It’s been a busy few weeks for snow removal operators across Truckee and North Tahoe.
Since Jan. 1, nearly 90 inches of snow have fallen in the Tahoe City area. On the tops of mountains, it’s more. At Palisades Tahoe, for example, there’s been over 14 feet of snow.
Still, the new year’s storm cycles so far have had enough cushioning between them to allow roads to be kept in decent shape. (That wasn’t the case at the end of 2021, when 3 to 4 feet of snow fell within as many days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. “We ran out of room to push snow to the road edges,” recalled Dan Wilkins, public works director for the Town of Truckee. “Our streets ended up being messy for a longer period of time.”)
Cushion aside, the crews are still busy — have been since the holidays. “Since right after Christmas our Tahoe crews and all of our snow crews, so that would include like Serene Lakes as well, they’ve worked every single day,” said Matt Randall, road maintenance division manager for Placer County. “… Our Tahoe road crew is busy all the time. We work a lot more weekends, overnight, overtime, that type of stuff during the winter.”
Mother Nature’s demanding attention extends beyond local streets to behind the scenes. Jurisdictions are facing such hurdles as equipment and staff shortages.
Plowing about town
The Town of Truckee’s MO regarding snow removal is to plow each street twice a day, split between a day crew and night crew. When there’s a shortage of staff, which is the current case by about four bodies, a few routes may be divided up among those who already have assignments.
“For instance, we’ll get everything plowed during the daytime, but then the night crew might only get eight of the 10 routes cleared, and then the day crew will need to go in and get those two routes that didn’t get cleared at night,” Wilkins said. “That’ll become their top priority the following day to get to those first.”
In general, Wilkins explained that the shortage in finding qualified plow operators corresponds to the ebb and flow in the private sector’s construction economy. When it is robust, such as it is currently, operator numbers dwindle.
“The pool of available applicants has diminished significantly over the last year to year-and-a-half,” he continued. “Over this past year, as we were backfilling positions or we created a few new positions, we were having to pay more money to get people to come and join us than had been the case in the past.”
In September 2022, several public works employees with the town discovered that recent hires were making as much or more than those who’d been around for a lot longer and had more experience. That was frustrating, a current street maintenance worker (aka snowplow operator) anonymously remarked — not only the similar pay, but also that the town hadn’t been up-front about what was happening.
“It took the hiring of [another street maintenance worker] in May ,” he told Moonshine Ink. “If that hadn’t happened and we hadn’t discovered that he was hired at basically a supervisor rate, then when would’ve things changed? That’s what drove the change, the fact that that got uncovered and people were pissed off.” The employee asked to remain unnamed due to fear for retribution at work. He added that his viewpoints are shared by many of his coworkers.
At the same time, conversations between the town and the Truckee General Employee Membership Association, which includes between 60 and 70 hourly town employees (and all snow removal personnel), were negotiating a new contract for wages, salary adjustments, etc. Near the end of 2022, a handful of street maintenance workers received a pay adjustment so their pay was more reflective of their skillsets.
The final TGEMA memorandum of understanding was approved at the Jan. 10 town council meeting and covers the time period from Jan. 8, 2023, to June 30, 2024. Benefits include increased wage and cost of living adjustments, an additional (Juneteenth) and renamed holiday (Columbus Day changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day), and — specific to road maintenance workers/snowplow operators — a $2,600 annual stipend for employees in possession of a California commercial driver’s license, which allows them to operate heavier equipment.
“That’s the thing that was disappointing about the town is that it took [the uncovered uneven pay] to do it,” the staffer reflected, adding that transparency and integrity should’ve played larger roles in the situation. “There really shouldn’t have been that large of a gap in time, and disclosure that the wage matrix was being sidestepped should’ve been disclosed. With that caveat being said, I’m very thankful for what has changed and the direction that it’s headed and the willingness of the town to work with us … We didn’t get everything that we asked for, but we got some stuff that we didn’t ask for.”
Proposals by general employee association not approved by the town include adding Cesar Chavez Day as a paid holiday; increasing vacation accrual; and allowing employees working 9- to 10-hour shifts to take off a holiday rather than using additional vacation hours to make up the difference.
The continued increase in pay is something Wilkins, who was not directly involved in the negotiations, hopes will inspire potential town employees: “What we’ve seen in the last one to two years is, between Covid and the strong economy, our ability to stay competitive was beginning to become eroded. Using snow removal operators as an example, some of the lower level of interest we were seeing in the full-time positions was something that ultimately the council was trying to rectify. Part of the response to that was to offer additional compensation in the hopes that that would allow us to better attract and retain quality employees. That’s really the underlying motivation there.”
Closer to Lake Tahoe, Placer County’s current hurdles take a different shape.
The Eastern Placer snow crew’s goal is to address every county road (meaning no state highways or routes — that’s Caltrans’ job — nor private residential areas) within 24 hours of snowfall. Headquarters are located in Burton Creek, next to the Placer County Sheriff’s Office building and home to a staging area, garage for maintenance, and office. The crew is fully staffed, though if snow accumulates enough that additional operators are needed, forces from the western part of the county are called up.
That’s the approach for equipment shortage as well: If there’s not enough, or too many breakdowns, extras are sent up from various parts of Placer or rented from other locations. Issues with its tools are what’s plaguing the Tahoe yard at the moment; not just downed motor graders, but also a leaking fuel tank that’s been out of commission since 2021. Due to supply chain and manufacturing issues, the county is still waiting for a new 6,000-gallon tank.
