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Columbia County Environmental Management Council: Road salt

November 4, 2019 11:47 am

Winter is coming. And that means the task of salting icy roads can’t be far behind.

Even as you read this the road salt spread not just last winter but in winters before is percolating into ponds, wetlands, streams, lakes, and farm and household wells. It is referred to as a legacy effect of salt in the environment, meaning that concentrations in surface and ground water will increase, perhaps for decades, even if we were to stop using road salt today.

Road salt is halite, the non-purified form of table salt (NaCl). It has been used in the United States to de-ice roads since 1937. Road salt works by lowering the freezing point of water because of the added particles (solute) in the water. For road salt to work some water has to be available. Over 22 million tons of road salt are used yearly in the U.S.

When salt levels in water reach a certain point the water becomes toxic for living things. Roadside grasses, shrubs and foliage, including emerged and submerged aquatic plants, are stunted or killed. Soil fertility and root growth of roadside farms and gardens are affected.

Increased levels of salt in waterways can change the natural development of living species including insects, amphibians, fish, zooplankton, and others. Salt can leach into groundwater as well, putting drinking water at risk. Salt in drinking water affects humans, causing hypertension and other issues.

It was shown in Dutchess County that salt content in rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, and even household wells near treated roads are higher than in such sources away from roads. It is assumed that Columbia and Greene counties would reveal a similar pattern. If road salt continues to be laid down at the current rate, the water used by plants and animals, including humans, could be compromised. For now we must decrease the amount of road salt currently being spread on our roads.

Alternatives to halite are either not as effective or as inexpensive, so the strategy must be to find ways to use less. Some towns, counties, and the state are looking into ways to do just that.

Using less salt can lessen the impact on water resources and show up as savings in municipal budgets. Some measures toward this end do not require large expenses, beginning with simple awareness of the need to use no more salt than is necessary.

When highway department staff are required to attend regular training, particularly if it entails a salt-efficiency module, they become partners in protecting the water. Recent developments in spreader technology equipped with GPS and temperature sensors that respond to location, air and road temperature, speed, and stops measure the exact amount of salt that is being applied, giving road crews a benchmark.

Trucks do not need to be fully loaded if crews have the knowledge of the amount necessary to complete the run. At its May meeting the board of the town of Livingston voted to purchase two of these state-of-the-art spreaders, and board members will be keeping an eye on water quality and cost savings. This is a very important start and, hopefully, other towns are following suit. There are also developments in plow design that make for a more complete removal of frozen material.

While these technological developments do involve a financial outlay, over time, as has been demonstrated in the town of Lake George, its investment in snow removal technology was covered within five years. As an official at Lake George, said, “Apply salt smarter.”

Anna Kadush is the Town of Taconic representative for the CCEMC and Stan Yarian was the Town of Livingston representative for the CCEMC. The Columbia County Environmental Management Council is an advisory committee to the Columbia County Board of Supervisors pursuant to NYS Environmental Conservation Law 47-0107. Opinions presented herein are not necessarily the opinions or adopted policies of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors unless otherwise indicated.