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Pattern hints at bigger snow-clearing costs

Greater annual dumps could prove very costly

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/12/2013 (1346 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

By any estimation, Winnipeg does an amazing job of dealing with severe weather and natural disasters. Few cities on the planet routinely deal with significant floods and blizzards and also soldier through the more mundane challenges one of the planet's most variable climates offers.

You have to head to Mongolia or Siberia to find a greater range of temperatures than the 86-degree-Celsius span we have in Winnipeg, not to mention a municipal government that's prepared to control summer mosquito populations under the same annual spending plan that covers winter snow removal.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the region will see fewer blizzards but larger annual snowfalls.


Anecdotal evidence suggests the region will see fewer blizzards but larger annual snowfalls.

This city, by virtue of simply existing where it is, has learned over the decades to deal with whatever the planet throws its way. The problem is, the planet appears to be pitching harder as of late.

Significant summer floods have affected Winnipeg's rivers three out of the past five years, forcing the city to incur flood-mitigation costs generally repaid by other levels of government.

But the province and feds don't pony up for snow-clearing, which has become an increasing financial burden for the city.

In 2004, the city set aside $20.1 million for snow-clearing. That figure has risen to $32 million, assuming council passes the 2014 operating budget next week.

Part of this rise is the result of new roads and sidewalks the city must clear, as well as higher costs for both fuel and snow-clearing labour. But the city has also allocated more money to clear snow because there simply appears to be more of the stuff.

The amount of money the city sets aside for snow-clearing every year is not what the city actually spends on plowing and grading. In any given year, the weather will determine how much snow must be removed. Some winters wind up being mild, dry and almost bereft of snow. Others end up being cold, wet and unusually snowy.

To deal with the annual variation, the city set up a snow-clearing reserve that's supposed to cover the cost of clearing snow during extremely wet winters -- and get replenished by transfers from snow-clearing budget surpluses in dry ones.

In theory, this is a simple but highly effective device. The problem is Winnipeg has experienced very few mild, dry winters as of late. The last time there was any money in Winnipeg's snow-clearing reserve was 2008, when $4.4 million sat in the account at the end of the calendar year.

The following year, snow-clearing needs ate up the cash in this reserve, which has limped along with a zero-dollar balance ever since.

What that means is this year, the city has no reserve to draw upon to cover an expected $10.9-million snow-clearing budget shortfall, a well of red ink that resulted from heavy snowfall at the end of last winter and continuing snow this fall.

Jim Berezowsky, Winnipeg's manager of street maintenance, said longtime public works officials have noticed a new snowfall pattern in the city. Instead of a couple of big, blizzard-like dumps, Winnipeg appears to be experiencing a greater number of significant, but smaller, snowfall events.

This observation, though anecdotal, is entirely consistent with the idea southern Manitoba is experiencing a "wet cycle" of years with greater-than-average precipitation. What's unclear is whether this is temporary or a "new normal" for this part of the continent.

Climate-change models have long predicted even greater variability for mid-continental regions such as the Canadian Prairies. But no climatologist has declared wetter winters are here to stay.

If they are, Winnipeg faces an enormous challenge, in spite of its experience to date. While allocating another $10 million a year for snow-clearing would merely be annoying, dealing with significant floods every two years will pose a serious capacity problem for the water-and-waste and public works staff who would otherwise fulfil other functions.

Quietly, some Canadian cities are beginning to ponder what a climate-change-affected future would look like. Winnipeg, already accustomed to variability, is only beginning to wake up to the notion it must do the same.

This city is resilient. But it is not invincible. If wet winters are the new normal, there will be a price to pay.


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Updated on Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 8:22 AM CST: Replaces photo

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