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January 21, 2020

12/7/2019 7:28:00 AM
'We're at Mother Nature's mercy': Recent snowstorms impact county highway departments
Kayla Houp
of the Lakeland Times

When the first two snowstorms of the 2019-2020 winter struck the Northwoods last week, power outages across the area left Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) crews working tirelessly to restore power to thousands of customers left sitting in the dark.

While the heavy, wet snow and high winds created problems for WPS crews and electrical personnel, town and county road crews were also feeling the impact of the storms.

"I think part of the biggest problems we ran into were, not only how heavy, wet and fast the snow came down, but the wind," Vilas County highway commissioner Nick Scholtes said.

As Scholtes explained, a large amount of heavy, wet snow leads to snow compression and the formation of ice.

Oneida County highway commissioner Bruce Stefonek said Oneida County faced similar issues in its battle against the winter storms, especially with snow packing onto, and adhering to, county roads.

"It took a lot to fight this storm," Stefonek said. "The traffic got on it and caused a lot of hardpack, and now we're having troubles getting it off county roads."

As the county does not typically use "straight salt" on its county road system, removing the packed snow is a lot harder, Stefonek explained.

"We're just basically asking the public to drive slow and bear with us until we are able to remove that hardpack from our highways," Stefonek said."We really are trying and doing the best we can."

'We should be fine'

Along with the added challenge of battling ice and packed snow, Scholtes addressed the impact heavy and wet snows have on salt and sand reserves.

"Anytime that you have to remove ice versus just removing the snow, it takes us two to three times as much salt to get through that same amount of snow," Scholtes explained. "If it had been a dry snow, we would've used a third of the salt."

While the county's salt reserve is on a state system, the county recently put out its salt sand pile in October and November, which contains 5% salt to prevent the mixture from freezing.

Though the county has plenty of sand on hand, Scholtes said as far as the salt was concerned, the salt supply in Eagle River was "just about gone" as of last Sunday evening.

However, Scholtes said the county was able to bring approximately 1,100 tons of salt between Monday and Tuesday.

"We should be fine," he said.

With heavy snowfall comes the issue of removing that snow once it has been plowed.

Scholtes said Eagle River took care of its own snow removal, and for other municipalities in Vilas County, it was up to their town road crews.

"With the exception of Cloverland, we do theirs. We maintain the county and the state (roads)," Scholtes said.

Winter maintenance budget

Given the amount of snow received last winter, combined with the snow received early this winter, Scholtes anticipates the regular winter maintenance budget for the Vilas County Highway Department to go over budget.

"Right now, our budget is $784,334, and we budget for county winter maintenance," Scholtes said. "Right now, through this past Saturday, we have spent $713,373."

That leaves the county with approximately $71,000 for the rest of the year, Scholtes indicated.

If the weather continues as it has been, Scholtes said it would take approximately $200,000 to make it through the remainder of December for winter maintenance.

While Vilas County is anticipating going over its winter maintenance budget, the Oneida County Highway Department is anticipating meeting its budget.

Since the department overspent its budget in the early months, the department had to save money for the later months by performing less summer road maintenance, such as fixing shoulders and potholes, Stefonek explained.

"What we had to do is save some of our summer dollars, and so we should be fine for the balance of this year for the Oneida County budget," Stefonek said. "We won't have much of anything left over, but I don't expect to go over."

Other challenges

The recent snowstorms also resulted in a few minor setbacks with truck repairs for the Oneida County Highway Department which have been fixed, Stefonek said.

He added that the highway department was prepared for the next storm.

In addition to impacting the budget, the heavy and wet snow created other problems, from using more fuel to increased hours and equipment costs, Scholtes said.

"The problem I run into is we're at Mother Nature's mercy, so our workload really hinges on Mother Nature," Scholtes said. "We'll work our standard 40-hour workweeks right up until we get the next snowstorm, and then the snowstorm dictates what we're gonna work."

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at

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