Wednesday, June 12, 2024
June 12, 2024

Snow removal process creaks under heavy loads

As Salt Spring dug out from the latest weather wallop, not everyone had the same experience with snow removal — and many were unclear about who was meant to clear what areas.

The island-wide undertaking is complicated, often lengthy, and highly interdependent; and, given the reality that snowstorms on the islands are increasingly the norm rather than the exception, evolving. 

Right before this last storm kicked off, BC Hydro released a study that highlighted what many have already observed: winter storms over the holiday season are becoming more frequent, and increasingly severe. Over the past five years, the average number of B.C. electricity customers affected by a storm that fell between mid-December and mid-January has risen more than 500 per cent, compared to the previous five years. BC Hydro spokesperson Susie Rieder said the utility had been stepping up staff and line crews during the holidays in response, and increasing year-round vegetation management to identify problem areas and remove branches in advance of snowstorms.  

On Salt Spring, that new reality has strained existing snow removal processes. Like parking lots, many sidewalks in Ganges around businesses are privately owned, and responsibility for clearing them lies with the property owners. While there is no standard or bylaw concerning snow removal anywhere on the island, contractors hired by business owners were busy last week helping keep storefronts clear enough to operate. And while not every sidewalk and parking lot was tackled with the same attention to detail — snow windrows blocking accessible parking ramps and pedestrian walkways were a source of friction — businesses did their best to open as soon as they might be reached by customers, owners and employees. 

Despite a clear storefront, many of those walking to work found their routes to-and-from remained snow-covered. Roadside pathways within the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure rights-of-way fall among the responsibilities of the Capital Regional District (CRD) through its Salt Spring Island Transportation Commission. Since that commission doesn’t have any maintenance staff, it contracts with CRD parks and recreation staff to maintain them. Historically, that arrangement worked well enough to cover the limited number of snow events Salt Spring Island would face.  

But the past few years have been different. 

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve had some heavier snow for longer durations — and we had some complaints that roadside pathways haven’t been cleared,” said CRD parks and recreation manager Dan Ovington, noting particular concern with the path between Brinkworthy and Country Grocer. “Unfortunately, the only way for us to clear the pathways would be by hand, and we just don’t have the number of staff to do that.” 

Until and unless additional funding for staff can be brought into play, Salt Spring’s local commissions are stuck trying to solve the problem within their own budgets. The purchase of a new skid steer loader — the small heavy machine on wheels or tracks, often known by its most popular manufacturer, Bobcat — was coordinated this year between the parks and transportation commissions, splitting the purchase cost and setting up both services to use it on their respective infrastructures for maintenance, repair and snow clearing. Funding is now budgeted for 2023, and the Bobcat should enable parks staff to clear those pathways next winter. 

In the meantime, Ovington said limited parks staff meant they had to prioritize; the focus was on shovelling main sidewalks and entrances on its busy properties — the Rainbow Road pool, the SIMS multi-space and Portlock Park — and engaging a contractor to clear those parking lots. The latter has been a challenge, he said, because the CRD requires a specific level of insurance for contractors to remove snow — and in the past most on-island plow outfits couldn’t justify that extra cost for a rare snowfall event. 

“Last year we couldn’t find a contractor who had the proper insurance,” said Ovington. “This year, at the last minute, we did. Hopefully we’re able to use them again next year — and if they aren’t available, we would have the skid steer to do that as well.”  

Ovington said their already small staff was challenged further by the weather; with so many side roads remaining unplowed, in addition to taxing snow-clearing operations, a lack of qualified pool staff who could even make it in saw the pool closed all day last Tuesday, and forced it to close early on Wednesday.  

Side roads are part of Emcon’s snow-clearing duties, but aren’t the priority. Andrew Gaetz is Emcon’s operations manager for Area 1 — 3,380 kilometres of roadways from Chemainus to Victoria, including roads to Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan and Sooke, and all roads on the six Southern Gulf Islands. For a weather event like this, Gaetz said, Salt Spring’s standard complement of on-island equipment — four trucks, a grader, and a backhoe constantly loading trucks with sand and salt — got an extra tri-axle dump truck just to haul more salt over from Vancouver Island. 

“We’ve had equipment out 24/7. Our crews have worked some insane hours this week,” said Gaetz. “It’s difficult for everybody to deal with, even us — to get a foot and a half of snow overnight, and then have to mechanically remove it off the road surface.” 

Emcon’s strategy is to triage; main and secondary roads first, including the ferry routes, so that essential services — and ferry crews — can make their way up and down the island. If the snow lets up, and they can keep up, they get into the rest of the bus routes. 

“And then there’s the big side road cleanup, which always takes a couple of days,” said Gaetz. “Our crew does a really good job of organizing themselves, making lists when they’re knocking off the side roads to make sure they hit every single one.” 

But, he said, the process gets set back when large amounts of snow fall in multiple waves — such as what happened last week. 

“If it starts snowing again on the main roads, then we have to go back and deal with that. When we get back-to-back storms, the mains get snow-covered, and then everything else gets snow-covered, and we’re basically back to square one.”  

Over the past week, according to Gaetz, Emcon’s road reporting hotline put an average of 200 messages a day into his inbox, covering issues ranging from fire and ambulance emergency needs to frustration over snow piled on shoulders making pedestrian travel treacherous. That last is something of a mechanical problem, he said; on narrow roadways like Salt Spring’s, there’s only so much paved surface to work with to keep the trucks — and their drivers — safe. 

“Our plows do go a little bit wider than our trucks,” said Gaetz. “But if they go too far, they’ll be in the ditch themselves.” 

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