Brown winter: Impact felt from road crews to birds

by Joni Astrup
Associate editor
It’s been a largely brown winter so far.

There was little snow Thursday on a snowmobile trail along Highway 169 in Elk River.

As of Jan. 19, Elk River has seen just five inches of snow.
Steve Ziemer of Elk River Municipal Utilities, who tracks precipitation, recorded two inches of snow in November, a trace in December and three inches in January.
The fallout from the brown winter is being felt across the area.
Phil Hals, street projects specialist at the Elk River Street Department, said the snowless winter gives them a chance to catch up on other projects and saves on diesel fuel and salt.
“Our salt is stored inside and covered, so if we don’t use it this year it’s just like money in the bank,” Hals said. “It’s waiting there for next year.”
While they’ve responded to a few snow events this year, crews have had more time for other tasks such as trimming brush along roadsides. They even did some pothole patching when the temperatures were unseasonably mild.
One other winter — 1986 — stands out in Hals’ mind as particularly brown.
“I don’t recall plowing snow once that winter,” Hals said. It worked out well because it was the year Elk River built its new public works garage on Proctor Road, and the city street crew did a lot of the work on the building that winter.
Other entities have been affected by the lack of snow as well.
Marlin Marquette, Sherburne County maintenance superintendent, said last week that they’ve had to plow snow only two or three times this winter. They’ve been out more often putting down salt at places like intersections after “nuisance-type snows” that weren’t enough to plow.
Sherburne County maintains 405 miles of roads and typically budgets for 3,500 to 4,000 tons of salt a year.
Marquette said the lack of snow is good in a number of ways.
“We’re not paying overtime to our guys and we’re not burning fuel in the trucks,” he said. “We’re not using up our salt inventory.”
Zimmerman resident Rich Chambers, who works in the maintenance department at Fairview Northland Medical Center in Princeton for his full-time job, has a year-round ground maintenance business on the side where he contracts with people. Having a contract like the one he has for an industrial place in Coon Rapids has worked out especially well for him so far this winter, he said. The way the contract works, he explains, he is paid a set amount in the contract no matter how much snow there is to plow.
Meanwhile, mild temperatures and a lack of snow allowed Elk River’s Pinewood Golf Course to remain open into December, according to Elk River Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hecker. His department even got a phone call in January from someone interested in playing a round.
“That’s probably a first to get a call in January from someone wanting to play golf,” Hecker said.
Cross-country skiing has been sparse, however, with the lack of snow. Hecker, who moved to Elk River from Ohio last fall, has been looking forward to trying his hand at trail grooming, but hasn’t had an opportunity yet.
Ice rinks have also been affected. Handke opened later than usual but has been open since around Christmas. Lions Park will open this weekend. The parks and recreation department is working to get four neighborhood rinks open soon as well.
At the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman, the winter weather has affected wildlife.
During the refuge’s Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 17, some species were recorded that normally would have already migrated south. They included three eastern bluebirds, three song sparrows and a red-shouldered hawk, according to Betsy Beneke, the refuge’s visitor services manager.
“It’s been a weird winter,” she said.
(Joel Stottrup of the Princeton Union-Eagle contributed to this report.)