snowy driveway near conifers

Don’t Let Winter Make You Salty!

We are in the dead of winter now which means things are feeling pretty icy. Did you know that New Hampshire was the first state in the US to apply salt to the road to improve road safety? Now to combat the slickness of our roads and walkways New Hampshire applies 400,000 tons of salt a year, while the entirety of the US applies 20 million tons of salt annually! For all the safety benefits of salting our roads in recent years, there has been growing concern about the effect that the chlorides are having on the surrounding environments. In recent years, studies have shown a correlation between the amount of salts being used on roadways due to colder temperatures, and the increased salinity of our waterways. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services recognizes 50 NH water bodies as “chloride-impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act.

While it may seem minimal when we are talking about salt in fresh water by parts per million, the fact is that any level of salt that is introduced, that would not be there naturally can have devastating affects on water quality. Once salt gets into a fresh water ecosystem it can not be removed. To better protect freshwater ecosystems including rivers, brooks, lakes, and ponds we need to evaluate impact salts are having and what we can do to reduce the negative effects of our safety measures.

5 Things You Can Do Now

Now that you know salt is a problem and it’s finding it’s way into our freshwater ecosystems, here are some things you can do to reduce your salt impact.

bulk of rock salt

1: Ask your snow removal service if they are Green SnowPro Certified

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) offers a Green SnowPro Certification. Participants in this course learn the science behind salt application and the latest standards in salt application rates to preserve road safety and protect water quality. As a Green Pro Certified provider all salt used is reported back to the state, helping DES accurately track the amount of salt getting applied to New Hampshire roads each year.

2: Prevent Ice Buildup

Preventing ice is the best way to not have to use salts to remove it. After each storm always use a shovel and brush to clear snow away from areas that will warm up in the sunshine and then turn to ice as the temperatures drop again.

3: Proper Foot Wear and Avoid Travel When Conditions are Icy

As New Englanders, we know that snow and ice is part of winter. Protect yourself by gearing up. Having the proper footwear and adding extra traction (rubber & spring addons to micro spikes) to your shoes can make mildly to extremely icy conditions far safer. Plan accordingly and don’t drive during storms. By avoiding roadways when conditions are the worst, you allow for road crews to have more time to manage the snow and ice properly without over salting.

4: Salt Alternatives

Sand: Sand works by adding traction to slippery surfaces and increasing solar gain causing ice to melt. *Be sure to clean up sand in the spring so the sand and the nutrients attached to the sand don’t make their way into storm drains and waterways.
Soot: Wood Soot, Coal, and Ash, all work similarly to sand increasing traction and solar gain, but are only helpful for people who heat with wood.
Saw Dust: Saw dust and wood pulp increase traction and are suitable for small areas around a home.
Organic Alternatives: Many municipalities and contractors are looking to these measures to ensure road safety while lessening environmental impact. Brine (cheese or pickle), beet Molasses, garlic salt, and potato juice. *Research is being done on these alternate road treatments. Some of these also have negative impacts for wildlife and ecosystems.

5: Reduce Salt Use and Salt Clean Up

Using salt in some areas may be unavoidable. When this is the case simply use less and allow longer periods for it to take effect. Once the salt has done it’s job, sweep up the salt crystals either for proper disposal or reuse, so that they can’t dissolve into the ground water.

Examples of Direct Impact and Environmental Impact

Increased levels of chlorides in fresh water ecosystems negatively effects both the flora and fauna even when the levels are low. High levels can inhibit some species food sources, reproduction, and growth.

Salts and chlorides are highly water soluble and due to the makeup of our lakes and streams contamination in one area can directly impact a much larger area.

Plants can be damaged by salts. Salt can cause dehydration in plants by affecting a plant’s osmosis.

Road salts are not the same as table salts, and are not safe for consumption. Drinking water that is contaminated with higher level of chlorides can be especially dangerous for people on “no or low salt diets” for medical reasons.

Road salt can also be hard on our four-legged friends, as repeated exposure can cause inflammation, soreness, and redness that leads to dried out and cracked paws. Be sure to wipe your pets feet after exposure to road salt so that they don’t lick it off themselves, as the salts can cause greater harm if ingested.

We also know that our vehicles can undergo extreme damage from salt corrosion, affecting the undercarriage by increasing the rate of rust. Over salting can also compromise the metal components of bridges and culverts.

Further Resources:

Salt Reduction Information from the University of New Hampshire

Salt Responsibly Campaign from Green Mountain Conservation Group

Green SnowPro Certification Information from New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

Road salt pollution in many US lakes could stabilize at or below thresholds set by the EPA

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