First came the snow, now come the floods
What a winter it's been so far—and perhaps no one knows that better than Crow Wing County Highway Maintenance Supervisor Jory Danielson.
"We've done more snow removal this year than we have in the last 10 years," Danielson said. "This is the most snow that I've seen at any one time in the last 10 years."
Crow Wing County maintains over 640 miles of roadway and right of way and bridges. County highways and roads, and roads in the First and Second assessment districts, are maintained by the highway department.
"We've been behind the curb with snowblowers—load the snow into trucks—or blow it back where we can ... just to try and create more room because we're out of room behind the curb lines," he said.
Snowplows usually will not be dispatched for typical snow events until after a snowfall has ceased, according to county officials, and ice-fighting techniques may start prior to actual precipitation and continue throughout the event.
"Over the last month, it's really been a real challenge. We haven't had the warm weather that we typically see, even just for a few days, to help the snow settle," Danielson said.
There have been 18 recorded "snow events" this winter involving county snow removal as of March 2: Nov. 11; Dec. 19, 22, 27 and 31; Jan. 7, 22, 24 and 28; Feb. 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 21 and 27; and March 1 and 10.
"The continuous snowfalls that just keep adding up have not allowed us the luxury of having ditches that we can fill. You can see looking at many of our ditches that they're full of snow. Some are even higher than the roads," Danielson said. "It's fairly uncommon, especially this time of year. We usually, typically, get some melting."
To make matters worse, the Brainerd lakes area may see up to 2 inches of rain by Thursday. Coupled with highs almost into the 40s later this week, the nearly 7 inches of snow accumulation that fell by Sunday afternoon and previous snow events, and things will get wet.
"So far this year, we've used about 3,700 tons of salt. Last year, we used about 3,900 tons. ... We used a fair amount in March. And even in April, we had a couple of (snow) events last year," Danielson said.
According to the The Measure of Things, an online comparison tool, the 3,700 tons of salt used so far this winter would weigh: a third as heavy as the Eiffel Tower, a fourth as heavy as the Brooklyn Bridge or 20 times as heavy as a 1,600-square-foot, single-story, unfurnished house.
The standard road salt used by the highway department is most effective above 15 degrees but effectiveness degrades quickly after that temperature and at 0 degrees is almost ineffective.
"Each event is different. If the sun stays out and it stays warm, the snow will melt and we will have to use very little salt. If it gets cold and the sun doesn't warm up the asphalt, we'll have to use more," he said.
According to the latest county records available, the county spent a total of $53,842 removing the 7-inch snow that fell from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 1, of which $18,971 was spent on salt, $2,613 on brine, $21,350 on equipment or fuel, $5,391 on personnel and $5,517 on overtime.
The highway department uses 16 county snowplow trucks and other heavy equipment to remove snow and ice, with each of the 16 drivers assigned to a specific plow route representing "an equitable portion" of the more than 600 miles of roadway in the county.
Mixtures of salt and sand are typically used on county roads. Concentrations of 10 percent salt are most common, but 50-50 concentrations are used periodically for difficult road conditions, combining the benefits of increased traction with the ice-cutting action of road salt.
More than 310 tons of salt and almost 4,000 gallons of brine alone were used just for the March 1 snow event. The cost per mile to remove the March 1 snow accumulation was $96 a mile. But the total snow-removal costs for this winter, as of that March 1 date, was $952,375.
"We partner and buy off this Minnesota state contract. We are currently, we have ordered about 100 percent of what we contract. We can go up to as high as 120 percent of our order, which we will creep over a 100 percent more than likely just with where we're at," Danielson said.
"The good thing is, at this time of year, it doesn't take very much salt unless we get that ice storm and temperatures that drop below freezing. But like Sunday's snow, we used a very little amount of salt compared to the type of snow we had before."
'Strong, sloppy and warm'
The National Weather Service in Duluth tweeted Monday morning: "A strong, sloppy and warm midweek system will bring plentiful rain to most of the forecast area, which likely cause street flooding."
"We're anticipating various areas throughout the county to experience flooding, just because our ditches are full of snow. They don't have any more capacity. Some storm drains might be frozen," Danielson said.
"We've got crews out checking catch basins along curb lines, making sure they're open, and we'll do our best to keep up with them ... knowing that if we had a very rapid thaw and it gets really warm that we are going to have trouble keeping up with all the water running."
A snow and ice priority ranking has been assigned for each segment of roadway to ensure "roadways receive snow and ice services in a timeframe and level of service corresponding to its importance to the overall transportation system," according to county officials.
"We've been monitoring, and basically grading and reporting what we've done and the results of our decisions for quite a few years now. ... If you go to crowwing.us, you can see snow events for the last five or six years, and how we've done on each and every event," Danielson said. "The main purpose is just to let the public know how we're using their investment and the methodology behind it ... and just trying to be as transparent as we can, working for the public."
Danielson said the primary criteria used to determine a roadway's priority ranking is traffic volume, so roads with relatively low traffic volumes that serve as a logical collector system for the higher volume arterial roads may be eligible for a higher priority ranking.
"If something is flooded, we'll put a press release out notifying the public, and also our social media sites, our website, of course, and then our Facebook and Twitter sites, but if they want to report (a flooded area), they should call the highway department or the sheriff's office," he said.
"Most of our roads have another outlet, and although it might be an inconvenience, it's always safer to avoid driving through water ... and if the water is completely across the road, they don't want to drive through it."