Walk Like A Penguin…

By Trish Beckjord

I’ve been doing a lot of learning about salt recently. Not dietary salt actually, but road salt. Alias, rock salt, dry salt, de-icing salt… It’s all the same thing – sort of…

I took this on for a couple of reasons. One, to create a talk to help educate property owners about salt and the impacts of its use. Second, to teach myself more about salt. I’m just tired of standing in front of bags of different kinds of salt products each winter wondering if I should/could finally buy one of them because it really is safe for the environment.

While there hasn’t been much evidence of the snow part so far, the Farmer’s Almanac tells us winter temperatures will generally be above normal with near to above normal snowfall in 2020. The snowiest periods are predicted to be in the early parts of January, February and March. I thought I’d get ready and find answers once and for all.

And then, right before Christmas last year, USA Today came out with an article that talked about how heavy road salt use in the winter is a growing problem. Did you know that the US average for road salt use each winter is more than 24 million tons? And it’s on a steady increase: from one hundred sixty-four thousand tons in 1940 to 10 million in 1985. Further, salt use has increased 240% between 1985 and today. While I know there are definitely more roads and more cars now than in 1985, and possibly more snow and ice, I bet it’s not enough to generate that large an increase.

So what’s been happening? I’ve talked with others who have thought about this more than I, who point out that our expectations for ice and snow-free roads and sidewalks as soon as possible after snow storms has become unrealistic. And many who work at salting our roads, sidewalks and parking lots talk about the pressure they are under to put down more salt rather than less to meet their customer’s expectation of what safe conditions should look like. That brings it back to us of course. Ultimately, we’re the customers.

These expectations are not sustainable in the long run. Chloride, which is the active component of most of the de-icing products on the market, is soluble in the melted ice and snow. Once there, it stays in solution and ends up in our rivers and creeks in the melt water runoff. Even if it first drains to a detention basin, most of it will still end up in downstream waters. Along the way, the negative effects of chloride are many.

I think these folks are right. Our expectations are unrealistic. For the convenience and perceived need to have clean roads and sidewalks to be safe, we live with the corrosive effects of salt on our cars, our concrete bridges, and in our pipes. We suffer through it killing our grass and other plants. We worry about our pets and are cautioned to wash off their paws to remove the salt they may have picked up on a walk. And many are unaware of the worsening problem of too much salinity in our lakes and waterways and its impact on local wildlife.

The USA Today article calls these increasing chloride levels long-term salinization. Our salting practices are steadily reducing the quality and quantity of life in our local rivers that these vitally important water systems support. And in some communities, “salty” drinking water is becoming more of a risk. 

So what do we do? For most locations – except parts of Holland Michigan for example that has a wonderful chloride-free system to melt snow and ice – we still need to use chloride-containing salt products to melt snow and ice. But we need to learn to use less salt and understand that when best management practices (BMPs) are followed this does not reduce safety. The way to do this is to first change our expectations. We need to understand that more salt is not necessarily better. In fact, it can reduce safety by creating an unsteady walking surface.

The second thing we can do is expect our public works and other snow removal businesses who put down road salt products to be trained in these best management practices for de-icing. The Conservation Foundation, who offers winter de-icing workshops in the fall for public road agencies and landscape contractors, calls this being “salt smart.” Information for training workshops and more on what private homeowners can do is available on the SaltSmart Collaborative website, www.saltsmart.org, I talked with someone recently who had adopted these best management practices who told me they have reduced the amount of salt they use by 50%; from 16 to 8 tons. Imagine if everyone did this!

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention…there are no truth in labelling requirements so claims such as pet-safe and environmentally safe are not reliable. There’s lots more I learned about salt after this. In particular, that there are no easy answers. (Did I really expect this would not be the case?)

Let’s get busy on doing our part to help improve the quality of our local communities and the rivers and streams that wind through them! Let’s learn to be salt smart! In the meantime, I haven’t bought a bag of salt yet. I think I’m just going to “waddle on!”

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