On New Year's Day, Mother Nature arrived with a present. Snow and more snow. In fact, on Jan. 11, the National Weather Service tweeted that Utah was at 80% of its median snowpack peak.
While all the snow is great for a state parched by drought, it makes a mess on the roads.
That's where Ryan Brewster comes in.
As the streets maintenance coordinator for Lehi City, he and his snow plow crews are ready 24 hours a day during the winter. Even then, weather is unpredictable, so the workday is all on a case-by-case basis.
"If it snows in the evening, we come out right when it starts sticking, we'll start. We'll start salting, plowing … we usually go until 10:00 p.m.," Brewster said.
In the event that the snow continues to fall overnight, they're usually back out around 2:30 a.m. to make sure the roads are clear and safe for morning traffic. There’s no way around it — it’s a grind.
"There's a few weeks where it was morning, night, morning, night,” Brewster said. “And it really wears on the guys sometimes."
According to the National Coalition for Open Roads, snow plow drivers are in demand across the Intermountain West. Doug Anderson, the coalition’s vice chairman, said the struggle to hire drivers is happening everywhere.
“We've heard this from Washington and we've heard it from Idaho [to] Montana,” he said.
In Utah — with its very low 2.2% unemployment — the struggle for drivers is real. Even the Utah Transit Authority is feeling it. In a recent report, the coalition cites low pay as one of the factors. Anderson noted that the average starting pay for a state plow driver in Utah is $17.60 an hour.
"I can go down the road to a fast food establishment and get a job for that or more,” he said.
“And, you know, I'm not having to have the responsibility of driving a 80,000 pound truck around."
In Lehi, wages for maintenance positions that could be called in to plow start around $18.00 an hour. Brewster said that the city has seen the same driver scarcity and that “there have been less applications, just less people in general” looking to join the 13 employees on the snow removal team.
Even so, in a city of 79,978 residents, everyone wants to see the plow trucks sweep back and forth and up and down the streets. By the time Lehi’s plows have cleared everything after a storm, they’ve covered 591 miles of road — not including any roads that are maintained by the state, Utah County or roads in the hands of homeowner’s associations.
When it comes to state versus local plow operations, Anderson said it comes down to what each agency's budget allows for.
"State agencies are somewhat limited by what they're funded by with the state legislature,” he pointed out. “Local cities and counties, their flexibility is probably greater."
It's that flexibility allows cities like Lehi to create their own plow operator training program for entry-level drivers. Brewster said it gets drivers out on the street quicker and has saved the city $40,000. They also have an in-house machine that produces a brine solution used to pre-treat the roads ahead of a storm.
Public works director Cory Hatch said they have six plow trucks and six utility members who work on roads, water or the sewer. “But when it's time for snow removal, they're all available" to plow the roads, said Hatch. His crew handles 30 miles of road, 5 miles of sidewalk and the Manti-Ephraim airport.
"That's kind of fun for our guys because you've got the runways you got to clear and taxis,” Hatch said. “But in the same boat, it kind of puts up the priority because we got to make sure we keep that safe in case a jet needs to land."
Manti City’s snow removal budget is roughly $15,000 a year, Hatch said, which goes toward fuel, equipment repairs and employee wages. One expense he tries to save on is with salt. So they put down what they “need to be safe, but no more." He said they’ve spent about half of their budget so far for the fiscal year. If they go over, it would come out of their road maintenance allotment for the year.
Despite the budget, or the availability of plow drivers, there's still plenty of winter to go. As Doug Anderson of the National Coalition for Open Roads said "regardless of the winter, we're going to get out there and clear the roads."