Air & Lube Systems based in Sacramento was contracted to supply the county with the fuel reservoir, but has not delivered. To date, Placer hasn’t made any formal litigation moves against the company, and staff is in ongoing discussions to work out the delivery.
“We rented a temporary fuel tank to keep things going,” Randall said. “It hasn’t affected the delivery or the service level that we provide, but it has made things pretty complicated for us to try to make sure everything is fueled up.”
Staff also procured fuel cells from Cabin Creek, the Eastern Regional Landfill Material Recovery Facility, and is filling at local gas stations. It’s more expensive, sure, Randall amended, “But in an emergency, which we consider snow removal an emergency situation, we do what we do need to get the job done. And with road maintenance we plan for snow removal expenditures.”
Despite the Burton Creek maintenance yard being conveniently and centrally located for the North and West shores, the county is considering relocating the spot when the sheriff’s office building is upgraded.
“Placer County officials met with the board of supervisors to discuss the Burton Creek project back on June 28, 2022,” shared Paul Breckenridge, capital improvements manager with the county, in a statement. “This was regarding the county teaming up with the Judicial Council of California for preliminary planning, specifically on snowplow operations and functions. As of now, no decision has been made to move, in part or whole, to another location. The county is still looking at all options for best utilization of the Burton Creek site. The county will be embarking on an environmental review process that will take into consideration any changes or relocation of functions at the site.”
Meanwhile, potholes are cropping up like winter dandelions. “The other day I hit a pothole so hard on 267 that I lost a filling!” said Mel Fish, a 30-plus-year North Shore resident.
Randall explained that potholes are part of the catch-22 that public works departments have to deal with. “Snowplows and chains are rough on the road,” he pointed out, “so sometimes there’s potholes and things that we fix in the summer and the chains and snowplows pop them back up.”
Clearing the way in Washoe
On the Nevada side of the North Shore, frustration is running rampant among drivers. Not just regarding snow on the road, but also, in an echo of Mel Fish, with the numerous potholes.
“The potholes are really only on [State Routes] 28 and 267, but snow removal is terribly behind everywhere,” said Nina Miller, Incline Village resident and sometimes copy editor for the Ink. “The worst is Crystal Bay during and after a snowstorm. You’d think we’re in the poorest community in the poorest country, can’t afford equipment, and have never dealt with snow before. It’s so incredibly bad. Then it turns into an icy washboard with deep ruts and gnarly bumps. I hear we’re short on drivers, and delayed service in the neighborhoods is one thing — but Highway 28 through Crystal Bay? The one and only road? How is that not a top priority?”
Miller added that the plow drivers she has interacted with have been friendly and helpful; “there just aren’t enough.”
Her statement is accurate, according to the Nevada Department of Transportation, which oversees maintenance on state routes 28 and 431. Meg Ragonese, public information officer for the state agency, told Moonshine that six permanent highway maintenance personnel are currently responsible for winter care of the two state routes, and U.S. 50 on Tahoe’s East Shore.
“There are 14 permanent and temporary staff positions assigned to the highway maintenance crew. With only six of the 14 positions currently filled, the crew has a nearly 60% vacancy rate,” she shared in an email.
On the pothole situation, Ragonese said crews are prioritizing “critical snow response tasks such as blowing or scraping back snow from highway roadsides to reduce roadway refreeze and provide additional shoulder space for safety during traffic incidents. Crews will undertake urgent pothole repairs as soon as snow removal and other immediate highway activities such as cutting back roadside snowbanks are complete.”
Eric Crump, operations division director for Washoe County, says the recent storms have brought about the heavy “Sierra cement” type of snow, which is harder to plow.
“It not only slows us down, but the snow sheds off of the plow, causing big, heavy berms along the roadway, including in front of driveways,” he explained in an email. “Our operators do their very best not to create the berms, but it’s unavoidable. All in all, we have seen record-breaking snowfall with the second wettest water year on record, but our operators have done an amazing job keeping the roads in Incline Village/Crystal Bay open and safe.”
Crump added that complaints to the county from Incline and Crystal Bay residents have been minimal, nothing out of the ordinary. Operators are continuing to address the lingering snowpack on roads.
Washoe breaks down its priority for snow removal into three stages: Priority one roads are main thoroughfares connecting the community to services, schools, bus routes, and more (not including SR 28). Priority two roads lie deeper in neighborhoods, and priority threes are primarily cul-de-sacs. These routes can be found here, and residents can follow plows with real-time information on the county’s Where’s My Plow page.
“Washoe County Roads is fully staffed with operators and equipment to serve 10 plow routes covering 72 miles of roadway,” Crump shared. “Washoe County has nine large loader plows, four large truck plows, two small truck plows, and six blowers.”
On potholes, he said his crews fixed one on Country Club Drive recently, but the other potholes all seem to be happening on SR 28, “which makes sense, that’s the truck route through there and they’re unavoidable this time of year.”
He encouraged residents to keep the Incline Village/Crystal Bay roads clear of parked cars, which inhibit plowers’ abilities to clear snow: “The snow removal equipment is very large and visibility by the operator is difficult. Please give them room and don’t pass them unsafely.”
Each of the managers overseeing snow removal operators expressed gratitude for the work of their crews — those in the cockpit and those behind the scenes. At the end of the day, Randall said, is that winter is a welcome part of life in the region:
“I think the sentiment with everybody, even our crews is, ‘Hey, we need the rain, we need the snow. So bring it on.’”
Snowplows Around Truckee/North Tahoe
Find information about where snowplows are working in your jurisdiction: