When the leaves start to brown and jackets are unpacked from storage, you know it’s time – winter is just around the corner! One issue on all of our minds at the HRWC office is road salt.
What’s the deal with road salt?
Transportation departments and cities are often charged with keeping roads clear and safe during winter months. With our mobile population, salting increases public safety, ensures emergency services, and promotes continued economic activity. Municipalities and private homeowners most often use sodium chloride when applying rock salt. Although it is cost efficient in the short term, salt application has many long-term implications such as harmful levels of chloride in our water bodies. Increased levels of chloride negatively impact aquatic ecosystems by disrupting the food web, inhibiting growth, and poisoning songbirds.
Decades of salt application has allowed chloride to infiltrate our groundwater supplies, meaning our rivers (and drinking water) begin with an already elevated level of chloride. Less salt is required for streams to reach harmful concentrations. Many drinking water wells and streams around the country have chloride levels above the EPA’s maximum threshold. This can be bad news for those on salt restricted diets, causing hypertension, cardiac disease, and even stroke.
How do we fix it?
Even with the same amount of urban land use over time, chloride concentrations have increased.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect, eco-friendly solution. Alternatives often labeled as environmentally friendly include salts like magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, beet juice, molasses, and vodka distillery leftovers — all of which still include salt! Fortunately, new techniques can help make that amount as small as possible. Canada has identified road salt as a national environmental hazard, and is taking definitive steps towards reducing impacts to water quality such as applying a wet brine before snowfall to prevent ice bonding with the pavement. Many cities are promoting efficiency programs like Smart About Salt in Waterloo. Data collected by the University of Waterloo five years after program implementation demonstrated a 60% reduction of chloride!
What can YOU do as a homeowner?
We have a few ideas! The best option for keeping our Huron happy and healthy is to shovel early and often, without using de-icers at all, even ones labeled as more friendly to the environment. If you must use a de-icer, use as little as needed to get the job done.
Check out our Take Action page: Use Less Salt for more information.
For a deeper dive on the issue, take a look at the following articles (some more technical than others):
Solving Slick Roads and Salty Streams, Stormwater Report, March 4, 2015
Road Salt is Polluting our Rivers, Wired, March 12, 2015
What Happens to All the Salt We Dump On the Roads?, Smithsonian.com, January 6, 2014
Winter Street & Sidewalk Maintenance, City of Ann Arbor Snow Removal webpage
Canada Sets National Targets for Road Salt, Study Shows Stream Toxicity from De-icers Increasing Rapidly, Stormwater Report, February 3, 2015
The Effect of Road Salt on Urban Watersheds and Management Options — HRWC’s very own Stevi Kosloskey was kind enough to share her research paper on road salt application and subsequent implications on water quality, including data from the Huron River. (Thanks Stevi!)