Gravel roads across the region are in upheaval this spring.
While it’s common for the roads to be in tough shape after the snow melts, this year many are worse than normal, county highway engineers say. The combination of excessive rains and an October snowstorm in 2019, followed by a wet spring, resulted in some gravel roads that are nearly impassable and others that are closed.
“I think it is fair to say, countywide, it’s worse this year than most years,” said Nick West, Grand Forks County engineer.
In Grand Forks County, there are 262 miles of gravel roads. Townships in the county have a total of 1,760 gravel roads, 20 of them in small towns, including Gilby, Inkster and Reynolds.
Repairing roads in the spring is tricky because, if heavy gravel trucks travel over them, it worsens the problem. Often, the county waits to repair the roads until later in the summer when they are firmer.
“It’s just crazy how the conditions are this year,” said Dan Lund, Emerado's police chief, who also drives a bus for the Emerado School District and is a sugar beet truck driver in the fall.
“This definitely is an anomaly,” Lund said. “I haven’t seen them this bad before.”
Navigating through the muddy, rut-filled gravel roads requires a balance between going fast enough not to get stuck, yet slow enough so the bus doesn't land in the ditch.
A couple of weeks ago after delivering the last students’ meals, Lund decided to return to Emerado on a paved road, which required traveling several more miles, was less stressful than going back over the muddy, deeply rutted gravel road.
“It was a little hairy,” he said. ”That was not fun.”
The gravel roads he drives to deliver meals have improved during the past week, but some still have big ruts in them, Lund said, noting that a neighbor near Mekinock, N.D., told him that his gravel roads were the worst he’s seen in more than 30 years.
Lund isn’t placing blame on anyone at the Grand Forks County Highway Department for the condition of the roads, but attributed their condition to the wet fall of 2019 and spring of 2020.
“The county has their hands full. They’re doing the best they can,” he said.
One of the solutions Grand Forks County tried for long-term repair of the gravel roads in recent years was to put drain tile underneath segments that had frost boils and deep ruts consecutive years, West said.
“It worked in some places and didn’t others,” he said.
Having adequate funding for road repair throughout the county is perennially challenging and even more so this year, West said. Part of that funding comes from highway gas tax funds, and this quarter that amount will be reduced because people have stayed home during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s the trickle-down effect from this whole pandemic,” he said.
Farther west in Nelson County, N.D., the gravel roads also are “pretty rough,” said Seth Hamre, Nelson County Highway Department superintendent.
“Some of them have frost boils where they’ve never had frost boils before," Hamre said. “It’s an unusual spring. It has a lot to do with the water that came last fall and the roads being saturated, and the early freeze.”
The county highway department maintains the 1,271 miles of township and county gravel roads. At one time this spring, 30 miles of gravel roads were closed because they became impassable after the snow melted, but, as of the week of May 17, that was down to 12, according to Hamre.
Like Grand Forks County, Nelson County will wait to repair the muddy, rutted gravel roads until the ground is firmer.
“I’m not going to destroy most of a road to fix 1 mile,” Hamre said. ”All of our gravel pits are on gravel roads. You have to go about 3 miles of gravel to get gravel out. There’s no winning.”
The challenges of repairing gravel roads doesn’t stop at the North Dakota's eastern border.
In northwest Minnesota, the Marshall County Highway Department is dealing with not only soft gravel roads, but debris from the spring flood. The department is responsible for maintaining about 500 miles of county gravel roads and about 300 miles of township gravel, said Lon Aune, Marshall County's highway engineer.
“In some areas of our county, we are maintaining gravel roads right now,” Aune said.
Marshall County, like the North Dakota counties, wait to repair the roads until they can carry heavy loads.
“Sometimes, you have situations where your road grader causes more damage than good,” Aune said.
This spring has been one of the most challenging for the Marshall County highway department.
“It’s been flooding. It’s been pandemic. Or bad roads. It's been a lot of different things,” he said.
One of the best things that could happen to improve road conditions is a change in the weather pattern, said West.
“”What we really need is a really dry summer,” he said.