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LETTER – Merritt can do better with snow clearing but please be patient

The following letter was sent to Merritt residents by Merritt CAO Sean Smith:

Open Letter on Snow Clearing in the City of Merritt

Dear Citizens of Merritt,

January 5, 2021

We didn’t meet your expectations for snow clearing during the Christmas and New Years season. As the Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Merritt, I want to personally express that we can and will do better.

On December 21, 2020, our City saw 44cm of snow fall in a 14-hour period. We threw every internal resource we had at the snowfall, but it was not enough. Despite the best efforts of our public works team, snow accumulated faster than we could manage. As a result, layers of compact snow started to build up on side streets. City maintained sidewalks were not cleared as quickly as they ordinarily would be. These issues were compounded as 12 more centimeters of snow fell over the course of the next week.

We fell behind and never caught up. We were not well enough prepared for the snow volumes that we saw and that resulted in poor sideroad and sidewalk conditions. These conditions had negative impacts on the City as a whole, but especially on seniors and those with mobility restrictions. For all of this, I am sorry.

The City of Merritt has designed its snow clearing program around the specific climatic conditions that we tend to experience in the Nicola Valley.

During the period of 1981-2010 (the most recent period for which Environment Canada has publicly available data), Merritt saw an average annual snowfall of 66.7cm (26.25 inches). During that period, the average snow depth for November was 1cm, December 5cm, January 5cm and February 2cm, with all other months at 0cm. This indicates is that even though we get an average of 66.7cm of snow over the course of a year, it tends to melt, such that we do not generally see significant snow accumulation.

Our approach to snow clearing differs from communities that receive more snowfall and where snow stays around until March. In those communities, more service is provided and different tactics are used, such as plowing to the middle of the road and removing snow, clearing of driveway windrows, and 24/7 service. Compared to these communities, the City of Merritt offers a lean and efficient snow clearing service.

The following chart provides a sample of the snow conditions and budgets in communities of roughly similar size:

Municipality 2019 Population Estimate (BC Stats) Average Snowfall (1981-2020) Average Snow Depth in Highest Month (1981-2020) Snow clearing budget
Revelstoke 8,259 424.6cm (1971-2000 average. Station not listed in 1981-2010 registry) 59cm (Feb) $1,400,000
Salmon Arm 19,115 184.2cm 28cm (Jan) $1,026,000
Trail 8,171 179.1cm 31cm (no average available, so this # represents snow depth at Jan month end) $550,000
Williams Lake 11,359 176.8cm 30cm (Jan) $750,000
Quesnel 10,392 162.1cm 25cm (Jan) $1,000,000
100 Mile House 2,019 153.7cm $176,000
Summerland 12,354 67.9cm (1971-2000) 5cm (Jan) $201,000
Merritt 7,722 66.7cm 5cm (Jan) $106,000
Qualicum Beach 9,166 35.2cm 1cm (Jan) $89,000

Source: Environment Canada Climate Normals and Averages https://climate.weather.gc.ca/climate_normals/index_e.html

Some of you have recommended that the City consider adopting systems such as those used in Trail, Revelstoke, Quesnel and Williams Lake. As the above chart shows, these communities all see much more snowfall, snow has a tendency to stick around and they have much larger snow clearing budgets. This isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to learn from ‘winter communities’, only that our typical winter conditions don’t necessitate the same type of service provided in those communities (unless of course residents want and are willing to pay for it).

How to better handle extreme snowfall events?

Many people have suggested that the amount of snow over the past couple weeks was “normal”. That assertion is not correct.

During the 30-year period of 1981-2010, the single highest snowfall day in the City of Merritt was December 29, 1996, when 42cm of snow fell. On December 21, 2020, 44cm of snow fell, more than any single day amount between 1981 and 2010.

What we experienced is abnormal, but we acknowledge that we fell short and must have stronger plans in place to accommodate this type of extreme snowfall event.

To accomplish this, the City could go two directions. First, we could ramp up our in-house snow clearing program to be able to better handle this type of extreme situation. Like those communities that deal with this on a yearly basis, we would need to acquire more equipment and hire more staff.

Second, we can modify the current system so that during events where we simply cannot keep up, we call in support from local contractors to build our snow clearing capacity and provide around the clock service that residents expect, even in adverse conditions. This will still add cost and is subject to contractor availability, but if achievable, could result in an efficient and cost-effective system.

This matter will be discussed with Council at the January 12, 2020 Regular Council meeting, which starts at 7:00 pm and will be broadcast via live stream from the City’s webpage, merritt.ca.

What has the City done to improve snow clearing in recent years?

Since 2018, Council has directed that several improvements to the City’s snow clearing service be made. From 2015-2017, the City of Merritt budgeted ~$72,000 for snow clearing. In 2018, the year this Council was elected, the budget was raised to $89,453. In 2019 it was raised to $95,754 and in 2020, $106,589.

Council has directed the construction of a sand and salt storage area at the public works yard. This allows for staff members to fill the sand trucks at the yard within 5 minutes and be back on the road. In prior years staff would travel to Godey pit (YRB) and wait to be loaded with other contractors. Wait times were up to 45 minutes to receive sand.

Council also directed the purchase of a salt brine maker, which allows staff to produce 7,000 litres of salt brine every hour and a half, at half the cost of purchasing it.

Council has budgeted for new equipment to be added to the snow removal fleet, either through conversion or purchase:

– Brine truck and applicator and an underbody for plowing snow – 1-ton pickup with plow and sander
– Loader with plow blade
– Brine trailer which can be towed by any pickup

Two additional employees have been added to the snow removal team, among other duties. Winter awareness training has been provided to staff, which covers priority areas, sanding & plowing techniques, brine application rates and productivity expectations. GPS was added to all snow removal equipment, which data is used for dispatch, deployment, review and training.

The City also attempted the creation of a snow angel program to support seniors and disabled persons who were unable to clear their sidewalks and driveways. Forty-two residents signed up for the service, but unfortunately, the program was largely unsuccessful due to lack of volunteers.

Closing thoughts:

City staff and Council genuinely appreciate feedback from residents and are always working to improve services and stay mindful of costs. We have heard valid and reasonable concerns from residents regarding laneways (back alleys), sideroads, parking areas, sidewalks, and support for seniors. We have learned from this snowstorm and will use that knowledge to provide better service in the future.

We also understand that many of you feel extremely frustrated about the state of roads and sidewalks in Merritt and how long it is taking to restore conditions. Frustration is fine.

Vilifying and bullying is not fine. Staff and Council have been cursed at, flipped off and been the subject of dozens of comments, both in-person and online, that are downright cruel. On multiple occasions, equipment operators have been stopped in the streets only to be yelled at. Nobody deserves this kind of treatment. These actions demoralize and hurt people that are trying their best to serve their community.

Hold us accountable for our response to one of the largest snowfalls that Merritt has seen in the past 40 years. Require us to put plans in place to ensure that the next time this happens, service is better. In doing that, be civil and kind.

For more information, contact:

Sean Smith,
Chief Administrative Officer ssmith@merritt.ca, 250-378-8613

 

About Mel Rothenburger (7962 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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