While many people take snowstorms as an opportunity to cozy up at home, snowplow drivers are in the elements and on the clock.

There are 36 employees in the Crow Wing County Highway Department who keep their eyes on the skies, ready to clear the way for the vehicles of residents and visitors on 640 miles of county roadway. Since the first snow event Nov. 9, the county has spent about $750,000 on plowing, which leaders often point to as a core function of county government.

County Engineer Tim Bray told the county board Tuesday, Jan. 28, this expenditure was right on track with where he expects it to be at this point in the snow season, despite the heavy and regular snowfall.

“I field that question from time to time about how we’re doing with the budget. I think what people are getting to is … when are we going to stop?” Bray said. “We’re never going to stop plowing. We’re never going to not be there for the residents of this county.”

Software the county uses in conjunction with its plows offers insight into how well the highway department is doing its job, including the length of time spent on the roads, the amount of salt and other chemicals used in icy areas and the amount of money spent during each event. All of this data is gathered into a report provided to the public for each snow event. These are posted on Crow Wing County’s Facebook page as well as the county website.

County Administrator Tim Houle said the highway department’s efforts to create measurable goals and standards have streamlined work to clear the roads. Each county highway or road is assigned a priority level — those with the highest traffic counts are plowed first, for example.

“That’s an approach to snowplowing that I have not seen outside of the metropolitan area or MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation),” Houle said.

Incorporating technology into plowing also plays a role in environmental protection efforts. Measuring the material spread on roads for ice control helps ensure drivers aren’t using too much salt, for instance, which can have a negative impact on infrastructure and waterways.

“In our county that is particularly important because of the rising concerns about chloride, salt getting into our waters and the impacts it can have,” said Houle.

Several highway staff members have undergone Smart Salting training offered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The training is available to private operators as well, and the MPCA maintains a list on its webpage of all those who’ve completed training for consumer reference.

In the near future, residents can expect to track county snowplows real-time through the utilization of GPS technology.

“Do you want to know when the snowplows will come by your house?” Houle said. “Check your phone.”

Bray spoke on his department’s efforts in response to Chairman Paul Koering, who praised the work done by snowplow drivers in a challenging winter season. Koering said he was prompted to offer the praise because of a call from a constituent, who shared a complaint about the road on which they live. It turned out, Koering explained, the road was the responsibility of a township rather than the county.

“It’s been a tough winter,” Koering said. “I live 10 miles out of town and I will say that I think the county highway department does one bang-up job to try to keep it bare tar. I give them a lot of credit.”

Bray said this snowy year with temperature swings has made for tougher than usual conditions at times.

“The last two winters have been a lot of snow,” he said. “You can see the banks alongside the highways and we’re trying to work on getting those back so we can see better. … We still see some stretches of ice that have just been a bugger for us. We continue to work, and the temperatures over the last few days have really helped.”

Take a survey

Have something to share with the Crow Wing County Highway Department concerning snowplowing?

Take the county’s survey at surveymonkey.com/r/hwycs1018.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.