This winter of upside-down storms and freezing rain has overstretched the snow-removal budgets of many local governments along the Wasatch Front.
But it's also meant a lot of slow shifts for snowplow crews usually hopping busy on winter days keeping traffic flowing up Salt Lake Valley's Cottonwood canyons and through Summit County.
"We've never had anything more than a couple of inches of snow. It's been very scattered and pretty minor," said Summit County Public Works Administrator Kevin Callahan. "It's frustrating for our guys to push around just an inch or two."
For the Utah Department of Transportation's crack crews that make sure skiers and snowboarders can get up to the resorts on powder days, this is the second year in a row that their road-clearing skills have received little testing.
On Jan. 28, for instance, an upside-down storm dropped twice as much snow (8.3 inches) at low-lying Salt Lake City International Airport as at Alta, elevation 8,500 feet (4 inches), leaving them with minimal work to do.
"Our valley crews have been out more than normal, but our mountain crews have been out less," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason, a balancing act that has left the agency with about $5.6 million in its $23.3 million snow-removal budget as of mid-February.
"We're right about where we were for all of last year," he added, referring to the much-despised dry winter of 2011-12 that cost UDOT just $17 million for snow removal.
But down in Wasatch Front valleys, two big January storms taxed the abilities of local governments to keep roadways clear. Then the inversion's prolonged cold kept much of that snowpack from melting, increasing the need to apply salt frequently.
"It's been an expensive season," said Sandy Public Works Director Rick Smith, who blew through his department's $115,000 budget for salt and recently received a $70,000 supplement from the city. "That's pretty much gone, so this next series of storms will pretty much wipe us out."
His counterpart in West Valley City, Russ Willardson, said, "You'd have to go back a ways to think of a year as bad as this one. The actual volume or depth of snow hasn't been so outrageous. It's just the cold. It's stayed around so long. That's something we haven't experienced before."
His department has spent all $110,000 it had budgeted for salt. Any further expenditures will come at the expense of road-maintenance projects next summer, Willardson said, noting he hasn't figured out how to make up for all of the overtime pay earned by snowplow drivers.
Salt Lake County isn't bursting its snow-removal budget for unincorporated areas, but the cleanup has been costly $1.5 million through Feb. 15, said Kevyn Smeltzer, public works operations director. His crews have logged almost 3,400 hours of overtime, on top of nearly 6,000 hours of regular time.
Heading north, Davis County Public Works Director Kirk Schmalz said limited snow has made this a fairly average winter. "The freezing rain and inversion kept roads slicker longer than we would have thought," he said. "When it was bad, it was really bad. But it didn't last long."
Conditions are more challenging in Ogden, where Public Services Director Jay Lowder just spent $20,000 to refill the city's salt shed. "That took the last of our salt money budgeted for this year [$75,000]," he said. "Our overtime situation is still OK, but if we have many more storms, we'll be in the hole."
Up in Summit County, Callahan said he'd like to see more storms. He's only spent one-quarter of his $200,000 salt budget so he has plenty of resources left, but more importantly, "we need more snow in the mountains."
Northern Utah communities were spared more snow Wednesday. The expected storm stayed south. But the National Weather Service forecast suggests snowplows will be out again Saturday. A vigorous cold front is predicted to move through northern Utah in the morning, spreading statewide in the afternoon. "A fast moving band of heavy snow" could be followed by lake-effect deposits into Sunday in favored mountain locations, the Weather Service said.