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Salt becoming a scarce commodity in DeKalb County

Driver Brian Koehnke (left) waits as his plow truck is filled with salt by a front-end loader driven by Gene Capes on Tuesday at the DeKalb County Highway Department in DeKalb.
Driver Brian Koehnke (left) waits as his plow truck is filled with salt by a front-end loader driven by Gene Capes on Tuesday at the DeKalb County Highway Department in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Jack Walter has already gone through as much salt this year as he used during the entire 2012-13 winter season.

Walter, Afton Township Road Commissioner, said the DeKalb County Highway Department cut off the salt he could use for his township about a week before 2013 ended.

That meant he needed to improvise until he could order more salt Wednesday, so he’s using ice chips, little chips of rock which blend with the salt, he said.

“Instead of using 100 percent salt, it’s 50-50,” he said. “We’re trying to make it go farther.”

Situations such as the one in Afton Township show how harsh this winter has been so far. Local officials are running low on salt, and drifting snow on the roadways has caused headaches this season. With more snow possible this weekend and an arctic air mass expected to enter DeKalb County on Sunday, there’s more to come.

As of Dec. 27, the DeKalb County Highway Department had ordered 2,700 tons of salt to distribute among 30 agencies, including townships and local school districts, DeKalb County Engineer Nathan Schwartz said.

Some of the agencies that receive salt from the highway department include Hiawatha School District 426, Kishwaukee College and Sycamore School District 427. The cities of DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa and Sandwich buy their own salt.

Schwartz expects to use 9,000 tons of salt this season, he said.

The county receives its salt from Cargill, a company which provides food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services.

Schwartz said for the first time, the county has had trouble with the salt they order, saying it now takes about a week to receive salt rather than a couple of days.

“Now we’re stuck forecasting storms a week ahead of time,” Schwartz said. “Even a professional weatherman would have a hard time.”

Orders of salt cost $53.59 a ton. The highway department has $500,000 to spend each calendar year, the majority of which comes from motor fuel taxes.

The county spent all its $500,000 annual budget before the end of 2013, which is very rare, Schwartz said. With the start of the new year, the $500,000 annual budget is renewed for 2014.

“We’re pretty much right at our limits of what we can order,” he said.

That’s just half the issue officials are dealing with. They also have to continuously address the problem of snow drifting, when snow is blown back onto streets after being plowed.

On days such as today, when high winds are present, drifting snow is a particular problem in rural areas, where open spaces allow snow to blow onto the road.

Some places, such as the northwest corner of Somonauk and Perry roads in the county, have snow fences to address the problem.

The county owns, installs and fully pays for these fences, which are put up 100 feet off the road during the winter, Schwartz said.

Afton Township farmer Bob Johnson said no one has asked him to put up a snow fence. He also said the other alternative, leaving a few rows of crops to act as a shield, is an option with a price. Nearby McHenry County pays its farmers to leave stalks up through the Living Snow Fence Program.

“If they want to pay us to leave some corn stalks, we’d consider it,” he said.

Schwartz said DeKalb County officials had talked of asking farmers to leave stalks up years ago, but farmers weren’t interested in doing so because it was a hassle to deal with, he said.

Craig Smith, DeKalb Township road commissioner, said one of the farmers who lives near the Schnuck’s grocery store on Annie Glidden Road leaves his stalks up for free.

“He’s doing it as being totally generous,” he said. “It’s a long stretch area and a heavily traveled road.”

The only thing officials can do about snow drifting where there is no barrier blocking snow is to push the snow back into ditches.

Schwartz said officials are facing a much different predicament than last year.

“Last year at this time, everyone was wondering what we’re going to do with leftover salt,” he said.

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