The next time you throw away a salt packet from a fast-food joint, remember the slippery drive you had to take to get that burger.
Not that public works directors in the area are about to sprinkle table salt on their frozen realm, but salt, the road variety, is becoming a scarce commodity these winter days.
A succession of snow events over the past several weeks has left many communities strapping on the proverbial snow shoes to go out and search for road salt as they deal with dwindling supplies. The Chicago area has seen nearly twice as much snow as the average for the season, and temperatures have dropped below zero nearly 20 times already this winter.
Salt is secured through the Illinois Department of Central Services' Joint Purchase Program. It's a co-op of sorts; communities submit a tonage figure for salt a year in advance of each year's two snow seasons, during the beginning and at the end of the year. The state then goes out to bid for a price on the salt per ton. At that point, communities are locked into a price. Berwyn is such a community.
"Our contract was awarded to Cargill at $53.89 per ton," Berwyn Public Works Director Bob Schiller said. "This is a delivered price to our salt bin."
But the cost is going up for those not in the purchasing plan, or those looking to buy outside of the plan, Riverside Public Works Director Ed Bailey said. Salt cost Riverside $49.96 a ton this year, but Bailey said he's heard that salt on the open market is costing from $130 to $150 per ton these days.
It's called supply and demand.
Its easy to see why there is such a demand – just look outside. But what of the supply? Look to the rivers.
The bulk of road salt, possibly all of it, is shipped to the area by way of river barges. Sub-zero temperatures have frozen rivers across the state, meaning no barge traffic.
"There is a lot of salt stuck in the pipeline due to the frozen rivers," Bailey said. "And a lot of the salt used in this area comes from Louisiana."
Meanwhile, Schiller said he placed orders for salt more than three weeks ago.
"As of Feb. 6, we have received only 100 tons of the 1,500 tons on order,"Schiller said.
In Riverside, Bailey said the salt situation has been "kind of nip and tuck" throughout the winter.
"Usually we've received it in time of a snow event," he said. "We've almost been using it as we get it. Right now we have 200 tons and I'm expecting another 100 tons. That means I have 200 tons on hand and another 100 tons on the way. That's all I have."
La Grange Director of Public Works Ryan Gillingham summed up his salt situation this way:
"Over the past five years, we use on average of 1,199 tons of salt," he said. "To date, we've used about 1,900 tons allready. We were fortunate in that we had about 600 tons on reserve from last year. Based on the area-wide shortages of salt, we went ahead and started modifying our salting operations."
The village of La Grange will take "a stair step approach" to conserving salt unless it locates more for purchase, Gillingham said. The first step will be to only salt arterial and collector streets and intersections on residential side streets. The next step after that will be to mix sand with salt to improve traction and to only put deicing chemicals on main roadways.
The village will, however, continue to plow all streets.
But it things don't change, you can always start saving those salt packets.