Sunday, January 12, 2014

Slippery Slope of Salt

Snow and ice removal can seem like a big job!

I have a confession to make. I don’t salt my sidewalks in the winter. We live on a corner lot with a well-used sidewalk and an elementary school nearby, yet I never grab the salt bag when the ice gets really bad…I let my husband do it.

I am a hearty and committed shoveler and will do so several times in a snowfall if I can, but in the rare instances when we need it, I don’t touch the salt bag. Perhaps it’s because that frees up my conscience because I know that just a teaspoon of salt can permanently pollute five gallons of water.  I also know that when the snow and ice on my sidewalks melt (which it will someday), the salty water runoff will enter the storm drain on my block and head right to the Mississippi River untreated. If I’m not holding the bag, I’m not contributing to the problem right? 
Clearly, and humbly, I know my logic is flawed. 

In both the watershed in which I live and in the watershed in which I work, there are multiple water bodies impaired for chlorides. Perhaps you’ve heard this in the paper, on the radio, or the evening news. What does this mean and whose problem is it? Because there is currently no good way to remove the chloride, what can we do? There are some answers to these questions, and still more to learn.

What does it mean?

Salt or chloride impairment means that a water body (lake or creek) has received too much salt from untreated rain water or snow melt running off of salty surfaces. This usually includes roads and sidewalks treated with sodium chloride, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride or another melting agent to remove ice. Water and snow melt that enters a stormdrain is not filtered before emptying into our lakes.

In these ‘impaired waters,’ the salt levels are high enough to negatively affect fish, aquatic plant life, and other wildlife that depends on a healthy lake system. Just as we can’t put a sunfish in a saltwater aquarium and expect it to survive, we can’t let our lakes become saltwater systems and expect our freshwater wildlife to survive.  
Chloride pollution is a big and preventable problem.

Whose problem is it?
In short, it is my problem. Now read that last sentence out loud.
Everyone, regardless of the size of your house, the proximity to a visible water body, and even regardless of your salt use (or lack thereof) can play a role. Every last bit adds up quickly and the more you and your neighbor know, the better.

While it may be easy to point fingers at retailers and city road crews, know that many of them are already working to reduce their salt use. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has helped bring this issue to the forefront and cities and retailers are starting to step up. The MPCA even offers a certification for snow and ice removal contractors who have had formal training on how and when to use chloride products effectively while reducing their impact on the water (and saving tons of money at the same time).
What can we do?

If this is the first time you’re reading about this issue, thank you for getting this far. You’re now in the running towards becoming the next top model (citizen). Here are a few easy things you can do with the most recent snowfall:
  1. Shovel often, shovel early. Removing the snow from walking surfaces before the snow gets compacted means you may not even need to add deicers.
  2. Know your salt. If the air temperature drops below 15 degrees, most deicers don’t work. Read the label; know what’s in the bag and when you’re wasting your time and (natural) resources.
  3. As an alternative to salt or if it’s too cold for typical deicers to work, consider traction grit.
  4. Do not give your sidewalks high blood pressure by over salting their diet. More salt does not mean more melting. The MPCA recommends using less than 4 pounds of salt per 1,000 square feet. Think of it this way: one heaping 12-ounce coffee mug is about one pound. That should be enough for 1.5 to 2 parking spaces. Salt crystals should be separate from each other and not be piled up. Use a hand-held spreader in wide areas for consistency.
  5. If the temps are right and an ice or sleet storm is imminent in the forecast, put a little salt down first. This will help break up the ice from the bottom up which is far more effective.
  6. Sweep it up. Whether you used sand or salt to get through the most recent storm, when the pavement is dry, get a broom and dustpan out. You can either reuse the salt in an icy area or save it in a 5-gallon bucket for the next storm.
  7. If you hire a contractor for your home or office snow and ice removal, consider looking at the MPCA’s certified contractors list or ask your current contractor to get certified. Not only will this help your own site minimize its impact, it will send the message to contractors that this is an important issue to their customers.

These easy actions are just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to know more about chloride pollution, which lakes are impaired, how to get certified, or what more you can do, visit the
MPCA’s webpage about road salt and water quality. It is a very user-friendly resource for details on all of these things and much more. Use their interactive map of impaired waters in the ‘TCMA Chloride Project’ tab halfway down the page to see what the waters look like in your city.  Another great source for more information is this Youtube video: Improved Winter Maintenance: Good Choices for Clean Water 

Little H. says "Use a broom for light dustings of
snow, or to sweep up unused salt and sand." 

Clearly knowing the problem of salt pollution isn’t enough. Action is needed. Knowledge is power (according to GI Joe) and with power comes increased responsibility (according to Spider Man). Using the advice of these animated heroes, I’m ready to take over the reins….or the salt bag, as it were, and be a better Minnesotan who can balance being a clean water hero and courteous neighbor to the best of my ability.

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