The price of powder
Durango snow removal costs escalating into the millions

A brown wall of transplanted snow looms over three hibernating vans from Four Corners Riversports. The pile was delivered by more than a thousand truckloads and was removed from city streets and parking lots by crews over the last few weeks. Since Jan. 29, the City of Durango has been spending $10,000 a day on hauling snow, said Levi Lloyd, street manager for Durango Public Works Department. The process is expected to continue for at least another month./Photo David Halterman

by Jeff Mannix

It’s already in the books. With part of February still lurking and the snowiest month of March yet to come, the winter of 2007-08 ranks as the fifth snowiest in Durango history.

This winter to date, Durango has seen 85 inches of snow, with 39 coming in January and 36 so far this February. According to the Colorado Climate Center at the University of Colorado, the highest recorded winter snowfall in Durango occurred in 1978-79 with a punishing 133 inches. That season was followed closely by 1996/97, when one January storm alone dropped nearly 4 feet downtown; and the infamous winter of 1992-93, when the Fort Lewis College concert hall roof collapsed under the crushing weight of 36 inches in December, 65 in January, and 24 inches in February.

The beauty and concurrent hardship of this winter’s snowfall has been obvious to all who live in and around Durango. But, the cost of dealing with this much snow, especially with one storm coming on the heels of the next, has not been quite so noticeable.

However, the funds spent by the City of Durango and La Plata County, not to mention private citizens, may very well add up into the millions – millions of dollars spent for which we will have nothing to show by the middle of March. Bonds Construction and Rathjen Construction are two excavation contractors that account for the majority of earthwork in the region. With construction being as it has this past decade, both Gene Bonds and Bobby Rathjen have built an inventory of heavy equipment to service the increasing dirt moving demands of development and are the go-to companies when a snow crisis befalls our area. To say that this winter has been a bonanza for Bonds and Rathjen would be an understatement.

“Everybody with large equipment is cooperating to deal with this emergency,” said Bonds Construction estimator Lance Dunagan. “We have doubled our normal winter workload and have kept every piece of equipment we own and all of our employees working overtime from the middle of January and expect to keep this pace for at least the next month.”

Among Bonds’ clients are Town Plaza, Centennial Center, and the Edgemont Ranch, Shenandoah and Three Springs subdivisions. Dunagan estimates they’re spending $8,000 a week on fuel, three times normal for this time of year. “We’re running two motor graders, eight loader/backhoes, four 4-yard front loaders, five pickup trucks with plows, two big plow trucks, four skid steers, six dump trucks and wearing out 30 people,” exclaimed Bobby Rathjen breathlessly. “We have a separate crew shoveling roofs seven days a week, and there’s no end in sight.”

Rathjen clients include Rockwood, Tamarron, Durango Mountain Resort, Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, New Country, Trappers Crossing and Mercy Medical Center. He estimates this winter his company has billed $500,000 up to the present.

A weather event of even modest magnitude illustrates just how little ownership residents have in the conveniences they depend upon. As most in the county found out this winter, electricity keeps us alive.

A city-hired dumptruck backs up to drop yet anothe load of snow in the parking lot at Cundiff Park on Tuesday. Since late January, the city has hauled more than 1,100 truckloads of snow from city streets, with each truck holding up to 6 tons./Photo by David Halterman

“In the month of January, we have expended an additional $900,000 to repair and restore our service here in the county, and I suspect it will run well over a million before the winter’s out,” said Greg Munro, CEO of La Plata Electric Association. “We have had eight electric poles break, lines downed by fallen trees and have had to import snowcats to go where our trucks can’t. We beefed up our personnel from 20 to 90 with crews coming in from Montrose and Empire Electric and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and we ran out of snowshoes, which this year have become our most valuable tools.”

LPEA also found that its call center and ability to respond to customers without electricity needed to be improved and has added another server with new portals to their “war room,” which Munro feels is now up to handling any further crises. Durango/La Plata County Airport Manager Ron Dent all but moved into his office as the storms rolled in. “We have to blow the snow off the runways once accumulation gets above a couple of inches, and two of our big blowers were awaiting parts from Europe and couldn’t be used at all,” he reported. “But we kept up as best we could with three plow trucks with 22-foot plows, a leased motor grader, two front loaders, a backhoe and a couple of skid steers. We had to shut down for two days, but visibility shut us down anyway, so in effect we stayed ahead of it all because of the dedication of our ground crew.”

Parking lots were the biggest challenge, according to Dent. “We have mostly long term parking, so we had to move parked cars, plow, then move them back. To this point we have $25,000 in overtime alone,” he said with a sigh.

Jack Rogers, director of public works for the City of Durango, faced the greatest challenge throughout the dumps, with 72 miles of city roads and 40 miles of alleyways – more than 180 lane-miles – needing snow plowing and removal, all with vehicles parked and overhung with trees. “The cold snap beginning in the middle of January compounded the problem for us,” Rogers said. “We didn’t get any help from the sun; everything turned to ice once it was walked on or driven over, so we had to begin hauling snow out of downtown.”

Durango Public Works has a contract with McKnight’s Trucking to supply four dump trucks in the event they need extra. When the call came from Public Works on Jan. 6 to bring a few trucks to haul snow, Doug McKnight was prepared. On Jan. 29, after another storm dropped more than a foot of snow, and with Durango expecting 10,000 people on the streets for the Snowdown parade, the panic button was hit, and McKnight was asked to supply 23 dump trucks split between two 12-hour shifts a day for an undetermined duration. Phones lit up and trucks began coming from as far away as Farmington and Denver.

“Since Jan. 29, we’ve been spending $10,000 a day on hauling snow,” said Levi Lloyd, street manager for Durango Public Works Department, “and we don’t expect to quit hauling snow for another four to six weeks.”

The snow is all going just south of town to Cundiff Park, an 11-acre city-owned parcel near the BMX track, where Bonds Construction has been contracted to spread it and make room for more. “We’ve hauled over 1,100 truckloads of snow so far, and the pile keeps growing higher and higher,” said Lloyd. “It takes two minutes for the city’s big snowblower to load five to six tons of snow into a dump truck, 20 minutes round trip to drop it off in Cundiff Park and return to the line for more.”

In closing, Kroeger’s Ace Hardware offers a perspective on winter snow removal that everyone can relate to. Store Manager Bob Thom reported that his store sold a mere 394 snow shovels in January 2007. During January 2008, the store sold 2,007. •



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