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Duluth gives sand the sweep

Volunteers from the Focus on Living group home in Duluth sweep and shovel sand and grit from the walkway along Fifth Avenue West, across from the library, on Wednesday to ready it for pickup by street sweepers. From left: Stanley Nguyen, Mike Ferrara, Christopher Jackson and Bill Nelson. (Bob King /

About this time every year someone wishes out loud for a big rainstorm to wash a winter’s worth of grit, grime and crud off the city’s roads, alleys and sidewalks.

The problem is, when that happens, much of that debris ends up in our storm sewers and streams.

In Duluth, the road sand, grit and trash that doesn’t get stuck in the storm sewers eventually flows into the city’s 42 streams, the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, where it can carry pollutants and harm fish.

So, for more than a decade, city officials have asked residents to sweep their winter grime off sidewalks, driveways and gutters in front of their homes and dispose of it before spring rains wash it away. It’s also a great time to police neighborhoods for trash exposed by receding mounds of snow.

Obviously, the ideal scenario is for people to recycle what they can among the litter, and throw out nonrecyclable junk. Duluth residents can recycle the sand at eight sites.

Chris Kleist, the city’s stormwater coordinator, said road sand drop-off sites are expected to go up today in city parking lots, marked with black silt fencing, at the Chester Bowl parking lot, 34th Avenue East and Valley Drive, Duluth Heights Community Club, Lester Park, Piedmont Community Center, Stowe Elementary School, Wheeler Field and Woodland Community Center.

The used sand will be screened and reused for fill in city projects. It can’t be used for traction sand again because the grains have become rounded.

Meanwhile, city street sweepers started their work this week trying to collect the 12,500 tons (25 million pounds) of sand the city dumped on winter roads to keep cars from bumping into each other. That’s far more than the average, and even with seven sweepers going full-tilt, the city usually sweeps up only about a third of the sand that’s laid down. The rest washes downstream.

This year may have seen a record amount of sand used, spurred by the fifth-most snowfall on record during an unusually cold winter. When temperatures drop below zero, as they often did, salt doesn’t work to make streets safe, and sand has to be used, said Kelly Fleissner, the city’s maintenance operations manager.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad,’’ Fleissner said of the amount of sand on streets. “But we’re out there working on it.”