Yesterday, I scraped my car windows so I could see. But I wasn’t taking off ice, I was taking off salt.
New York is one of the nation’s heaviest users of road salt. In the winter of 2013-14, the state used more than 2.1 billion pounds of road salt, in addition to more than 260 million pounds and more than 1 million gallons of other deicers.
The rationale for this heavy use is safety first, which seems perfectly reasonable. But is it the only way, given that road salt is increasingly being recognized as a serious problem? Researchers in Long Island, for example, are seeing dramatic spikes in salt levels in drinking water wells following winter storms. The problem has become so serious in Suffolk County that the water authority periodically has to dilute drinking water from some wells in order to meet federal safety standards. The Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies reported seeing similar road salt intrusion into wells in the Hudson Valley.
Daniel Kelting at Paul Smith's College has observed rising salinities in Adirondack lakes, especially near state roads. Plants and animals growing along the Atlantic coast have adapted to brackish waters – salt marshes are the best example – and there are even a few inland salt marshes near natural salt deposits in central New York. But elsewhere in the state, rising salt levels can harm native fish and plants, and may make ecosystems more vulnerable to invasion by non-native species.
Fortunately, there are steps that road managers can take to keep our roads safe while keeping our drinking water and waterways clean. And many are, such as the highway department in my town of Bethlehem, NY which pre-wets salt (which keeps it on the road better) and tailors their road management to the specific conditions of each storm.
As state, county, and town highway departments look at ways to better manage roads for safety, cost savings, and public health and environmental protection, here are two key things they should keep in mind:
1. More salt is not necessarily better. There are a variety of tools that highway departments can use to keep roads clear while using less salt. For example, the Cary Institute reports that steps as simple as not overfilling trucks and calibrating equipment tend to decrease the amount of salt applied.
2. When considering alternatives to salt, rule out oil and gas wastewater. Flowback water from fracking and shallow oil/gas wells is often an extremely salty brine, and some highway departments are using it to deice roads (though fracking wastewater may not be spread on roads in New York). This brine may be laced with a variety of toxins including heavy metals, so until safety tests are improved, it would be best to avoid these risks altogether.
Salt is a key element of road maintenance and I don’t expect to have a salt-free car anytime soon. But with good management, we can keep road salt out of our drinking water, ponds, and streams – and have safe roads to travel.