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Harsh winter has Fox Valley towns focused on their salt supply

Maintenance worker Jim Gates checks wing plow one larger city plows. Over 16 snow plows full salt wait City Aurora's

Maintenance worker Jim Gates checks the wing plow on one of the larger city plows. Over 16 snow plows full of salt wait in the City of Aurora's Central Garage on Monday, March 4, 2013, ready to fight Tuesday predicted storm. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 4, 2014 4:32PM

For those who haven’t noticed, this already has been one of the worst winters in decades in the Chicago area.

“It arrived early, and it’s hanging around,” said Linda LaCloche, communications manager at the city of Naperville. “We’re all hoping for a break, but we have February still to go.”

So, it’s no surprise the weather has challenged area jurisdictions charged with removing snow from highways and streets, and making those roads safe to drive on.

In particular, the challenge is to know when to salt those roads —with one eye on the road conditions, and the other on salt supplies.

Aurora spokesman Dan Ferrelli said the city can’t predict the size or number of events that may hit the rest of the season.

In order to maximize the amount of salt the city has remaining, crews will be concentrating its use on primary roads while applying it very conservatively in residential areas from here on out this winter, Ferrelli said. Clearing of primary routes is of the utmost importance from a safety standpoint because these streets have higher traffic volumes, he said.

Ferrelli said the city’s new salt strategy doesn’t mean the city plans to eliminate salt use in residential areas entirely and residential streets will still be plowed. Rather, the will be very conservative on how much and where salt is used, he said.

“While motorists in residential areas may find streets snow covered, they will be drivable as long as extra caution is exercised including slowing down even further and allowing extra space between vehicles,” he said.

The salt warning was put out because Aurora, which buys its salt through the Illinois Joint Purchasing Program, known by officials as the “state contract,” is watching its salt supply closely.

Aurora officials said the “regional shortage of salt” has been caused by the “one-two punch” of the above-average snowfall, and the below-average temperatures.

Aurora already has used more than 13,500 tons of road salt, which is about the amount used for an entire normal winter.

The city ordered 17,000 tons of salt for the current snow season. But due to delivery delays, Aurora has only received about 9,500 tons so far this winter, Ferrelli said.

Salt purchases are made based on the city’s historical usage combined with how much inventory the city already has on hand. Typically, the city orders between 15,000 and 19,000 tons per season, according to Ferrelli.

“It’s no secret that the entire region has been hit with record setting snowfalls and cold temperatures this year, the impacts of which could not have been predicted,” he said. “We certainly do our best to plan each year on how much salt will be required based on historical averages, but it is impossible to predict extremes.”

The city has responded to more than 25 snow events this year, compared to four within the same time frame last year and six in the 2011-2012 snow season. Aurora crews are responsible for clearing 2,100 lane miles on 34 snow routes.

“Obviously, this year falls into that extreme category that is impossible to forecast,” Ferrelli said.

The last time Aurora faced a significant salt shortage was 2009.

Other jurisdictions said this week they also are watching their salt supplies, but that so far, things are OK.

“OK is a safe word to use,” said Bill Edwards, maintenance superintendent for the Kane County Transportation Department. “We’re probably half-ay through what we normally use.”

That’s not bad, considering this winter. Edwards said the highway department averages going out 50 times in a winter, and on Friday, Edwards himself went out for the 51st time.

The county contracted with the state this year for 9,000 tons of salt, but it has the ability to get 120 percent of that contract. That means Kane County likely will end up purchasing another 1,800 tons before the winter is over.

“We budget for 120 percent,” Edwards said. “And we’ll probably be doing 120 percent, the way things are going.”

In Kendall County, Highway Department Director Fran Klaas had a simple, short answer this week for County Board members who wanted to know how the county’s salt supplies are holding up.

“We’re good,” Klaas said.

That’s in part because in addition to its own salt storage dome, it has a community facility that not only includes the highway department, but the county’s township road districts and the city of Yorkville as well. All of them had to “buy in” to the community storage.

Klaas said the county has 2,000 tons in its own storage dome, and another 2,100 tons in the community storage.

Eric Dhuse, Yorkville’s public works director, said the city recently went and got its supply stored with the county to make sure it has enough. The city has about 900 tons of salt left, which Dhuse said he “believes” will see them through the winter.

“We’re plenty good,” he said.

Montgomery Director of Public Works Mike Pubentz said the long-awaited arrival of more salt was delivered in four trucks late last week. The trucks left some 8,800 tons of salt for the pile that had dwindled to less than 400 tons.

While this may seem like enough salt, that is not necessarily the case.

“We called ... vendors, four couldn’t commit to making the order, and two were completely out of salt and have a waiting list. We still have six weeks so we need to keep some salt in reserves,” Pubentz said.

Of course, when it comes to road conditions, salt is not a cure-all.

Aurora officials reminded its citizens that once the temperatures get below 20 degrees, which they have been a lot this year, road salting “is … less effective.”

In more rural areas, or on state highways and even the toll roads, high winds cause drifting, and road salt has absolutely no effect on that.

The drifting of snow is what has caused problems during the past week. Edwards said Kane County crews in the western part of the county, which is more rural, take about an hour or more to do a snow route. He said that means the crews clear an area, but it drifts over shortly after they leave.

“It’s like we were never there,” he said.

From those rural highways to the urban side streets, salted or not salted, the advice from officials is the same: drivers should always be careful.

Aurora officials reminded drivers this week to slow down and allow extra space between vehicles when driving in winter weather and be extra cautious at intersections and on hills and bridges.

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