Getting ready for snow: Salt, sand, brine, tuneups, emergency kits all part of state, city preparations

Streets driver Ryan State shovels asphalt into a small pothole while working with a crew to fill holes along 15th Avenue
Streets driver Ryan State shovels asphalt into a small pothole while working with a crew to fill holes along 15th Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Despite all the curveballs 2020 has thrown us, state and local public safety officials are looking ahead, getting ready for whatever winter might bring.

“Oct. 15 is designated as our official first day of winter,” said Craig Bargfrede, winter administrator with Iowa Department of Transportation. “That means plows are pulled out of cold storage, they’re mounted on the trucks. Any maintenance that we have to do on the trucks or the plows or the blowers or the loaders — any piece of equipment that we will be using during winter operations — we have to make sure is functioning properly (and) installed on the trucks.”

The warmer months are spent stockpiling salt in the DOT’s 101 garages throughout the state and at a handful of off-site storage facilities.

This year, Bargfrede said, the state is at 103 percent capacity for the materials needed to treat Iowa’s 9,500 miles of interstates and federal and state highways during the winter.

“So we have somewhere in the neighborhood of about 230,000 tons of capacity stored across the state,” Bargfrede said. “Obviously, that number fluctuates a little bit on a daily basis … but the bottom line is that we have ample capacity to cover our needs.”

For the past five winters, the state has used an average of 155,000 tons of salt and 31.5 million gallons of brine, a salt/water mix.

However, usage during the past couple of winters has exceeded that average.

“The last couple of winter seasons, our usage has been pushing really close to 200,000 tons of salt, so we’re starting to get up into that area where our usage is getting close to our overall capacity,” he said. “But we’ve never been in a situation where the Iowa DOT is out of salt.”


The department’s 101 maintenance garages employ 1,082 full-time equipment operators, mechanics and supervisors.

Another 600 seasonal employees are hired each winter to keep the agency’s 902 trucks, 43 motor graders, 27 tow plows and 11 heavy-duty, self-propelled snowblowers operating and on the road.

Snowplows, Bargfrede added, are equipped with an amber light that can be seen from all directions and a set of blue and white lights on the back of vehicles.

“So, if you’re approaching a vehicle that has that combination of lights, you’re approaching a snowplow from the back,” he said.

He asked that drivers be patient when sharing the road with a snowplow and give the plows the space they need to do their jobs.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa City

Cedar Rapids streets crews began planning for this winter last year.

The city generally has around 9,000 tons of salt/sand and 10,000 gallons of brine on hand going into winter, and it can blend brine with other products as needed.

The city has around 90 pieces of snow removal equipment it can employ during significant snowfalls on the city’s 75 miles of roadway.

Iowa City is similarly prepared and also explains on its website when it uses sand, when it uses salt.


“If the temperature is below 20 degrees and not expected to rise, salt will not be effective,” it says. “But if the sun is shining and the temperature is 20 degrees or more and expected to remain steady or to rise, then salt would be more effective. ... Plowing under the wrong conditions can create a polished street surface, resulting in dangerous glare ice.”

Iowa State Patrol

The Iowa State Patrol has 330 troopers and support staff working its 15 districts across the state.

The patrol’s winter preparation focuses on making sure vehicles are in top shape. Trooper Alex Dinkla, the patrol’s public information officer, said.

“Each year, our vehicles go through winter maintenance where we will equip them with snow tires, check all their fluids, replace the wiper blades and check all the batteries,” he said. “So everything that we recommend to the public, we want to make sure we’re doing the same things.”

Additionally, troopers are expected to maintain a winter survival kit — water, blankets and food — in their vehicles.

“If we look back a couple years ago to when (Interstate) 35 was shut down in the northern part of the state, we actually had troopers that were sleeping in their cars for a couple days, just because they couldn’t leave the interstate,” Dinkla said.

“Keeping our roadways safe is our primary concern,” he added, “which is why we try to educate the public about winter weather safety, which includes giving yourself more time to get to your destination, slowing down and leaving more room between you and the car ahead of you.”

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