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Snow shortfall affects bottom lines of highway, businesses

A sign near the trail access at Hwy. 63 and 570th Avenue northeast of Ellsworth indicated the county snowmobile trails were closed. (Photo by Bill Kirk)

The winter many hope is now winding down may have seemed long and bitter, but one thing was lacking--snow.

An informal record kept of this season’s snowfalls as of last week shows none dumped more than four inches at any one time on the Ellsworth vicinity. Moreover, the number of times there was measurable snow here at all—11--was fewer than in many winters.

“It’s not so much the amount as the frequency,” Pierce County Highway Commissioner Chad Johnson said Wednesday, adding, “and it just hasn’t been as frequent this year.”

Johnson’s perspective on the shortfall of snow may be different than the view of someone who relies on it for their livelihood, for example. Information from the highway department he shared confirms less snow means some savings in the department’s budget. That budget is set up for a calendar year, so tracking addresses the “spring” portion of winter (Jan. 1 until thaw) and the “fall” portion of winter (beginning of winter until Dec. 31), he explained.

The 2008-14 average cost for winter maintenance on the county road system (not including costs for the state or town roads the county maintains) is $560,737, the information states. In 2013, the winter costs were $728,744 and the 2014 costs were $720,526.

The fall of ’14 costs were $177,115, compared to an average fall cost of $179,714, it states.

The average spring cost, again for 2008-’14, is $381,023, according to the information. For the first seven weeks of ’14, $331,679 was spent, $18,909 of which was overtime labor. For the same period in 2015, $231,212 has been spent, $9,558 of which was overtime labor.

“A milder winter is easier on budgets, personnel and equipment, but any budget savings are not automatically earmarked for summer maintenance, as we still have to contend with the fall of 2015,” the commissioner said. “Since our maintenance costs fluctuate from year to year, we currently have a deficit to make up. We may exceed winter budget levels in order to maintain an acceptable level of service for the traveling public.”

Trails didn’t open

Also approaching the light-on-snow winter issue from the government standpoint is Pierce Park Superintendent Scott Schoepp, who’s the county’s snowmobile trail coordinator. Those trails were never open this season, around one of a half-dozen times that’s happened in the last 25 years, Schoepp estimated.

“It just didn’t balance out this year,” he said about conditions on the 221 miles of trails in the county.

There really needs to be at least between six and 10 inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground for the trails to open, he said. Consistency is the key; if the snow that falls has the characteristics of being light and fluffy, it doesn’t contribute toward a trail opening.

Speculating on a blizzard yet this month of, say, six-to-10 inches of the heavy, wet variety, the coordinator said the trails could open, though probably wouldn’t be groomed. He reminded the sun angle is such at this time of year that snow on any exposed bit of ground is subject to melting.

About the only positive development he could find is the previous couple of winters before this one were very good for snowmobiling.

Plowing way down

Brian Pieper of Rock Works Landscaping in Ellsworth wants more snow from both a snowmobiler’s and a snow plow service operator’s standpoint. Pieper said Thursday he’s been plowing snow for private customers since 2006 and this season has produced the least amount during that period.

However, considering statistics showing most slips and falls occur when there’s an inch of snow or less on the ground, the plow operator said it really doesn’t matter whether there’s a lot or a little—those in his business need to be out there. That’s something that tends to go unnoticed by the public, he added.

Asked if recent lower gas prices have had an impact, he admitted they’ve been a factor, but so have prices for ice melt products.

“The temperature changes everything,” he said, noting in November there was January-type weather locally and, in January, it was just the opposite.

That meant everything melted at times, especially felt by him when the prices for ice melt products increased by 36 percent Jan. 1, said Pieper, who works with four other plow drivers and has approximately 15 accounts. He’d sent out contracts in November; aggravating the situation was the freezing rain that fell in January.

There have been winters with lots of little snowfalls in the past, he remembered. Conversely, in 2010, there were just two-or-three storms, but they produced a significant amount of snow. For instance, in December of ’10, one dumping measured 18 inches alone. That year, the white stuff stayed a long time on the ground.

The time of the day when the snow falls makes a difference, too, he said. This winter, it’s almost always been around 7 a.m., creating a daytime nuisance. Plow operators not only didn’t have the night before to clean up whatever fell, but had to work around motorists and customers pursuing their daily routines after it did.

The former president of the Pierce County Snowmobile Council said he knows of a Pine Island, Minn., business that sold a lot of their snowmobile inventory early, when this winter still looked promising. Later, the sales slowed.

“It’s been tough playing in it,” he said, describing this season’s snow conditions for recreation.

The sales pattern he understood for the snow machines was echoed by Rob Stewart of River Valley Power and Sport in Red Wing. Stewart said Friday there had been early-season interest.

“Now, we’ve got a lot of used inventory,” he said, noting the plowing service that the business offers has also been way down.

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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