February 10, 2022
Floods, COVID, retirements complicated December snow removal
Chris O'Neill

A 24-hour work schedule for local road crews was no surprise when it came time to clear roads after December’s heavy snowfall. Public works managers were already planning around staff retirements and schedule complications due to COVID-19 when lingering issues from heavy flooding in November added another level of challenge — even before flakes began to fall. (Photo courtesy City of Bellingham)

February 10, 2022
Floods, COVID, retirements complicated December snow removal
Chris O'Neill

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We’ve all experienced snow days this winter and, for many of us waiting for roads to be cleared, it’s a major hassle that leaves us feeling frustrated and helpless. But who’s to blame? Global warming? Our local government? Consider what goes into snow removal before calling to complain.

“When we have a serious snowstorm, our crew works 24 hours continuously,” said Marie Duckworth, communications specialist for Whatcom County Public Works. “One shift is from midnight to noon and the other noon to midnight.”

Duckworth stated that a combination of retiring staff as well as complications due to COVID-19 made this season more difficult for her department.

“Basically, we knew going into this winter we would have fewer snowplow drivers than we would like,” Duckworth said. “If employees need to isolate or quarantine because of illness and exposure, that can affect our response time and level of service.”

Whatcom County Public Works is continuing to hire and train new workers as quickly as possible to make up for the staff shortage. 

Flooding made it worse

“I think the one-two punch has been really challenging,” Duckworth said. “We went from one of the worst floods our region has ever had to a snowstorm over Christmas and New Year’s.”

The natural features of the region create microclimates in different parts of the county. Northeasterly winds from the Fraser Valley, proximity to the coast and other factors contribute to pockets of weather that vary significantly. “One area may receive very little snow where another area can experience blizzard-like conditions,” Duckworth said. “So, the approach to managing ice and snow during every storm is unique.”

“People that don’t generally leave the city limits of Bellingham don’t really experience [the variety of] microclimates,” Duckworth said. “Don’t assume the conditions where you’re going will be the same as the conditions where you are now.”

Some locales in Whatcom County reported over 12 inches accumulation of snow from December’s storms; other as little as 3 or 4.

Duckworth thought that a lot of frustration residents have with snow removal may have to do with misunderstanding how roadways are prioritized for clearing during a snow event. She explained that a higher priority level is given to roadways to maintain access for essential services.

“We have an interactive map that will tell you what priority level a road has,” said Duckworth. “I think the map has really helped us explain to people how the priority system works.”

Winter prep begins in the fall

Preparing for winter involves maintenance work for trucks and equipment and stocking up on salt and sand, Duckworth said. Other materials, such as brine, are provided by the City of Bellingham Department of Public Works which develops the material inhouse.

“At Bellingham Public Works, we create our own brine using salt and water to ensure effective deicing, while protecting the adjacent environment,” wrote Amy Cloud of City of Bellingham Public Works. The saltwater is held to a specific salt suspension ratio appropriate for freezing weather.

Cloud echoed Duckworth’s remarks about the recent flood.

“This winter … has been harsh. While it’s not unusual to have snow in the winter, this year was challenging as the winter season began with extensive flooding in November. The repair and recovery from flood damage was followed by more snow, and earlier, than we typically receive,” she noted.

Global warming at work?

“Climate is more of a long-term thing,” said meteorologist Jacob DeFlitch of the Seattle Tacoma National Weather Service Center. “When we’re looking at trends you want to look at more than just a few seasons.”

DeFlitch said that speculating whether global warming was to blame for recent snowfall was too complex of a problem given current data. He understood why people might think one large snowfall is worse than before but, according to the Seattle Tacoma National Weather Service database, this season has yet to beat last year’s snowfall.

“Last year SeaTac reported 12.9 inches but this year so far only 9.2,” DeFlitch said. “We had 20.2 four years ago and only .7 the year after that.”

So, next time you find yourself snowed in, try and take advantage of the unexpected break; there’s really no one to blame but the weather and even that you can’t always predict.

— Reported by Chris O’Neill

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