Friday, January 31, 2014

Water, Water, Everywhere …

In California the rain isn’t falling and the state is in the throes of a damaging drought. State and local governments are using a variety of conservation methods to stretch the existing supply of fresh water. California has 840 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean, but that water is unfit for human consumption or for most agricultural applications because it contains salt.

In West Bend we have had slightly more snow than average. Right now the snow cover on my yard is a little more than 12 inches deep, so over my third of an acre I have something like 10,000 gallons of frozen water. If I could harvest it, that would be enough to supply all of my family’s water needs for an entire month. I won’t harvest it, of course, and sooner or later it will find its way into the ground or into the storm sewer and then on to the Milwaukee River and then on to Lake Michigan. And on its journey it will combine with the melted snow from my neighbors’ yards and the parks and the farmland, etcetera.

No, we’re not in any danger of running out of fresh water. What we need to ration—wait for it—is salt! At least, that’s what our Department of Public Works said yesterday:

“The City of West Bend will immediately begin conserving salt due to the current weather trend the region is experiencing. The change in operation philosophy is needed to maintain a reasonable supply of salt and preserve safety. In order to effectively conserve salt, deicing materials will only be applied to main roads, select hills, curves and intersections. By allocating salt, the city will be able to stretch operations further into the year and thereby assuring safer driving conditions in the long term. Treatment of main roads and intersections will remain unchanged, but drivers may notice a change, especially in residential areas.”

The problem is that we are getting small-but-frequent accumulations instead of large-but-infrequent ones. There were 19 snow treatment operations in December alone, and several more this month. To stay prepared for a big storm, the city now plans to be more conservative in its treatment of small ones.

What does that mean for local cyclists? It’s not great news. With major roads like Washington, Main, Decorah and Paradise getting most of the attention, the secondary roads—the roads we use most often—might be in rough shape for many weeks to come. That’s not just true within West Bend, but also in the surrounding areas where the same snowfall pattern has prevailed. As much as we suffer when we get clobbered by a 12-inch storm, from a road maintenance perspective it’s better than having six 2-inch storms.

I am not even thinking about riding outside right now. My streak of consecutive months with at least one outdoor bike ride ends today. I rode outside in every month from February 2011 through December 2013, but not this month. We had just four days with a high temperature above the freezing mark, and those days were still unsuitable because of the wet, filthy roads and the very high winds. It just wasn’t worth the trouble.

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