Frequent storms have suburbs watching salt supplies
A series of storms that has sapped the stamina of public works crews also has many officials wondering if the weather is taking a toll on their salt supplies with months of winter still ahead.
The short answer is supplies appear to be holding, but more of the same could spell trouble down the road, officials said.
"We won't have a shortage if we don't get snowfall after snowfall after snowfall," said John Heinz, public works director in Libertyville. His crews have plowed or salted 16 times this winter, compared to three a year ago.
About 37 inches of snow have fallen in Libertyville, which appeared to be the center of the bull's-eye for a slow-moving storm that began New Year's Day. But Heinz said the culprit has been Alberta clipper weather systems that require more salt than typical storms.
"They can be for a longer duration," he said. "They don't create a lot of snow, but they create slick conditions and we have to respond to that."
All suburban areas are feeling the pinch. Crews from Gurnee to Wheaton have been dispatched much more often to this point than in typical winters.
Lake County Division of Transportation crews, for example, already have been called out 49 times compared with an average season of 55 or 60, said Kevin Kerrigan, engineer of maintenance.
"What's a normal year now?" Kerrigan asked.
To keep pace, many communities, including Libertyville, Gurnee, Schaumburg and Wheaton, have ordered more salt. Others, including Naperville, Vernon Hills, and Elgin, started the year with a surplus because of last year's mild winter. And many use techniques, such as blending chemicals to make the salt work better at lower temperatures, to help stretch supplies.
So far, no shortages have been reported, but wary public works chiefs are watching the weather and how much salt they have left.
For example, about 4,000 tons of salt — nearly double what is usually used by this point — have been spread in Arlington Heights.
"We went through more than half our annual usage in about a quarter or a third of the season," said Public Works Director Scott Shirley. "We are tracking toward not having enough salt to get through the winter if all things stay equal, but it's too early to tell."
The village uses an average of 6,500 tons per winter but keeps about 8,000 tons of salt in storage. The situation will be monitored and more salt will be purchased if necessary, Shirley said.
The Libertyville board on Tuesday authorized spending $70,000 to buy 1,351 tons of salt. The figures had been revised upward substantially since late last week as Heinz ordered 200 tons of a salt/sand mixture from an outside supplier as a hedge against late deliveries.
"We were getting worried," Heinz said.
Vince Laoang, director of public works in Wheaton, said the city is good for a couple of storms but more salt will be needed if this season's snow and ice frequency continues.
The vendor allows the city to order up to 120 percent of its declared amounts, so it is possible to order more.
"However, once we order past that ... they told us that we're basically on our own," Laoang said. "They can't guarantee delivery of anything additional."
The city has been put on a waiting list to see if it can reserve another 1,000 tons of salt if necessary.
David Brown, village engineer/public works director in Vernon Hills, recently ordered another 500 tons of salt, as the village has used more this winter than it did last season when 1,275 tons were spread on streets.
Several communities that struggled with where to store surplus salt after last year's relatively benign winter were a step ahead this winter, he said.
"Most people are probably in good condition because their salt bins were probably full," Brown said. "In Vernon Hills, we have enough salt budgeted and contracted for. The deliveries are being made as we schedule them."
Schaumburg started the year with 3,500 leftover tons of salt and ordered 6,000 more tons. That still may not be enough to get through winter, said Paula Hewson, assistant village manager/interim public works director. The village strongly anticipates having to order another 2,500 tons before all is said and done, she said.
Naperville, Gurnee and Elgin are among the communities that use additives to stretch salt supplies.
Naperville applies liquid calcium chloride to salt before spreading it across roads in a process residents can track by using a salting and plowing map on the city's website, www.naperville.il.us.
Officials are relatively confident in their salt supply, even after using 12,000 tons so far to clear and de-ice roads, said spokeswoman Linda LaCloche. The city uses about 16,000 tons in a typical winter.
Much of the supply came from a stockpile established from previous orders. There are 4,000 tons on hand and another 6,000 on order.
Elgin begins each season with 30 percent to 40 percent more salt than what it expects to use in a typical season. Although it has used more than three-quarters the total for an average year, the city is in good shape, with several thousand tons in storage and several thousand more on order, according to Dan Rich, public works superintendent.
The city uses a "super mix" of salt brine, calcium chloride and beet juice that allows salt to work more quickly and more efficiently up to minus-32 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.
"We're not at all stressed for salt," he said.
Gurnee uses the super mix, said Jake Balmes, street supervisor, and the plow fleet is equipped with computerized spreader control systems to precisely apply and track usage.
Given the salt-saving techniques and historical averages, Balmes said, the village feels "comfortable" with its current condition.
Still, most communities are wary about what is yet to come this winter.
"We hope we have enough (salt)," said Kevin Stahr, spokesman for the city of Geneva. "We'll continue to monitor the supply, especially if we have another month like the last 30 days."
• Staff writers Melissa Silverberg, Bob Susnjara, Marie Wilson, Elena Ferrarin, Jessica Cilella, Harry Hitzeman and Eric Peterson contributed to this report.
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