By Cameron Billes
The Ingham County Chronicle
Last winter gave Michigan drivers many problems, including icy roads, potholes and traffic delays. With a few snowstorms already hitting the mitten’s capital and the heart of winter fast approaching, Ingham County residents can only wait and see how the 2014-2015 winter pans out.
Due to the heavy amounts of snowfall and ice last winter, Neil Sheridan, president of Bluegrass Lawn and Landscape, says salt could become a hard commodity to get this year.
“There is a huge shortage of salt this year so if we do get the same kind of winter we had last year, salt will become a very big issue,” Sheridan said. “Even with county roads and city roads and things like that, people’s budgets just won’t allow them to spend the big money on the salt like they have to.”
Sheridan says the state and county road departments have “locked down” the salt shipments, making it very hard for contractors to get salt of their own. Sheridan normally goes through 500 to 600 tons of salt each year, so he pre-ordered and pre-paid for his salt this year.
Bill Conklin, managing director of the Ingham County Road Department, said his 39 employees spent a lot of time laying down salt last year, causing 94 percent of their 2014 salt to run out by March.
According to the Farmers’ Almanac, winter this year in Michigan will be colder than normal and will produce an above average amount of snow.
However, Jeffrey Andresen, a state climatologist and Michigan State University geography professor says this winter should be much milder than last winter.
“We might see less precipitation than normal for the winter period, so drier than normal,” Andresen said. “The outlooks are based on the expectation that we will see the development of an El Niño event out in the equatorial pacific here over the next few weeks.”
Andresen said that the severity of storms and coldness from last winter came as a total shock.
“It was not picked up in any forecast,” Andresen said. “The only entity, the only group, that I’m aware of that actually did forecast a colder than normal winter last year was the Farmer’s Almanac. So, fairness and credit where credit’s due, but that said I think now they are the only ones forecasting a repeat.”
Maya Srkalovic, an Ingham County resident, says she thinks the county did a pretty good job of making the roads safe last year.
“I think they did as good of a job as they could have,” Srkalovic said. “There was just a lot of snow and a lot of ice and there is only so much you can do.”
If Andresen is correct, then the projected road maintenance budget of $12,524,517 (a $70,000 decrease from 2014), which Conklin says could change, should be adequate.
While Srkalovic was satisfied with the cleanup, she says road conditions can definitely be improved.
“The potholes were absolutely awful. Especially in my neighborhood, they were just awful. My tire actually popped because of one,” Srkalovic said. “I feel like they took a lot of effort into making sure that they de-iced the roads and they cleaned the roads, but then the after-effects like no one did anything.
Aside from salt deprivations, The Lansing Board of Water and Light, which provides drinking water, steam, electricity and related services to a large portion of Lansing, left thousands of Ingham County residents without power after the December ice storm.
Stephen Serkaian, the communications director for the Board of Water and Light, said the effects from the storm were unprecedented.
“(The 2013 ice storm) is a catastrophic weather event during which 40,000 (people) on BWL’s electric company’s were knocked out for up to 10 to 12 days,” Serkaian said. “No utility ever experienced a 40 percent loss of customer power in Michigan. This was a catastrophic storm and we also had a breakdown in our outage management system.”
Over the past year Board of Water and Light has worked on improving its outage management system, and Serkaian says it has succeeded.
“We are a handful of utilities across the country that will have, or soon have, four ways for customers to report outages and we can get back to them,” Serkaian said. “We’ve addressed all those problems, we’re a much stronger utility today then we were before last December’s ice storm and we are ready for whatever Mother Nature brings our way.”
Andresen says the likelihood of a repeat of last year’s winter would be very shocking to him. However, no matter what type of winter Michigan receives in 2015, Conklin and Sheridan say their employees will be prepared.
“What they have to plan for really, they have to manage the uncertainty, and right now statistically what we can say is that the odds of having a repeat of something like last year I think are very, very small still,” Andresen said. “Some years we’re going to have mild, dry winters and they’re not going to have as much need for salt and they’ll come out ahead. Hopefully, maybe this winter will be something like that.”