Machines are running overtime at area gravel pits, dredging fragments of earth from a seemingly endless supply.
But the reality is that a current shortage of gravel has some Madison County officials concerned about the future cost and ability to properly maintain rural roads.
“Somebody has to be able to find some gravel,” said Lee Klein, chairman of the Madison County board of commissioners.
Klein said he can remember a time, not so long ago, when gravel mining operations could be found at several sites along the Elkhorn River between Norfolk and Ewing, but that’s not the case anymore.
In recent years, it’s been customary for Madison County to accept bids from all companies to supply gravel. Depending on the type of gravel needed or the location in the county’s 16 townships, the county chose a vendor that would be cheapest. Proximity to the work projects played a big part in those decisions.
This year, however, only three companies in Northeast Nebraska responded when Madison County called for bids to supply road gravel and armor coat gravel for projects and maintenance.
“It’s just become a huge problem,” Klein said. “It’s just not there.”
The shortage has driven the price of gravel over $11 per cubic yard at some pits without the additional adjustment for fuel costs. Klein said the county uses between 100 and 120 yards of gravel per mile each year, and there are many miles of roads to care for in Madison County.
A spokeswoman for one of the gravel suppliers who bid on the county projects, Kathy Doernemann of Elkhorn Valley Sand & Gravel of Stanton, said the company has felt the pressure from the increasing demand. Doernemann said she believes the weather has played an especially large role in this year’s shortage.
“I think last year — with the dry conditions — they didn’t have to do much with the roads, but now it has started raining and there was no gravel on them,” she said.
Doernemann said the supply Elkhorn Valley had in reserve was used up quickly, and the company is working long hours to keep up with current demand.
“They can only get so much in one day,” Doernemann said.
Marty Matteo with Matteo Sand & Gravel, another of the gravel suppliers for the county, said the Norfolk-based gravel-mining operation also has felt the increasing pressure from the demand. In addition to supplying gravel for Madison County, Matteo Sand & Gravel acts as a supplier for other counties and private businesses.
“We just can’t keep up,” Matteo said. “We run Monday through Friday, 24 hours a day, and a half day on Saturday. We’ve only got a couple of hours a week that we don’t run.”
While the situation is a good problem to have for a private business, Matteo said he understands the county’s concerns.
Matteo said he believes there are several larger factors coming into play that contribute to the shortage being felt in the area, the biggest of which would be the difficulties that arise when establishing a new pit.
Gravel pits fall under the regulation of the Mine Safety & Health Administration. Multiple permits are required to start a new operation. Once started, pits are subject to rigorous inspection to make sure the business is in compliance with the mining guidelines, Matteo said.
Also, a suitable site must be found for a new operation.
“Land is not that easily available,” Matteo said. “You have to have enough to be able to do it. It takes a lot to make a lake from scratch.”
The land where Matteo Sand & Gravel now sits had been a pasture before it began operation about 12 years ago. The company used heavy equipment to dig deep enough into the water table to float their dredging machine.
“We’ve got about three to five feet of top soil, about 20-25 feet of sand, and the gravel is at the bottom,” Matteo said. “And you’re only going after about eight to 10 feet of gravel.”
Matteo said he believes the best places to mine the product seem to be near the Elkhorn River.
Klein echoed that assertion but added the proximity to the river also plays a role in the shortage because many of the gravel-rich areas are located in a flood plain and prime location for another operation now sits in a wellhead protection area where activity is prohibited.
The county is looking into ways to alleviate the problem, including grinding old concrete from demolition projects. Some counties in Nebraska also have decided to have aggregate brought in on railcars, but Klein said he didn’t think that would be a viable option for Madison County. He hopes a solution is found soon.
“We’re actually scared with only three sources to get it from,” Klein said. “If somebody breaks down or you get an early fall and they start freezing up — we get unhappy people when roads aren’t passable, and you can’t blame them.”