Officials ask for patience as COVID-19 may impact snow removal
Some parts of the Lake Tahoe Basin received over a foot of snow during the first snowstorms of the season. As Old Man Winter makes his presence felt, snowplow operators are doing what they can to clear roads.
Brian Mullens, El Dorado County Department of Transportation deputy director of maintenance and operations says that 80% of the roads on the system were plowed on the first day of Tahoe’s first snowstorm of this winter season — Strawberry and Echo Summit were plowed by the second day.
While roads were plowed, Mullen says that they will be fully staffed with plow drivers by Dec. 7.
Mullen says that when the crews get a 3-day forecast notification from NWS, like they did prior to this last snowstorm, they spend the 48-hours leading up to the storm restocking supplies, ensuring equipment is ready to go and making sure brine is prepared.
Despite its increasing popularity, the county and city will not be using beet juice to help roads with icy conditions instead they will use sand and salt brine.
Mullens says that due to the fact that there are no beet juice manufacturers in the west, importing the juice from other areas around the nation is expensive and inventory is limited.
“The cost of delivery outweighs the benefit of the product,” he said.
Beet juice mixed with salt brine is a more environmentally-friendly way to remove ice from roads by reducing the amount of salt from entering the lake.
Mullen says that they are still looking for alternatives.
Along with several entities, COVID-19 has made the county shift certain operations.
Mullen said that COVID-19 is a major concern because their workforce usually gathers in close proximity when going over plans. They have put in extra safety protocols for the workforce including that groups will be significantly smaller.
“We definitely have concerns if a positive case was to spread through the workforce and affect our ability to remove snow,” said Mullen.
If the scenario came to it, Mullen said he could pull workers possibly from Placerville to fill the gaps.
“We have protocols where employees will be evaluated by the health department,” he said.
Measure M, a hopeful measure from March 2020 that did not qualify for November’s ballot, would have allowed the DOT to buy newer equipment and replace their fleet of aging snowplows.
He says that they do have concerns if there were to be catastrophic failures, but “At this point everything looks good, but can change over the course of the winter,” Mullen said. “Last year, we didn’t have any major equipment break down.”
He said that while they didn’t have any this last year, prior years they had one or two sporadically break down and were able to repair smaller issues.
“We ask for patience,” he said. “Our equipment is quite old and we do our best to make sure as much equipment is operating as possible.”
Mullen says many of the drivers will be focusing on the day shift which is when plows will be doing cleanups of the smaller streets.
He said the plows will be cleaning, sanding and brining the arterial roads or high-capacity roads, like Pioneer Trail, during the night.
For Incline residents, the Washoe County’s website has a real time snow operations map where you can see they have plowed and where they haven’t. Their website says that priority is given to arterial and collector streets along with school routes and Regional Transportation (RTC) bus routes along with essential facilities such as fire stations and hospitals are also on priority routes. Priority 2 routes will be neighborhood streets and all other types of streets fall into priority 3 routes, such as Cul-de-sacs, dead-end, and industrial streets.
The city of South Lake Tahoe’s snow removal plan has eight neighborhoods or “zones” across town. Which streets are plowed first will be determined by the storm cycle.
They target the primary and secondary roads first and then they will hit neighborhood streets afterwards. The city council recently approved new equipment which replaces the existing Larue D65-3 Loader Mounted Snow Blower with a new Kodiak Model 3644 Loader Mounted Snow Blower at a total cost of $269,515. The attachment helps snow removal operations remove the berm created in the road that narrows the lane when there is heavy snow.
While updates in equipment will allow for more efficient snow removal, COVID-19 has also hurt the city snow removal primarily in terms of staffing which could potentially affect efficiency.
Ray Jarvis, the city’s public works director said that while they usually hire four to five wintertime seasonal employees, this winter they were only allowed to hire one.
“The city lost significant revenue this summer which hurt our ability to add staffing,” said Jarvis.
Even during the summer, public works was hit with short staffing. They usually hire about 18 seasonals for cleanups, etc., this summer they only hired two.
“Depending [on storm cycles] this could slow us down a little bit,” Jarvis said.
Along with a shorter than usual staff roster, if staff get sick or exhibit symptoms they could be short staffed for a while. While Jarivs is hoping to get quicker testing for employees, the current lag in testing could delay operations.
Jarvis asks the community that when it is snowing, not to park vehicles on roads. He said it significantly slows operations. He said that during the first storm that hit, he saw hundreds of vehicles parked on the side of the road.
When storms hit, to help assist snow removal, park vehicles in driveways or off roads.
“Please be patient, COVID-19 has impacted operations and it may take longer to clear a roadway.” Jarvis said. “We are doing the best we can in terms of staffing and equipment.”
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