BROOKINGS – The Brookings area has been hit with seemingly unending snowfall for the past couple of months. Superintendent Matt Bartley and the Brookings Street Department are running out of room to dump it, and there’s still more in the forecast.
Running 14-hour shifts all through the night isn’t enough to keep up with all the snow that’s been falling this winter, and Bartley has to juggle getting the job done with the budget and not burning out his crew.
A lot of snow
“It’s been quite a long winter. Just a lot of continuous snow events,” Bartley said.
The first snow event came just after Christmas, but the delay to winter hasn’t helped much.
“It’s feeling like we’re already at where we would normally be for a whole season,” Bartley said.
According to the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the Brookings area had a 1.1-inch total from September through November, 41.5 inches from December through February, and 3 inches so far in March. That’s a total of 45.6 inches for the winter.
And there’s more predicted for this weekend.
Not only does all that snow have to be moved off the streets, but it has to be hauled away to make room for more snow.
The Street Department is using two dump sites for the snow: one on the west side of town at West 10th Street and the old Department of Transportation property, now called Brookings Marketplace, which is just east of Interstate 29.
“The west end of town is our main snow dump and … it’s three-quarters full, if not more than that,” Bartley said last week.
Due to that, he’s closed it to contractors, and only city crews are allowed to dump there. He’s sending contractors to the Marketplace property to dump because he wants his crews to have access to that west location for as long as possible.
“That run from Main to (the west dump) is shorter than running all the way to the Marketplace and back, but once that west dump is full, it’s full and we’re gonna have to go (to the east dump),” he said.
It won’t take long, either.
“It’s about as full as you’d normally see it at the end of the season, versus end of February,” Bartley said.
Crews working hard
While not heavy, the frequent snowfalls, that sometimes last all day, do add up. Bartley said that’s harder on his crew than having a storm with clear days before the next one hits, because there’s no time for them to catch up.
The routine depends on the amount of snowfall. Bartley goes out and checks conditions to see who he’ll need to call out.
“We have a crew that rotates on call throughout the winter months. It’s either three to four guys and during those small events, they’re the ones that call out first,” Bartley said. “You kinda got a small crew of guys you’re really leaning on hard to get you through that week.”
If those small events start coming quickly and accumulating, Bartley has a decision to make.
“Then I’ll call everybody in and we’ll all go, so if we get a couple of larger events in there, then everybody starts wearing out,” he said.
Bartley has a crew of 13. He can also borrow a half-dozen pieces of equipment and the city employees to operate them from Parks, Recreation & Forestry, and he can call out independent contractors. All total, he can put out about 30 people and pieces of equipment at one time.
“If we put on a snow alert, a parking ban, we’re (calling out everyone),” Bartley said.
With snow coming all the time, Bartley has to pick and choose what gets done.
“When we only get like an inch snowfall, we don’t typically go plow residential roadways,” he said, adding they sand the intersections, but snowpack can accumulate. “So this year, the residentials have suffered due to those small amounts of snowfall.
“That’s probably been one of the biggest frustrations from just people in general, and I get it,” Bartley said.
The downtown area is important due to the number of people who work and shop there. Bartley said it takes six to 10 pieces of equipment and people to get the downtown cleared between 1-7 a.m. They want to be done by the time folks arrive because they can’t maneuver the equipment around traffic.
Sometimes it’s not snow, but wind.
“The wind killed us (the last week of February),” he said. “You might get an event one day and if the wind picks up, we’re out there again all day long, like (Sunday, Feb. 24).”
Even if it’s not snowing, the men still have plenty to do.
“The other big issue right now is just the amount of snow everywhere. The height of the windrows left at intersections is impeding visibility, and we are working on that, but we are also prioritizing based off of traffic volume safety,” he said, so some lesser traveled streets might have to wait while higher traffic intersections are cleared first.
“We’re trying to catch up on those tall windrows and those safety aspects that we can’t do during the day because there’s too much traffic,” Bartley said.
That’s why you don’t usually see the street crews working during the day.
Generally, the men go out around 1 a.m. and work until 3:30 p.m. Some might hit the streets at midnight. Those 14-hour-plus days wear on the crew.
“It’s pushing it,” Bartley said. “And then there’s times where we’re doing it consecutive days. That’s where it gets tiring … The other thing is they can work so many hours, and then they gotta have that break.
“We need to take safety measures and let them get a break. I don’t want anything bad to happen,” Bartley said.
Giving the men a chance to rest is important so they don’t burn out, but also gives them a chance to take care of things at home.
“They still got to go home and shovel or snowblow their own driveway,” Bartley said.
The crew can use vacation days and comp time if they need to, but somebody always has to be available.
Even though Bartley tries, his men are working a lot of hours and that adds up.
“I had 42 hours in at 7 o’clock this morning (Thursday, Feb. 28) already this week, and that’s just my time; and usually my guys are more than that,” Bartley said, adding he can come in and then leave for a few hours, but his crew can’t.
“The on-call guys right now have been pushing 60-plus hours a week, if not more. The crew in general is, I would say, averaging at a minimum of 50 hours a week right now. It’s just been one of those winters,” Bartley said.
He praised his crew, not only for their work, but attitude.
“These guys are good about it though. It’s like they almost fall into a groove of running with less sleep and working a lot and they get used to it. It amazes me, actually,” Bartley said. “They actually take a lot of pride in getting the streets open and ready for people that are going to work at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m.
“And they understand there’s not a lot of gratitude with it. People don’t see it,” Bartley said.
All that manpower comes at a price, with overtime adding up and supplies of sand and salt running low.
“You can see the back of the big hoop barn over there. That’s quite a bit of sand,” Bartley said.
He grimaces when the budget is mentioned.
“Ah – it’s not good. After payments in February here, we will – I mean, there’s nothing in there after this February,” Bartley said.
He can’t just close up shop when the money runs out, so he plans to meet with City Manager Paul Briseno and see how they can re-allocate some money.
“It’s a public safety need,” Bartley said. “It’s just an operation that has to be provided.”
While Bartley is definitely looking forward to spring, he knows problems will come with it.
“There’s gonna be a melting of all this snow,” he said, adding it could lead to issues with storm water, catch basins and inlets. His department will make sure there is proper flow and drainage. All that water will bring mosquitoes, which means more late-night work for his crews.
Before that comes, he knows his crews need to get through winter, which isn’t over by a long shot.
“Last year in April was our 11-inch, 10-inch snowfall that was the worst one of the year,” he recalled.
He’s hoping for an early, but slow, spring.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]