Wichita official: Too cold to clear snowpacked streets

A snowplow scatters sand on Douglas at Main on Thursday. (Feb. 6, 2014)
A snowplow scatters sand on Douglas at Main on Thursday. (Feb. 6, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita is in “uncharted territories” trying to deal with the hard snowpack that has formed in the wake of a heavy snow earlier this week followed by brutal cold, a city official said Thursday.

The timing of the snowfall and cold snap has hampered crews from clearing Wichita streets, said Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works and utilities.

After about 9 inches of snow fell on Tuesday, temperatures fell near zero and have struggled to even reach double digits since.

The city also is grappling with a shortage of salt created by demand elsewhere in what has been a harsh winter, he said.

“We’re in uncharted territories in terms of facing this combination of events,” Pajor said.

But even if the city had all the salt it wanted, he said, it’s too cold for the salt-sand mix to be effective in thawing the snowpack and helping clear Wichita streets.

Crews are putting down sand to help break up the snowpack. City officials are monitoring forecasts to see when might be the best time to test how effective a mix of salt, sand and calcium chloride would be in tackling the snowpack, Pajor said. Calcium chloride is effective at lower temperatures, he said.

For the city’s salt-sand mixture to be most effective, Pajor said, temperatures need to be at least in the upper 20s. But forecasters say that won’t happen until perhaps Saturday before temperatures plummet again. Highs are likely to only be in the 20s through the middle of next week.

Street crews will remain on 12-hour shifts through the weekend into early next week, Pajor said.

Salt supplies low

City administrators are plowing through the annual snow removal budget at a faster clip than in 2013 and are unable to land the salt they will need if more snow falls.

The city’s salt supplies have dwindled to around 30 percent, said public works director Alan King.

“The salt we have right now meets our needs short-term,” King said. “Even if we had all the salt we could use, we’d still have it. Maybe we could use it as a brine solution on isolated spots, but covering 1,500 miles of priority routes in this cold makes sand the better choice.

“When we find ourselves in higher temperatures that salt makes sense, we’re going to tap off that supply.”

The city salt shortage is made worse by the very roads that the salt won’t thaw. The city has 2,000 tons on order from the Hutchinson Salt Co., but it can’t be delivered because K-96 is as treacherous as city streets.

“We have no reason to believe we will get more salt, or we won’t,” King said. “We’re operating right now on the idea we won’t get any soon.”

And then there’s the impact of the lousy weather on the city’s snow removal budget. Layton said the city has spent $263,000 of the $560,000 annual snow removal budget, thanks in large part to December ice storms that preceded the annual February round of snowfall.

That’s spending at an 8 percent faster rate than in 2013 – although the budget figure was blown out of the water by consecutive late February snowstorms last year that dumped 21 inches on the area and drove city snow removal spending near $1 million.

City officials and council members have said the city will spend whatever it takes to maintain streets in bad winter weather.

The bottom line: City Hall – and Wichita taxpayers – can’t afford much more snow.

And they might not get it if long-term forecasts, which see major snow chances giving way to thunderstorms later this month, are true.

“Ah, that’s great,” King mused. “Thunderstorms mean rain, good moisture.”

Chance of more snow

There’s a chance of additional snow in the Wichita area on Friday, but forecasters say accumulation wouldn’t be substantial.

School districts in the Wichita metro area canceled classes for up to three days this week, but most have reopened – including Wichita’s District 259, whose students will return Friday.

Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday praised state workers for their efforts responding to the storm – and praised Kansans for taking the storm seriously.

“Our priority is safety,” he said. “I want to thank everybody for heeding the warnings of this big storm.”

The storm is blamed for three deaths in two traffic accidents. Eleven other accidents caused injuries. The Kansas Highway Patrol responded to 142 accidents statewide, Major John Eichkorn said.

Eichkorn advised drivers to remain cautious in the days ahead.

“It’s important for everyone to remember as the sun comes out and temperatures continue to be cold, we’re going to have slick areas for quite some time,” he said.

Secretary of Transportation Mike King said 10,000 miles of roads were snowpacked across the state.

“We still have some challenging days ahead,” King said, referring to the possibility of more storms in the forecast.

But the state has restocked its supplies for treating highways and is ready, he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle