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A Little Less Road Salt, Please

April 26, 2011 By Agata Miszczyk, Guest Commentary

This is the seventh of an eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.

When meteorologists forecast flurries, even at this stage of spring, Minnesota drivers worry about road conditions. Luckily, April snow doesn’t need much, if any, salt.

During winter, snowplows distribute huge amounts of sodium chloride (salt) throughout the cities. According to the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, on average, the Twin Cities metro area uses 236,800 tons of salt each winter. That’s enough salt to fill the Metrodome three times!

By now, you might have gotten a look at what winter did to the bottom of your car. If salt lodged between parts eats away at the metal, imagine what it’s doing to our roads, pavements, lawns and waterways. There are serious environmental consequences from the amount of salt we use.

University of Minnesota studies have found that 70 percent of salt applied to Twin Cities’ roads winds up within our watersheds, impacting vegetation and animal life.

High levels of salinity in the ground or water can cause plants to lose nutrients, and eventually die. Salt can also affect oxygen levels in lakes and rivers, harming wildlife. It can cause unnatural and undesirable algae growths. Lastly, salt also makes the soil more prone to erosion because it kills vegetation that keeps soil compact and changes soil structure.

Isn’t salt necessary for road safety? Yes, but we need to minimize salt usage to only areas where it is absolutely necessary. Cities such as Cottage Grove have retrofitted their snowplow fleets with new GPS and infrared systems that measure roadway temperatures, only depositing salt where necessary. This new system has brought a significant reduction in salt use, said Jennifer Levitt, a Cottage Grove city engineer, according to a recent Star Tribune article.

This means no more piles of salt every 20 feet and no more patchy roads. The surface is uniform and, therefore, easier to drive on. While it’s easy to hope that other Minnesota cities pursue similar programs, it might not be realistic in today’s economic climate, despite the potential long-term environmental and financial savings.

As citizens, we must work to lower salt usage on our own sidewalks and driveways. Consider whether or not every inch of pavement needs to be ice or snow free. Use salt alternatives such as sand, sawdust, or kitty litter, when possible. Sometimes just providing enough traction for vehicles or walking is sufficient.

While alternatives are not without their flaws, they are still much better environmentally than salt. These can make your driveway or sidewalk just as accessible.

If for safety or personal reasons, people must have clear driveways and sidewalks, there are eco-friendly options. Look for ice melt labeled pet-friendly or products with ingredients that contain less sodium chloride and calcium. Environmentally safer products typically contain a large percentage of magnesium chloride hexahydrate or Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA), which manufacturers list first or specify as the active ingredient on eco-friendly products.

Compared to the large salt trucks, it’s hard to imagine that as an individual you’d have much of an impact. But consider how many people live in Minnesota and neighboring wicked weather states and you start to get an idea that collective action results in large outcomes.

As constituents, you can encourage responsible road maintenance policies, such as the one in Cottage Grove. In the meantime, just using safe alternatives on your own property will give you peace of mind when next year’s runoff is a little less salty because of you.

Agata Miszczyk is a Macalester College student.

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