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Feature
Erratic weather patterns add to cities' snow woes
SIRI AGRELL
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Dec. 10, 2010 7:11PM EST
Last updated Friday, Dec. 10, 2010 9:14PM EST




Two years ago, Dan O’Keefe’s department with the City of Ottawa posted a $20-million deficit. Last year, in the same role, he oversaw a surplus of $8.4-million.

As the city’s manager of road and traffic operations, Mr. O’Keefe controls a set, $69-million annual budget for snow removal. But he does not control the weather, and over the past few years, snowfall in the nation’s capital has ranged from 374 centimeters in one year to just 165 the next.

Even when shooting under artificial lights, at night, like this situation at the 2010 Olympics, can be difficult. Taking a camera meter reading on this scene would have caused problems because of the abundance of white in the scene. (Photo by Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)pmp
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“I don’t know if it’s tied in to climate change, but there’s something weird going on,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

Across the country, cities are struggling to predict how much snow they will receive in the face of wildly fluctuating weather patterns. Some, like Winnipeg and Regina, have been pushed over budget for the year clearing away record-setting November snowfalls, while others wonder whether the millions of dollars designated for plows and salt will even be needed.

And as the end of the year approaches, city snow czars such as Mr. O’Keefe must fight for any money that remains as cash-strapped city councils eye the literal slush fund that’s created when there’s no snow on the ground.

In Toronto, transportation services director Peter Noehammer expects to have about $16-million of his $85-million snow budget left at the end of 2010. The surplus is thanks to the dearth of snow early this year, when city streets had just 38 centimeters throughout January and February.

With all forecasts predicting a tougher winter this year, Mr. Noehammer would like to keep that money accessible in a reserve fund. But his budget has to be closed out at the end of December, meaning the money will be handed back to city council to spend as it pleases.

“Council can put that money toward offsetting other corporate over-expenditures,” he said. “Or, ideally from our perspective, it can go into our winter maintenance reserve fund, which we draw on in heavy winters.”

Reserve funds are an essential element of municipal snow-clearing operations, Mr. Noehammer said, because just one storm can cost a city dearly. In February, 2008, his department spent $22-million on snow removal in one 10-day period.

In Saanich, B.C., a suburb of Victoria that usually experiences mild winters with little snow, a freak November snow storm wiped out three-quarters of the $200,000 snow-removal budget.

Paul Murray, the district’s director of finance, said changing weather has led the district to add more flexibility to its budget, meaning that money can be quickly redesignated from one department to another.

“It’s about being responsive to these changes, so if we’re getting a tougher winter or less rainfall in the summer, we can quickly adjust,” he said.

Regina, too, has allowed its winter maintenance department to roll over surplus removal funds from year to year.

“If you don’t do something like that, then you have to draw funds from other operations year to year. You either have to raise taxes or steal from other programs,” said Kevil Faul, the city’s winter maintenance manager. “This makes it easier to plan and strategize year to year.”

Reserve funds also mean city councils will not have to boost the overall snow-clearing budget permanently. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi refused last month to increase the city’s $24-million annual snow-removal budget by $10-million, instructing his transit team to get by with the $5-million surplus from the previous season.

Clients of private snow-removal companies are also requesting refunds when snow fails to materialize.

Frank Aiello, a Toronto snow-plow operator whose company, Green Leaf Landscaping, employs 10 drivers each winter, said many of his clients, mainly condominium managers, asked for a discount on summer lawn maintenance after last year’s mild winter.

“I look at it like car insurance: If you need it, you’re going to be darn happy that you have it,’ he said. “Nobody called me in 2008 and offered to pay me more when I was working my butt off.”

Most plow operators are paid in advance to be on call throughout the winter, either by municipalities or property owners, but others make money only when it actually snows.

“There are people that love it when it snows and people that hate it,” Mr. Aiello said. “Some people are just waiting for their paycheque from the sky.”

In Ottawa, Mr. O’Keefe said he has recently been fielding calls from England, where cities are trying to figure out how best to deal with unprecedented snowfalls.

Last winter, he had to figure out what to do with his crews, who did not have to remove any snow after January.

“It’s the same people, you just deploy them differently,” he said. “We had them do a lot of pothole repairs.”

At the end of this calendar year, he expects to have plenty of money left over for January snowfalls, although he has already been forced to give up $1.75-million.

It was used by Ottawa’s Parks Department to pay for a longer grass-cutting season.
 

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I don't think Thunder Bay have received more than 50cm of snow since January 1. We basically went right into spring at the end of January.

We still don't have much snow, but it is extremely cold.
 

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It doesn't take much snow over a period of months to hit 50 or 100 centimetres. Often the snow is just small amounts over a long period rather than big snowfalls.

That chart is not a good way to compare cities, although it might be good for comparing year-to-year variation in one city, which is the point of the article. The problem with comparing between cities is that they measure snowfall in particular locations that are often not representative of a metro area.

Some cities have very different conditions depending on where you are. For example, in Vancouver there are elevation changes and higher elevations get more snow. In Halifax, inland locations like the airport get more than 50% more snow than the city or along the coast. In Toronto if I remember correctly the airport actually gets less snow than the downtown area, presumably because it's farther away from the lake.

Also highly variable snowfall from year to year is nothing new. You can look at EC stats going back decades and it was the same story. This isn't surprising when you're talking about totals in the hundreds of centimetres and weather events that produce in some cases 100 cm or more.
 

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Here is what I was remembering:

U of T - average 130 cm per year.
Pearson - average 115 cm per year.
Metro Toronto Zoo - average 100 cm per year.

I do not know how these stations are set up. I checked the location of the "Toronto" station by looking at the latitude/longitude in google maps.

Anyway, my point is that we cannot just say that if you put the weather station at the airport you get comparable results between cities. Snowfall maps would be more interesting but the only ones I've found are very coarse.
 

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I'm sure there are variations in all cities, so statistical graphs like this just give a comparative glance. You can easily see Montreal gets more snow than Vancouver, regardless of variance between downtown and airport. Average temperature charts are more misleading, as they just average out high and low extremes and don't give a realistic idea of what to expect temperature-wise.
 

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It doesn't take much snow over a period of months to hit 50 or 100 centimetres. Often the snow is just small amounts over a long period rather than big snowfalls.
But typically, when we get light snowfalls here (most of our snow falls are light; Vancouver gets more heavy snowfalls than we do) it doesn't melt. Last winter, it did, so there was very little snow on the ground except in late December to early February. Normally we have snow from late November to mid April.

People here always laugh at places that get something like 40cm of snow, saying "we can take that", but the reality is, we almost never receive that much snow at one time, and when we do, the entire city is shut down to deal with it, just like it is in the south. :| Hell, we got about 20cm a couple years ago and buses in half the city were cancelled, school was out, official city business was postponed, and that was virtually nothing compared to what places like Barrie and London get on a fairly regular basis in winter, without resorting to total shutdowns. It was the largest snowfall we got that winter. Regardless, we do have the ability to move it all in 24 hours and get things up and running again.

We don't even get heavy rain in summer. By the time the storms make it here, they're petered out. Anything more than 30mm of rain in a single day is a major event for us. Winds of 50km/h are "insane". Halifax calls that "a calm day". :lol: 5cm snow fall (like we got last Thursday) results in buses running over 20 minutes late; some were actually so late, that they were early.

The absolute worst is heavy precipitation when the temperature is near zero. Every year for the past few years that has happened at least once between Christmas and New Years, and that's a horrible mess to have to deal with, especially when it freezes. I don't remember us ever getting that when I was in school, but in the past few years at has happened numerous times.
 
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