Sure, snow melts. That's why it's not as big a problem as garbage. Or old tires. But when you get a lot of snow, as northern Utah has in the past month, and the temperature rarely gets above freezing, what you're left with is snow that doesn't melt fast enough.
In sedimentary fashion, this winter's storms have laid down snow layer upon snow layer. The White Christmas layer, which now lies somewhere near the bottom, has been covered over with the snows of January. Once as white and pure as, well, snow, the resulting formations have since been covered over with a layer of soot and oil and ice.What we have now are mountains of dead snow, pushed to the sides of city streets and heaped in the middle of shopping center parking lots. Although we haven't had a new storm for 10 days and a teeny warming trend has caused some of the stuff to melt, plenty still remains.
Crusted and stained, it lies like piles of dirty laundry in barriers between your car and the sidewalk.
The problem is that "snow removal" is a euphemism. Snow plows don't remove snow, they just take it from the place where it's the most in the way (the center of the street) and push it somewhere else (in front of your driveway).
When it's a relatively big snow year, as this one has been so far, and you're the assistant superintendent of snow removal, as Craig Posselli is, one of the things you have to figure out is what to do with the dead snow.
In New York and other big cities the state-of-the-art thing to do with it is stuff it into a snowmelter machine. Inside the machine, the gray peaks of snow are mixed with water, turning the whole thing into a slushy substance sort of like a Slurpee, which is then flushed down city storm drains.
According to Duane Fuller, superintendent of streets and sanitation, Salt Lake City has looked into snowmelters. But they require 800 gallons of water a minute to work, he says, and that's a lot of water in a desert. Probably Salt Lake doesn't really need a snowmelter anyway. The pioneers had enough sense to know that if you're going to build a city where it snows a significant amount you should have two requirements: a cheap supply of salt and enough vacant land to dump the extra snow.
Over the past two weeks, Craig Posselli's snow removal-removal crews have been carting away truckloads of old snow while we sleep. Bill Lujan, field supervisor for the streets division of the Salt Lake City public works department, guesses that at least 1,000 truckloads have been hauled away.
Between midnight and 8 a.m. the crews drive the snow to a big fenced storage yard (so nobody can steal the snow) at 22nd West and Seventh South. There it sits in dreary mountain ranges, next to piles of salt and piles of dead asphalt, waiting for spring.
The city removes snow only from city streets, and generally only snow that has accumulated in the Central Business District and in the commercial district of Sugar House. Shopping centers and other privately owned snow receptacles have to figure out what to do with their own snow.
The city used to dump dead snow directly into the Jordan River, until the board of health complained that all that salt and oil polluted the river. But Fuller says his department tested the water both upstream and downstream from the dump site and discovered that the water quality was actually better after the snow had been dumped.
And besides, adds Fuller, all the snow that isn't hauled away from city streets eventually melts into the storm drains anyway and eventually ends up in the Jordan River. From there it journeys to the Great Salt Lake, where it is recycled next year as new snow (and you thought it was just a coincidence that this year's snow looked suspiciously like last year's).
Out in the unincorporated areas of the valley, the Salt Lake County flood control and highway division hauls its extra snow to East Pit, a mined gravel pit nestled below Wasatch Boulevard near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
So far the county has only hauled away snow from the shopping district in Holladay, and only last Sunday. But Neil Stack, field services manager for the division, figures that won't be the last time this year that his crews will cart off dead snow. He reads the Farmer's Almanac, and it's predicting lots of new, live snow right into spring.