015 we tried going bigger and between 2015-2018 it was bad winters,” said Jim Sabas. “Nobody bought anything. I couldn't sell more than five a year. It was terrible.”
The winter of 2018-2019 changed all that and roof rakes, including Sabas' Snow Claw, were sold out almost everywhere. People were coming to Pine River from Brainerd to buy Sabas' product.
“Last year we had a year just like this,” Sabas said. “Before I knew it 60-80 of them went off the shelves. I sold them through Gardiner's wholesale. They couldn't keep them on the shelves fast enough.”
Sabas has most of the parts built locally, but he assembles them at home. Even building 15-20 of them an hour, Sabas said he could hardly keep up. Only three of the rakes remain this year, and he's put in an order for parts to build 100 more.
Again, it's been a mixed bag. Even businesses that are seeing an increase in snowmobile traffic have other considerations.
“The snow is a two headed sword,” said Dave Sheley, owner of the Corner Store Restaurant and Gun Shop in Backus. “It's good for snowmobilers but not good for ice conditions, people getting around, bait in general. It's a very slow ice fishing year. In a perfect world you would have good ice to start with, then you'd get some snow and have both. The last two years we haven't had good conditions for ice fishing.”
Sheley sells bait, tackle, gasoline and even snow gear, so he tends to serve both snowmobilers and anglers. While snowmobile traffic has increased the last two years, he said it still doesn't rival the days when everyone in the area seemed to own and ride snowmobiles locally. In addition, between slow bait and tackle sales and especially snow removal costs, even increased snowmobile traffic might not offset all of the costs associated with heavy snowfall.
“As far as business wise, there's a lot more expense moving snow,” Sheley said. “A lot more roof issues. It's been tough on business in our way. In my way of thinking we've had less fishermen and the cost of snow removal versus the uptick in snowmobiles isn't cutting it.”
Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages of the snow cover now, Minnesotan's should start planning now for the spring, as the snow pack is not only deep, it is storing a lot of water that will have to go somewhere as it melts.
“We're ahead of the game right now not only for snow depth but also water content in the snow,” Gohde said. “We're ahead of the game for what we call snow/water equivalent, which would be if you simultaneously melt all the snow on the ground in your area we'd have basically four and one half inches standing in the snow pack. If we instantaneously melted all that it would be the equivalent of a four and one half inch rain storm.”
Gohde said soil conditions and snowpack have resulted in high risk of moderate flooding.
“There are a few things on our check list we look at,” Gohde said. “Heavy snow being one of them and wet soils we had going into freeze-up. Soils will be saturated once we get the spring melt. There won't be much ability to infiltrate that water. It 'won't percolate into that soil it will be more likely to run off and right now there's about a 90% chance we'll see some moderate flooding in Aitkin or Fort Ripley on the Mississippi. There will be more widespread areas that may also see this.”
Outside of river flood plains, basements and other properties may also see some water accumulation. Gohde suggested moving snow away from homes and checking sump pumps to make sure they are working properly. Guaranteeing home gutters and downspouts are working properly can also help prevent flood damage as well.
“If folks are in flood prone areas, it takes a little time for flood insurance applications to go through,” Gohde said. “It's time to start thinking about that. There's also simple things folks can do once we start thawing the ground and melting snow.”
River water levels are already high, so Gohde said flooding risk will all depend on how fast the snow melts as well as precipitation levels in the spring. So far, National Weather Service is expecting a continuation of the current trend of lower than average temperatures combined with higher than average precipitation from January through March.
“It looks like during that time period we will have below normal temperatures and we are expecting above normal precipitation across the northern portion of the contiguous United States from Montana through the Upper Great Lakes,” Gohde said.