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Monday, May 2, 2016

Salt shortage has city, county crews on thin ice

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shhhh. Don't use the "S" Word within earshot of the Buena Vista County Engineer's office.

"Storm," that is.

"We would very much like to stay away from too many more storms," said County Engineer Jon Ites, who cringes a little at the mere mention of the term. "Like everyone else, we are really struggling to get supplies in for treating the roads."

The series of icy snowstorms that hit early in the season crippled the local supplies set aside for the winter.

"We went through everything we had. There was nothing left if there had been one more storm following that period," Ites said.

The problem is, the same storms that passed through northwest Iowa had struck even worse in Kansas, wreaking havok with the mining companies there that supply and distribute road salt. Iowa also gets salt from Louisiana, but freeze conditions on the Mississippi have kept barges stuck in port.

Buena Vista County has prices fixed for its road supplies for the rest of the season, so cost is not as crucial a factor as finding the salt, Ites said.

Local cities, and even the Iowa Department of Transportation, say they are running low, too.

Locally, sand is mixed with the rock salt in all locations, not just for the sake of extra traction, but to give the county budget a bit of extra grip as well - sand runs the county just $3-$5 a ton while salt costs about $52-53 a ton.

Luckily, the few weeks that have passed between storms have let the county catch up somewhat on storm preparations, Ites said. Enough salt is on hand now to deal with short-term storms.

For the sake of the budget, also, the county crew is longing for more sun.

"With the fuel costs as they are now, and little job costs big money," Ites said. "I especially get nervous when they talk about ice, like they were this week. Ice not only costs us hours and fuel, it costs us blades."

Rural roads are mostly in normal condition for this time of year, he said. "We dress them when we get the opportunity, but it really takes a few clear days, and you don't get them perfect."

It will help that warm weather has melted down the ditch snow, where wind had filled many ditches, Ites said. That will provide room for snow to go if another storm hits, and help avoid re-drifting.

Storm Lake city road crews also use a mix of salt and sand, and are also having trouble obtaining the salt they need.

"We have enough right now to get us through a storm - if we had two straight weeks of bad weather, then we might have a problem," City Administrator Patti Moore said.

The city has additional supplies on order.

City streets are mostly in good condition, officials said, although some side streets still have ice build up from the earlier December storms.

While potholes are jolting some drivers, there is little that can be done about it now. "When you have melting and refreezing, it is going to happen," Moore said.

State officials have felt the cold-shoulder, too.

"It was a pretty tough December," said Dennis Brukheimer, winter operations administrator for the state transportation department. "Hopefully, we'll have a break in the weather to resupply, but we've had no indications from our suppliers that there is a shortage; it's just delayed."

Temporarily, the DOT has cut off its policy of selling some of its stores of salt to small towns across the state. Once deliveries resume, so will transportation department sales to counties and towns, officials say.

"Now that they've cut us off," said Solan public works director Scott Kleppe, "we're begging, borrowing or stealing it."

The IDOT has 195,000 tons of salt for the state when winter began, Brukheimer said. About 140,000 tons have been used.

* The AP contributed to this report.

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