Blowers, mowers welcome precipitation
JANESVILLE It might not look like it today, but snow has been rare in southern Wisconsin this winter.
Another rare commodity in the past year: grass.
One business that relies on both is the one that cuts grass in the summer and plows snow in the winter.
"It is a huge concern of our business," said Todd Elrod, co-owner of Nature's Touch of Janesville.
Elrod said his garden center and landscaping services have kept the cash flowing over the past year when snow and grass cutting did not.
"We're thankful that we're diversified, because if we weren't, I can imagine this would really kill a lot of companies, put a lot of companies out of business," Elrod said.
Elrod said his company is doing fine, but some of his workers have been on unemployment during the long snowless stretches this winter.
"It is nice to finally get some of the guys out and get them plowing," Elrod said as he plowed snow Wednesday.
Janesville had registered just 5.7 inches of snow before Wednesday's snowfall, which added about 3.75 more.
The average snowfall for a Janesville winter going back to 1947 is 30.8 inches.
The average annual precipitation—all rain and snow converted to water—is about 33 inches.
Precipitation in 2012 was 26.5 inches, or 20 percent below average. Combine that with last summer's relentless heat, and grass not only stopped growing. It died.
"All the grass was yellow, like we were in Kansas or something," said another local mower/plower, Joe Paniagua of Joe Paniagua Enterprises.
Paniagua said he, too, is lucky to be able to fall back on landscaping, and he has kept busy by salting sidewalks and parking lots for liability-minded business.
"The winters are not what they used to be," Paniagua said. "We'd start plowing in November and continue right through March."
You could count on a blizzard around New Year's and more snow during the high school basketball tournaments in March, Paniagua said.
"If it wasn't for salting business … it wouldn't be the greatest," Paniagua said.
One bright spot for Paniagua: Last year's warm spring allowed him to get his landscaping crews working earlier.
But last spring turned into the summer of the grass-killing drought.
To recover from the drought, the area needs more snow this winter, then frequent rains in spring, said Mark Gehring, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sullivan.
The rains this week—nearly 1.5 inches in Janesville—will help, experts said, but it's far from enough. And, it's hard to tell how much of that water was absorbed. Where the ground is frozen, water washes into streets and streams.
Mary Ann Buenzow, a forester for the state Department of Natural Resources in southern Wisconsin, said she hasn't noticed a lot of hard-frozen ground.
Trees and shrubs have two difficult hurdles to overcome this year, Buenzow said.
First, if several days of unseasonably warm weather are followed by cold, trees could "break bud," and then the cold would kill those buds.
Buenzow said the drought will come into play later in the spring. The drought killed off the very fine tree roots, known as root hairs.
Root hairs are where most of the moisture is absorbed. Trees need to regrow those hairs back in the spring before they can start pumping up the water again, Buenzow said.
"If we go into spring as dry as we went dormant, we're probably not going to have enough (root hairs) to do that," Buenzow said.
Meanwhile, this winter's weather pattern appears to be of the roller coaster variety. Strong winds bringing subzero wind chills are already with us, two days after a high of 60.
The coldest temperature this week will be tonight, around 5 below, the National Weather Service predicted Wednesday.
Authorities started issuing warnings Wednesday about the dangers ahead for humans and their pets. Exposure to wind and cold can lead to frostbite and hypothermia, they said.
Stay at home or bundle up, and don't drive without a winter survival kit in your vehicle, Wisconsin Emergency Management recommended.
Warmth is already on the way, however. High temperatures could reach 35 by Monday.