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Impacts of Road Salt

As we approach the cold, beautiful winter here in Western New York, I was taken aback as a transplant to the area to find out that salt was still being used on our roads, especially since there is such an abundance of freshwater lakes, streams, and tributaries that play a crucial role in our local economy and overall health of our region. I am no scientist, but I do understand the simplicity of how salt negatively affects our water.


In the off chance you don’t know how salt affects our environment, lean in and buckle up! In the U.S., road salting became a standard practice in the 1940s. We’ve been dramatically increasing the amount of salt used per mile since the 1970s, even in places where we don’t have any substantial increases in the number of road miles. Road salt, which is used to melt ice and snow on roadways, has a negative impact on the environment because it runs off into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams, and filters into our groundwater. Salt pollution accumulates into groundwater and surface waters, where it can persist for decades. Salty water interacts with soils, rocks, and pipes, aiding contaminants and degrading freshwater. When we layer this salt on our roads, driveways, and parking lots in the winter to give us traction for our cars and shoes, much of it also ends up in our waterways. In short, salt on our pavement dissolves into snow melt and stormwater runoff, and the salty runoff eventually flows into storm drains that empty into rivers and streams without being treated. As a result, our freshwater streams are growing increasingly salty each year. 


Salt applications for de-icing are a major source of chloride to groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes and ultimately end up in our drinking water. Have you ever wondered if there is a direct link between liberally salting our roadways and driveways and having overly chlorinated drinking water? And what about algae blooms in our lakes? “Chloride salts don’t break down, and they’re not used anywhere in the biological process from the point they’re applied. And they are water soluble, so ninety-five percent of all chloride salts used either by the residential users or the homeowner ends up in the waterways. And it accumulates because it doesn’t break down,” explains Mitch Vestal, President of Advanced Organics LLC. Since they don’t break down, they end up collecting at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water where they affect many of the organisms that live in those waterways. 


Vestal also says that “they end up getting smaller, and they can’t consume as much of what we need them to consume. So that’s why we end up with algae blooms and why that problem gets worse as chloride salt accumulations grow.” Algae blooms affect the whole ecosystem of a lake. So, applying salt can also affect our economy via tourism and property values. Even non-toxic algae can make water cloudy or murky, which is bad aesthetically for Chautauqua Lake and other area lakes.


Per Rick Relyea, a professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studied how road salt runoff impacts lakes as part of the Jefferson Project at Lake George, NY, “having more algae and less clarity in the water makes the value of those lakes go down to people. It’s not just a biological problem. It’s an aesthetic problem, a tourism problem, an economic problem; it’s all these things.”  


Using less salt is the answer in many cases, and educating people to pour less of it on their driveways and sidewalks could help mitigate these problems a ton. What do you think we should use instead of salt? I have heard of many other options, such as beet juice, kitty litter, and sand. Let’s all think about what we can do to change this antiquated habit when we have the opportunity. What kind of decisions would you make for our lakes and waterways? Let’s all come up with a better solution to help our region thrive.  

Article by Bethany O'Hagan, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Land Specialist

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