Can Snow Removal Be Sustainable?

A January 23 Sustainable Cities Network article discussed the challenges of local government public works departments to quickly remove snow during a severe winter while remaining on budget AND trying to be sustainable.  The article examined how several different local jurisdictions are trying to achieve this difficult balance, including Duluth, Minnesota; Joliet, Illinois; Anchorage, Alaska; and Billings, Montana.  The article also identified key components that a local jurisdiction should have as part of its snow removal plan.

Described by some as the coldest winter in 30 years, and with one storm after another keeping snow plows on the road, the winter of 2013-14 is already putting a strain on public works departments in many parts of the country.

More winter storms and colder temperatures bring increased costs and environmental concerns that have some communities testing new products and procedures that make coping with winter weather more sustainable.


The article focused on Duluth’s salt reduction program.

Duluth is 87.43 square miles with 1,200 lane miles to plow. Challenges include steep hills, aging infrastructure and lake effect weather conditions from Lake Superior. [Duluth Public Administration Director Kelly] Flissner’s budget has increased slightly through the years to reflect increasing annual snowfalls.  …

Duluth has an active salt reduction program, Flissner said.

“Employees and management make the most intelligent use of salt and sand to control snow and ice,” he said. “For example, mixing brine with salt reduces salt consumption. We calibrate our plow routes so they can be completed as efficiently as possible, reducing fuel consumption.”


The article highlighted Joliet’s salt reduction and pre-wetting efforts, noting that the efforts have resulted in a 23 percent reduction in salt usage per inch of snowfall, a 35% decrease in overtime costs from the 2008-09 to the 2012-13 seasons.  To achieve the salt reduction, the city began combining salt, grit, and beet juice in its salt mixture.

The environmentally friendly mixture of sugar beet juice and traditional rock salt enabled Joliet’s Roadways Division to reduce its use of salt by another 10 percent. The mixture has lowered the corrosiveness of the salt, resulting in less damage to streets, parkways, vehicles and receiving waterways. Joliet also pre-wets pavements before snow and ice storms, which reduces the amount of salt that needs to be applied during a storm.

Pre-wetting also prevents snow and ice from freezing to the pavement, allowing much more effective snow removal, even after heavy compaction by traffic.


Portland, Maine focuses on minimizing the use of de-icing products and fuel.

“For plowing and snow removal, sustainability and cost effectiveness go hand-in-hand. We are very conscious about minimizing the use of de-icing products and fuel. Of course, this is balanced with keeping our traveling public safe,” [Portland Public Serivces Director Mike] Bobinsky said.


Anchorage, which faces 115 inches of  snowfall a year, is forced to focus on efficient removal practices.

Across the continent in Anchorage, Alaska, the city’s snow removal budget is nearly $13 million for labor, equipment, fuel and overhead. Public Works Director Ron Thompson and his staff clear 1,300 road lane miles, 229 miles of sidewalks and trails, and nearly 1,400 cul-de-sacs.  …

“With that amount of snow, we are continuously updating our industry-leading practices. For example, all snow in our Central Business District (120 square city blocks) must be plowed and disposed of after each substantial snow due to parking and our limited storage,” Thompson said. “Another unique aspect of our program is that all motor graders have been modified with a mechanical gate that prevents plows from leaving snow berms at the end of driveways.”  …

“Between snows, disposal is scheduled systematically, prioritizing main thoroughfares, high-density residential areas and cul-de-sacs,” Thompson said. “Snow is dumped on seven sites we own throughout Anchorage. It melts during the summer and hopefully in time for the next snow season.”


Billings noted an additional challenge of having many extra miles of bike lanes and multi-use trails to clear.  While a key component of a robust multi-modal transportation system, they must also be factored into snow removal planning and costs.

Farther south in Billings, Mont., Public Works Director David Mumford said his biggest challenge is dealing with more miles to plow, but with no increase in staffing, budget or equipment.

“Also, the addition of bike lanes and multi-use trails has added significantly to the miles to be cleared,” he said. “These add to the community’s quality of life, but are expensive to maintain.”  …

“Our community has become more concerned with clearing sidewalks and trails after a storm,” he said. “There is significant frustration over snow and ice remaining on city streets.

Snow Site Engineering Plan

The article stressed the importance of developing a snow site engineering plan, which should include identifying priority locations for snow removal; mapping the location of key street features such as fire hydrants and emergency exits; properly locating bulk salt loading and storage areas;  establishing on-site snow-relocation areas that do not create parking lot drifting, visibility issues, or hazardous conditions due to re-freezing; and avoiding blocking catch basins, drains, and manhole covers with snows.