Snow, Salt and Safety

     The first snow has come. That means snow days, hot cocoa and hunkering down. It also means road salt — and lots of it. 

     Before the storms, the State Highway Administration preps the roads with salt brine.

     “As for how much salt we’ll use this year, we have no idea,” Charlie Gischlar said. “That’s up to Mother Nature.”

     Road salt keeps drivers safe but threatens our water with sodium and chloride. Dissolved road salt runs off into surrounding streams and leeches into groundwater.

     When sodium dissolves it can corrode water pipes, leaving water contaminated by metals like lead and copper. Water treatment plants don’t filter excess sodium; so if you’ve got high blood pressure, you may need to check your tap water after snowy and icy weather. 

     The risks of excess chloride are steeper. Chloride accumulates in the watershed, damaging vegetation, soils and threatening entire ecosystems. 

      Seventy percent of all salt put on roads remains in the watershed, according to Maryland Department of the Environment. It can take decades before it’s flushed out.

     As far as salt alternatives go, there aren’t many. Some jurisdictions use kitty litter, some use sand. Maryland and Virginia are trying to just cut back the amount of salt that’s laid down. Gischlar’s department uses salt reduction strategies like pre-wetting the salt for better adherence, or planning ahead for winter weather.

     To identify dangerous spots after salting, the Izaak Walton League created Winter Salt Watch.

      “Last year, one of our interns noticed our chloride levels were off the charts,” said Danielle Donkersloot, clean water program director with the 96-year-old organization dedicated to the preservation of outdoor spaces. 

     “Every American has the right to clean water,” Donkersloot added. “Monitoring local streams is critical to finding — and fixing — water quality problems.    

     To that end, volunteers are using chloride testing kits. Order yours free: