Integrating City Snow Management Strategies with Environmental Priorities

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Snow in Seattle

Photo by Chris Blakely

While 2010-2011 was a cold winter, the City did not have as significant a negative experience with snow removal as Seattle experienced in 2008-2009, when City resources were challenged by almost three weeks of snowfall and cold temperatures.  Now that spring is finally appearing, it would be easy to let the issue lie dormant – and then perhaps be unprepared for the next bad winter. Fortunately, this City Council takes the long view, and we are determined that Seattle develop a plan and strategy that will manage future snow events – and do so in keeping with Seattle’s environmental values.  We therefore created a citizen group to propose such a plan, the “Snowfall Neighborhood Outreach Work” (SNOW) Committee, which has now submitted a visionary report. The report identified five strategies that the City can implement:
  1. Reversible Storm Drains. The City was criticized for failure to use salt in 2008-2009 because of concerns over the environmental impacts.  While some salt was used last winter, the SNOW Committee recommends a comprehensive approach that involves retrofitting storm drains with reversible pumps, so that during snow events, instead of draining into Puget Sound, they can pump salt water out of Puget Sound and spray it on streets to melt the snow.  When the streets are clear, the pumps can be reversed and return the salt water to the Sound along with the melted snow.  This should prevent any adverse environmental outcomes.
  2. Underground street wiring. Moving utility wires underground has long been seen as a neighborhood amenity and a way to prevent outages in storm events.  Unfortunately, undergrounding is an expensive capital project, and has only been implemented in limited areas.  The Committee suggested that if undergrounding could also be seen as a way to clear streets of snow, this would make it more affordable.  Under the proposal, wires could be placed directly below streets, with bare wires extending near the surface that would function like the defrosting wires embedded in car windshields.  When snow falls, the wires would be activated and simply melt the snow as it hits the street.
  3. Revised street tree policies to extend canopies. It’s easy to see how tree canopies can reduce snow accumulation under the branches by blocking snow.  City tree policies could be changed to emphasize planting trees that have long branches that extend over streets, thereby preventing snow from reaching the ground and keeping the street clear.  While it would not be too difficult to do this in many neighborhood streets, which are relatively narrow, it will require trees carefully selected for wide canopies to cover major arterials or even I-5.  The Committee suggests that the City engage our biotech industry in developing Genetically Modified (GMO) trees that will shield the widest roads.  While under current conditions, these trees could be problematic for overhead electric wires, the Committee pointed out that combining GMO trees with undergrounding wiring will result in synergistically positive effects.
  4. Block Watch Street Clearing. Seattle has a long tradition of neighborhood activism, and residents often help each other out in shoveling sidewalks.  The Committee suggests that this spirit be enlisted to clear streets as well.  A portion of the Neighborhood Matching Fund could be set aside as the Neighborhood Shovel Ready Fund to help communities purchase equipment, and contests could be held during snow events, with the prize being that the neighborhoods that clear their streets the fastest would get access to food and drug stores.
  5. Safeco Field Extensions. Seattle can be proud of our innovative technological solution to playing baseball in the rain – the moveable roof at Safeco Field.  Similar technology could be deployed all over the City to protect key arterials from snowfall.  Roofs could be stored over houses and other buildings most of the time, providing additional rain protection and an extra layer of insulation for the buildings, and then rolled into place over the street when the snow starts to fall.  While this is an expensive option, the Committee suggested that it could be at least partially financed by selling naming rights for the moveable roofs to families and neighborhood stores.  Imagine if the moveable roof over your house displayed your family’s name in large illuminated letters.  This would, of course, require a change in the sign code, especially for downtown skyscrapers, but building owners such as Russell Investments would undoubtedly seize the opportunity.
The Council will hold public hearings on the SNOW Committee report over the next several decades, and we expect to have a work plan approved and ready for further public input by 2152, assuming that there is no appeal of the Environmental Impact Statement.