ELKHART — As the snowy remnants of winter melt away from city curbs and tree lawns, the final insult of winter is waiting for some attention from street department workers and even a few homeowners.
In the course of one of the snowiest winters in recent memory, Elkhart’s street department spread an estimated 6,000 tons of sand across city streets to improve driving conditions, but that material is not going away without a little help.
Somewhat caked and sometimes muddy, the sand — plus organic debris leftover from the fall — lingers along curbs throughout much of the city, with larger amounts found along the multi-lane thoroughfares.
The cleanup of streets this year will present more of a challenge to the city, according to Marty Morgan, street department superintendent for Elkhart, but not necessarily because drivers dispersed a lot more sand.
Morgan said the city didn’t use that much more sand compared to previous years.
However, there’s more of it because the freezing conditions and constant arrival of new snow prevented crews from using street sweepers during the winter.
As a result, there is now a greater accumulation of sand across an estimated 250 miles of streets.
“It’ll just take a little longer because it’s a little heavier,” Morgan said.
The task of removing sand began last week and will pick up momentum next week, weather permitting, Morgan said.
During the summer, the city typically can make a pass over most of the streets every two weeks, but this year’s spring cleaning will likely take two or three times longer, Morgan said.
Part of that reason is because the large amounts of sand require sweepers to move more slowly.
But there is also the wildcard involving repairs to the street sweepers.
As of last week, three of the six street sweepers were being repaired and one of those might not even return to the streets, Morgan said.
Morgan predicted four or five would be ready within a few days.
Jerry Wenger, fleet manager for the city's central garage, where repairs are made to almost all city vehicles, warned the city council last week that the removal of sand might be a bit more trying.
Street sweepers, Wenger said, tend to be more prone to repairs compared with other vehicles because of the amount of dirt the machines kick up.
“This spring, it’s going to be horrendous, cleaning up the sand,” Wenger told council.
This year, the city plans to purchase two street sweepers for a combined cost of about $360,000, but those won’t likely be available until after the spring cleaning. The request still needs final approval from the council.
While some people might assume the city could just let much of the sand and grit run into storm-water drains when it rains, that’s not the case.
Morgan said doing so can lead to catch basins being clogged.
“That plugs catch basins and then it’s more expensive to come out and suck that out,” Morgan said.
Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, who predicted the streets would be cleaned by the time the weather warms up, said letting the grit flow into drains also causes problems at the treatment plant.
In the late 1980s, Moore said, when he was street commissioner, the city changed the policy and began using street sweepers during the winter when the weather allowed. He said workers at the treatment plant noticed an improvement.
And while the street department will have its challenges, so will some homeowners living along busy streets where sand and debris were flung onto portions of their yards.
Homeowners who notice a build-up of sand from the winter near the street shouldn’t be overly concerned, according to Mark Dennison, the superintendent at Christiana Creek Golf Course who also operates GreenItUp Lawn care Inc.
If the sand is caked across the top of the grass, Dennison advises waiting for the weather to warm up and then break it up by either raking it or spraying it with a water hose.
“Otherwise, Mother Nature will take care of it,” Dennison said. “Once the grass starts growing, it’s going to work its way into the canopy.”