Making tight turns in icy conditions, navigating narrow streets with parked cars and pedestrians, driving up and down snowy hills while maintaining intense focus over 12-hour shifts in the middle of snowstorms is all part of a workday for the City and Borough of Juneau’s snow removal teams.
“It’s really an intricate dance,” Katie Koester, director of the City and Borough of Juneau’s Engineering and Public Works Department, told the Empire in a Wednesday morning Zoom interview.
“Imagine the tremendous amount of focus it takes to move the blade expertly. I watched a driver shave the snow from a fence line in my neighborhood,” she said, holding her fingers up to show how close the blade got to the fence and commenting that the driver’s skill allowed him to do such intricate work. “They are paying attention to walkers, cars and the weather. That’s an exhausting day of work.”
This winter season has been rough, with multiple storms spanning several days and colder-than-normal temperatures preventing the more typical snow/melt process that often assists snow removal crews in the capital city.
“It’s been a pretty epic snow year,” Koester said.
Greg Smith, superintendent of streets and fleets for CBJ, agreed and said the struggle has been intense this year. He noted an uptick in public complaints about snow removal.
“The drivers care deeply about their work,” Smith said. “They will try to do their best with whatever conditions arise.”
Repeated heavy snows and chilly temperatures have caused a host of problems for the city’s snow removal operations.
Removing snow according to plan
According to Koester, crews first plow main streets, like Riverside Drive and Egan Drive. Crews then move to collector streets before tackling the smaller side streets. She said the city’s goal is to clear snow and berms within 48 hours.
In December, Smith told members of the Public Works and Facilities Committee that the city’s snow removal policy is the same for the Mendenhall Valley and downtown areas and distinct crews work each area. However, some of the strategies employed downtown, such as stacking snow into a center berm, don’t lend themselves to the terrain in the valley.
Once the streets are plowed, crews move on to snow removal if rain or warmer temperatures are not part of the forecast.
“If it’s not too severe, rain and warmer temps are our friend,” Smith said.
Koester said that changing weather conditions dictate the specifics of clean-up after every storm.
“We have to clear this street before next week because this drain has an effect there and every decision of staff and resources is part of this dance. Every street has a different place for snow,” Koester said.
Smith said that every storm is different and provides a new perspective.
“Once you are in the middle of the operation, you see things and try to plan for the problems,” Smith said.
He explained that between storms in early January, it was clear that the proximity of the storms to each other and cold temperatures would cause challenges.
“The thing we saw is that we weren’t going to get a chance to change from plowing to snow removal,” Smith said. “ It was not lost on us that the desired service level would not be achieved. It was a concern and not something we were hoping for. There was so much snow that we could not make people happy.”
Smaller crews and hiring woes
In addition to heavy snowfalls, crews are smaller than they were a decade ago because a series of budget cuts have trimmed staff numbers.
In December, Koester told committee members that a crew of 32 people was available to help with snow removal 10 years ago. Now, the team includes 19 people. She said many of the staff cuts affected seasonal workers.
Smith said that, like many employers, keeping people on the job while pandemic numbers surge presents an additional set of challenges. Smith said that his crew currently has two open positions, and during the storms in January, two crew members were out sick.
“That’s another factor,” he said. “Things happen in life and sometimes people can’t get to work.”
Koester said the city did create a temporary position this year but that it’s challenging to find qualified employees.
Unpredictable snowfall levels and timing make staffing a challenge — and mean that contracts with private drivers to clear snow and driveway snow berms — are impractical.
“That would take an army of private contractors that would have to clear driveways and then do it all again if we have to plow again. That’s a tall and costly task,” Smith said. I don’t know how we’d coordinate that. A city contract would be difficult to uphold.”
“When it snows, everyone with a plow is busy. There’s not an army waiting to do that job, it’s so sporadic. It’s an every-once-in-a-while thing with great urgency for a while,” she said.
Koester added: “The biggest challenge is finding skilled operators who can get around tight spaces. It’s far quicker to plow snow than to remove it. The operators have to figure out on the fly how to clear the streets and store the snow and then get back to it.”
She said that every operator has to know exactly where the snow goes on each street to succeed, so it’s not a job that lends itself to temporary workers.
Smith said he tries to assign the most intricate work to crew members with the most experience. He said about half the crew has at least 10 years of experience.
When it’s not snowing, crews work on street care and maintenance. That work continues in the winter when the weather allows, Smith said.
When time allows, and crews are done plowing, snow moving operations start.
Koester said the city uses contract dump trucks to take snow to storage depot facilities located on Thane and in an overflow bus parking lot near the Mendenhall Glacier.
However, with heavy snows in November and December preceding the January storms, Smith said that crews found they needed more space closer to town to store snow. Crews started using the field at Savikko Park on south Douglas and some city property in the Lemon Creek area.
“With all that snow, it’s the first time we tested the limits of the snow storage system,” Koester said. “We found that we need some different locations. In this event, we needed more capacity than we had. Down the road, we may need more dedicated sites.”
Although the city does not routinely dump snow in the Gastineau Channel, exceptional circumstances sometimes mean that snow goes into the channel.
In advance of the storm that arrived on Jan. 8, the snow depot at Thane filled quickly, forcing CBJ employees to push some snow from the storage location over the bank. In an email shortly after the incident, Koester said CBJ was able to stop pushing snow over the bank quickly.
Docks and Harbors officials were forced to do the same, and both actions were promptly reported to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Koester told the Empire last month.
“Even though it was not required, we did sample the snow and send it to be tested for PH and turbidity,” Koester told the Empire in an email in January. “DEC’s greatest concern is litter.”
Last month, Harbor Master Matt Creswell said the “extreme amount of snow” prompted the action at the harbors.
“Docks and Harbors received authorization from AKDEC to push snow into the water from the parking lots at Aurora and Harris Harbors,” Creswell said in an email to the Empire shortly after the storm last month.
Koester said that thanks to rain and warmer temperatures over the last few weeks, capacity at the snow depots looked good coming into this week’s snow events.
Koester said that the crew learns something new with every snow event. For example, she said that during snow-clearing work in January, cars parked on the street presented barriers for crews. She said that identifying and communicating alternative parking locations helped people know where to move vehicles so that crews could clear streets.
Smith was more philosophical about the situation.
“Big storms are going to happen,” he said. “Can we prepare differently? Not really. Time and money can fix many things. But, every operator cares about his work,” he said, adding that, like all residents, snow removal crews have to go home and clear their own driveways at the end of a long shift.
“Our operators are proud of what they do and the service they provide. It really is an essential service. They put in really long hours,” Koester said.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.