Early winter lack of snow affects community

Snow respite
Snow blows across the Kenai Spur Highway last weekend, making driving conditions difficult. There has been less of the white stuff this winter.

Prior to the weekend’s snowfall, the Alaska Department of Transportation took the winter’s lack of precipitation in earnest. Crews worked on projects that would otherwise have been unmanageable due to resources flowing toward regularly scheduled snow plowing.


Projects like the recent clearing of trees on Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, said DOT spokesperson Rick Feller.

“This respite in snowfall is allowing us to go back and do different work,” Feller said on Thursday. “There’s been a good deal of ice on the roads. So, we’re still out there in our trucks spreading sand to enhance traction and safety; we’ve got that clearing project, we’re doing signage repair and vehicle maintenance.”

The season’s below average snowfall caused problems for more than the Kenai Peninsula’s roads. It disrupted outdoor activities, increased energy consumption and stifled seasonal business activities. Forecasters predicted this weekend’s snowfall, which ended a three-week snowless weather cycle.

Snowfall of one to four inches was expected for Sunday; about an inch is forecasted for today, according to the National Weather Service.

A “blocking pattern,” a large high-pressure weather system, above the north Bering Sea has prevented precipitation in Central Alaska during the last three weeks, said Bob Clay, Weather Service lead forecaster. The pattern persisted from late October to early December, he said.

It kept the majority of the state cool and dry, he said.

“The jet stream, the steering current for storms, has been pushing a lot of energy into the Pacific Northwest, so they’ve been getting a lot of the active weather, snow and rain, which (Alaska) usually gets during early winter.”

That weather pattern began to diminish Saturday, as a blizzard inundated the western Peninsula.

Cross-country skiers awaited the heavy snowfall. The Tsalteshi ski trails near Skyview High School in Soldotna had been lackluster, said Bill Holt, Tsalteshi Trails Association maintenance manager.

“I groomed the trails after the (November) snowfall, but there’s too little snow to do it now,” Holt said on Friday.

“I’m looking out my window trying to conjure up some snow,” he said.

The trails are best for skiing when they’re evenly groomed. The three-week cold snap caused a frost heave, and the trails became lumpy as a result. The high school has gone forward with events, but just on the smooth trails.

“The lack of snow has been frustrating, because we improved the trails in the last year,” Holt said.

The City of Kenai was using about 100,000 more gallons of water daily than usual, City Manager Rick Koch said at Wednesday’s city council meeting.

Most winters the city uses about 800,000 gallons of water daily, but prior to the weekend snowfall the city pumped 900,000 gallons per day, Koch said.

“Not a small increase; it’s fairly substantial,” he said.

Koch estimates the city paid $25,000 to $35,000 more per month as a result.

“There are some incremental cost (increases), but not so much,” Koch said. “It’s really just the electricity to run the pumps for 100,000 gallons and the chemicals that treat the water.”

The 100,000 gallons per day flowed down residents’ drains because people let faucets run during cold snaps, Koch said.

“The catalyst for that is that people are worried about water lines freezing,” he said, “because it’s been really cold and there hasn’t been very much snow to insulate the ground.”

Three to four feet of snow slows the frost that creeps into the ground and freezes water lines on subzero days, he said.

Local landscaping business Alaska Sure Seal kept its employees busy with maintenance work, said owner Tracy Palm. Sure Seal employs eight people and plows commercial lots during the winter.

“We try to keep them busy as much as we can, that way they can make a decent living,” Palm said.

It was important to keep them working, because they all have families who deserve a good Christmas, she said.

Jack Shaw, of Peninsula Plowing, said his small workforce was wishing and waiting for work.

Peninsula Plowing handles 133 contracts, he said. Shaw supplies his workers with their equipment. The four employees mainly work summer construction jobs and supplement their incomes by plowing snow during the winter.

Operating since 1998, Shaw said he’s endured similar cold snaps, but this year’s nearly snowless shift from fall to winter was longer than normal.

“We’ve had dry spells before, earlier in the year, but I don’t recall it ever being this long,” he said. “Normally, it lasts three or four days to a week.”

The DOT wasn’t worried about studded tires on snowless roads, Feller said. For southern Alaska, studded tires are allowed after April 15 by state law. As the accepted method for improving traction, the agency accepts the reality of wear and tear on the highway system, he said.

In addition, the agency formulates alternative mixes for its asphalt. In recent years, it’s added an imported rock for a hard-aggregate mix that resists damage caused by studs, Feller said.


Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.