Too salty: Vernon Hills has salt overstock
12/7/12 Vernon Hills' Public Works has three bins full of road salt from last year and is contractually obligated to buy more for this winter on December 7, 2012. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2013 1:58AM
VERNON HILLS — Last winter was among the mildest the Chicago area has experienced in a century. One result was an overstock in salt, a problem for municipalities that were contractually obligated to buy specific amounts.
Director of Public Works David Brown said Vernon Hills had 180 tons of extra salt that needed to be housed somewhere.
“We called our neighbors to see if they had room but they were all either full or facing the same problem,” Brown said.
Though public works uses 22 employees in varying rolls during snow or ice storms, Vernon Hills still has to hire contractors to handle subdivisions further away from main roads.
To avoid paying a storage fee with the salt provider, Brown said he convinced some of the contractors to warehouse the leftover salt.
All municipal salt purchasing contracts target a desired amount and then allow for as little as 80 percent or as high as 120 percent of that target to be purchased.
With this year’s overstock after purchasing the minimum 80 percent, another mild winter would put Vernon Hills in a significant jam.
Vernon Hills has already arranged for a 1,600-ton salt purchase in 2013, instead of the regular 2,000 tons.
However, Brown is not concerned.
“Because there’s been a delay to this winter doesn’t mean we won’t have a winter,” Brown said.
According to the National Weather Service, Brown is right.
“We do believe this winter, even with the extremely warm start, we will see some considerably cold air coming in,” said Richard Castro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Chicago Forecast Office. “The patterns appear conducive for snow this winter, starting probably in the second half of December.”
The 19.8 inches of snowfall in 2011/12 was the ninth time since 1884 that Chicago experienced less than 20 inches of snow, according to National Weather Service records.
Castro said the average winter snowfall is 36.7 inches, and last year’s warm temperatures came after four consecutive years of 50-plus inches of snow — the longest stretch of “elevated snowfall” ever recorded.
The last sub-20-inch winter snowfall was in 1948/49 when 14.3 inches accumulated. The lightest snowfall recorded was 8.8 inches in 1920/21.
Castro said the jet stream that usually dips from Canada into Wisconsin and Illinois flattened last year and remained north of the border.
“We believe that was an isolated incident,” Castro said. “We expect an average winter this season.”
Some people enjoyed last year’s warmer weather, but Brown said the spontaneous temperature changes made salting the roads unpredictable.
“The challenge every year is not the volume of snow but it’s the freezing conditions,” Brown said. “Our geography, the Midwest, is a transition area for weather patterns, and ice is a hidden danger. We experienced unpredictable temperature drops last year that were short-lived and came without snow.”
In recent weeks, Brown had truck drivers preparing for this year’s weather change by traveling their routes during non-peak hours.