Inch By Inch

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a  blog about Fulton’s Department of Public Works, whose employees plow our city streets.  I wanted to mention in the column the amount of snow we’ve had so far this season and I knew just who to call to get that information: John Florek. John is the Superintendent of our city’s Waterworks Department, located on Old Route 57, at the southern edge of Fulton. That’s where John keeps our daily precipitation measurements, and as he supplied me with the numbers I needed, I realized that, as the person who maintains records of our city’s snowfall, John Florek is one of Fulton’s historians.

John has put in 42 years at the Waterworks Department, which makes him Fulton’s longest-serving employee. When he was hired to be that department’s assistant supervisor, back in 1976, Sam Vescio was the department head, and just a year before John joined his staff, Sam had started recording precipitation information. One of the first things John learned on the job was how to take those measurements.

“You might wonder why a Waterworks Department would be responsible for measuring precipitation,” John mentioned as he explained his career to me. “There’s a direct correlation between the amount of rainfall and snowfall a city gets and their source of drinking water. In Fulton, we have ten wells, a few on our city property and most of the others at Great Bear Recreation Area. We keep track of the amount of water that seeps into the ground after rain and snowfalls so we have an idea how full our wells are.”

John assured me that our city seldom, if ever, has to worry about sufficient water to serve the entire city of Fulton, as well as parts of Volney and Granby townships. I didn’t think having enough water would ever be a problem for Fulton, based on the amount of snowfall we get. Which got me to my first question for John: Exactly how do he and his staff come up with those numbers?

“Each day’s measurement is taken at 7:00 am,” John explained. That sounded reasonable to me, thinking that performing a task five mornings a week shouldn’t be a problem. Then John clarified what he meant by each day: “Not Monday through Friday; I mean 365 days a year.” John plans his staff’s schedule so that, on weekends or holidays, someone comes in to take care of Waterworks business and record precipitation numbers. So on Christmas morning, when most of the city is opening presents, someone is at the Waterworks Department taking measurements.

Those numbers are sent to the National Weather Service (NWS), which provided the Waterworks Department with a sophisticated machine to help keep track of the daily rain and snowfall. John explained the two ways snow is measured: “First, the machine has a stainless steel precipitation pipe that collects rain or snow for each 7 am to 7am 24-hour period. To get our measurement, we take the pipe off the machine, bring it inside and let it come to room temperature so the snow melts. We also measure the amount of snow that accumulates on the ground. To do that, we use a snow board, a painted piece of wood that sits on flat ground. If it’s snowing pretty heavy, we’ll check that board several times a day, taking a measurement, and then wiping the board off to start again. That’s how we get our snowfall numbers.”

John also shared the challenges of accurately measuring in an area known for lake-effect snow: “More often than not, when snow falls in Fulton, there’s some wind carrying it in. It’s hard to take a measurement if snow gets blown off the board.” To compensate for that, John and his staff have devised a method to get a close estimate of actual snowfall. “We do this by going to several spots around our property – near buildings or trees where wind has driven the snow – and take measurements. We look at those numbers and figure out an average.”  Another problem John contends with is the different types of snow we get in Fulton.  “Sometimes snow is so light people will clear their driveways with a broom or leave blower. Other times, it’s heavier, Nor’easter storm-type snow.”

Light as a feather or densely-packed, John uses a special ruler to get his numbers. Not the typical measuring sticks we learned to use in school, with inches marked off in quarters, eights and sixteenths. If we take a close look at how snowfall amounts are listed during weather reports, John pointed out, we’ll see that they are recorded in tenths of an inch, just like his ruler.

I asked John is he could share a few numbers from this season, but before he started quoting figures, he wanted to make sure I understood that a snowfall season total is not the same as an annual total, which runs from January to December. “We keep records for the season,” John explained, “which typically covers November through May.” John was quick to point out, though, that Fulton has had measurable snowfall during October for nine of the 42 seasons he’s been keeping records. That means that here in Fulton we can have eight months of potential snowfall. I guess people aren’t kidding when they say our city has two seasons: winter and everything else.

John wanted me to know that the date of my call, February 8, was a pretty special day in terms of snowfall totals. So far this season, John has measured 122.6 inches of snow. When he checked on the average snowfall up to February 8 for the previous 42 seasons, that number was also 122.6 inches! So, if you’re like me and think we’ve had a pretty snowy winter, I turns out that it’s just been…average. But John had one other number that might make you feel better about our 2017-18 snow season: The most amount of snow ever accumulated in Fulton by February 8 took place back in 2004, when we’d endured 232.0 inches. That’s got to make your sore back feel a little better about this winter. 

Lots of people measure snow, like this unidentified SUNY Oswego meteorology student, but few have been doing so as long as John Florek, Fulton's Waterworks Department Supervisor.

Lots of people measure snow, like this unidentified SUNY Oswego meteorology student, but few have been doing so as long as John Florek, Fulton's Waterworks Department Supervisor.