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Road Salt Impacting our Waterways - What You Can Do To Help

As the 2015 Year of Clean Water kicks off and the February arctic blast continues to wreak havoc on our lives – it’s important to think beyond our own homes, driveways, sidewalks, and side streets to our creeks and streams and the aquatic life below. While nutrients like phosphorous have taken the headlines most recently with Toledo’s drinking water crisis this past summer, road salt impacts our creeks and Lake Erie in equally damaging ways.

Road salt (sodium chloride) is a chemical most commonly used to remove ice from roads, parking lots and sidewalks - just one teaspoon can permanently pollute five gallons of water. Contaminants from road salt enter our creeks by infiltrating to groundwater and by surface runoff. As snow and ice melt, they are carried into storm drains and sent untreated to our waterways.

Here are some impacts road salt can have on our environment:

  • At high concentrations, chloride is toxic to fish and insects.
  • At lower levels, chloride can negatively affect the fish and insect populations by reducing reproduction and survival rates of young.
  • Direct road salt splash can kill plants and grass.
  • Sodium in road salt can destroy soil stability, decreasing the ability of the soil to filter water, and increasing soil erosion.

How do we know Road Salt is impacting our local streams?
As part of the Euclid Creek Volunteer Monitoring program, volunteers monitor five sites monthly to record changes in the waterways over time and to identify contaminants and problems in the watershed. Volunteers have been collecting this important data for nine years, and the data is showing some important trends. The way we measure the impact of road salt on our streams is by measuring conductivity. Conductivity is the concentration of certain dissolved solids in water and is measured using a conductivity meter. Polluted storm water runoff containing road salts and particular types of fertilizers as well as illegal discharges can increase the amount of dissolved solids that are detected by the meter and subsequently reported as the water’s conductivity.

Given the seasonal nature of road salting, stream conductivity varies widely in the watershed throughout the year, increasing greatly in the winter months to levels that challenge the health of aquatic life. The graph above highlights the seasonal trend seen at the Wildwood Park monitoring location in Euclid Creek, but similar trends are seen at all sites. These variations are directly attributable to road salt applications throughout the winter months.

What can you do to help? Here are some tips for using road salt wisely:

  • Shovel (and use the right tool for the job). The more snow and ice you remove manually, the less salt you will have to use and the more effective it will be when you do use it.
  • 15˚F is too cold for salt. Most salts stop working at this temperature. Use sand instead for traction, but remember that sand does not melt ice.
  • For best results, apply salt to cleared surfaces. The salt crystals should not overlap but be spread out a few inches apart.
  • More salt does not mean more melting. Use less than 4 pounds of salt per 1,000 square feet (an average parking spot is about 150 square feet). One pound of salt is approximately a heaping 12-ounce coffee mug.
  • Sweep up extra. If salt or sand is visible on dry pavement it is no longer doing any work and will be washed away into your local streams through a storm drain or ditch system.
  • Even if the de-icer says it’s safe for pets - look at the ingredients! Calcium and magnesium chloride can burn their paws. Use a product with glycol or just use sand. And when you take your animals on a walk, cover their feet and/or wash them off after a walk. (And remember to pick up their poop!)

Many municipalities throughout the Euclid Creek Watershed have adopted sensible salting practices to save money and reduce salt loading in the creek without compromising public safety. Encourage your community to pass a sensible salting resolution and hopefully, with reduced salt use over time, these seasonal fluctuations will become less drastic and conductivity will become less of a water quality issue. Here is a resolution City of Euclid passed in 2008 supporting Sensible Salting.

Caring about the quality of our water is important to human and ecological health—and we depend upon water to live.

Thank you to all of the Euclid Creek Volunteer Monitors for your great stewardship in the Creek. If you want to learn more about the monitoring program, or to schedule a training, contact the Euclid Creek Watershed Coordinator at 216-524-6580x16 or cposius@cuyahogaswcd.org.

For more water quality information, click here.
Sensible salting information above is provided by the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.

* As an addition to this article - Richmond Heights just announced that as of March 3rd, 2015, the City had spread more than 4.4 MILLION POUNDS of salt on area roadways.... That's a lot of salt making your roads safer, but also impacting Euclid Creek. I can't imagine how much more salt would have been applied had the City not passed a Sensible Salt Ordinance in 2009!

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