A relentless winter has left local governments scrambling to replenish their supplies of road salt and some consumers finding empty shelves when they turn to hardware stores for ice-melting materials.
State officials say they have enough salt to meet immediate needs, but at least one county was rationing its use Monday to stretch existing supplies, and local government spending for salt has climbed drastically from recent years.
Even before this week's snow, Baltimore County road crews had spread about three times the salt used to improve traction and melt snow and ice on roads last year — about 108,000 tons compared with about 37,000. The county received a 300-ton shipment Monday, with 3,200 tons more due to arrive Tuesday.
"It's just been a brutal winter as far as storms, and our reserves are running low," county spokeswoman Lauren Byrd said.
Not counting the new shipments this week, the county already has spent more than $12 million on salt this winter, compared with $4 million last year, officials say. That still doesn't surpass the salt expense in 2010 — the year of the so-called Snowmageddon — when the county spent more than $20 million.
Anne Arundel County began this week's storm with 4,000 tons of salt on hand.
"I believe we'll be fine for this storm, but we've asked nonemergency requests to be rationed," said County Executive Laura Neuman, adding that the county did not salt roads in advance of Monday's snow, figuring the initial round of rain would have washed it off the roadways.
An Anne Arundel spokeswoman said the county likely will need to order more for the rest of winter.
Howard County highways chief William F. Malone Jr. said that county also is planning to order more Tuesday after already spending $2.3 million — more than twice what it does in a typical year for salt.
In Baltimore, spending on salt totaled $3.2 million as of last week, compared with $392,000 in 2013.
City crews used 2,600 tons of salt for the latest storm but still have about 8,500 tons on hand, according to transportation director William Johnson. An additional 3,300 tons are on order, he said.
Industry officials say there's not a shortage of salt supplies, though keeping up with demand has been a challenge.
"Restocking those supplies just takes time," said Martin Tirado, CEO of the Snow & Ice Management Association, a Milwaukee-based trade association that represents snow-removal businesses.
"The salt manufacturers aren't calling it a shortage, I think mainly because the term kind of sets off some alarmist connotations," he said. "It really is a distribution challenge. ... To get from mine to end user takes time."
Some retailers say it's been difficult to get salt from suppliers.
The last time Falkenhan's Hardware in Hampden received salt was about two weeks ago, when it received a few 50-pound bags that it divided up into smaller 8-pound bags to serve more customers, said owner Deborah Falkenhan.
"It was gone in 48 hours," she said.
David Evans, manager of the Ace Hardware store in Federal Hill, said his business has been constantly fielding calls for salt and ice-melt products. The last time the store had salt was about a week ago, when it received a delivery of five 40- to 50-pound bags.
"That was gone in 45 minutes," Evans said.
At BJ's Wholesale Club, sales of its Berkley & Jensen ice melt are up 120 percent compared with last year, said spokeswoman Kelly McFalls. The company went to two additional suppliers to try to restock, but only one had any to sell, she said.
"We're not getting nearly enough," she said. "The demand has been really incredible."
Home Depot spokeswoman Katherine Ellison declined to share sales figures but said the retailer also has seen unusual demand for winter weather supplies, with stores around the country running out of materials to melt ice.
"We've been restocking inventory as quickly as possible," she said. "As soon as it comes in the store, it goes right back out the other door."
Lowe's spokeswoman Natalie Turner said the company is "working with our suppliers to quickly replenish store shelves."
"While ice melt is in short supply due to heavy demand, there are several alternatives consumers can consider such as water softener salts, sand, shovels and snow throwers," she said in an email.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Nayana Davis, Natalie Sherman and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.
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