The Trouble with Winter Road Salt

Salt and Lake George Water Quality

The Problem

As most people know, road salt is applied to road surfaces in the winter to disrupt the freezing cycle, allowing plows to remove ice and snow before it solidifies on the roadway. The application of the substances in the winter allow road crews from Departments of Public Works to make the roads safer for winter driving.

Road salt replaced sand, which was in earlier times used to add grit to the snow and ice to improve traction. At the end of each winter season, however, that sand needed to be swept off the roads (and picked up, if possible) so it didn't wash into streams and create problems for the clarity and quality of Lake George water.

Because salt can't be collected and kept out of runoff, it brings with it another set of environmental problems for the Lake George watershed. Salt dissolves into water and ends up in surface water and groundwater, impacting aquatic ecosystems and drinking water supplies. Salt also impacts roadside vegetation and causes corrosion of vehicles and infrastructure.

Chloride levels

Chloride and sodium levels have steadily increased since 1980, according to data collected by Darrin Fresh Water institute scientists.

Water quality impacts from road salt in the winter have unfortunately been a problem for a while.

Even back in 1987, The New York Times published a piece titled “A Salt Substitute for America’s Roads.” The article reviewed the environmental and economic impacts of salt use and work to find suitable alternative products, concluding: “Salt, an increasingly anachronistic element of 20th-century travel, deserves a 21st-century replacement.”

The world has not yet developed a replacement.

Road salt is most commonly made up of sodium and chloride (NaCl). There are some alternative products available that use calcium, magnesium, or potassium as the positive ion instead of sodium, but they all cost more up front. The relatively inexpensive price to purchase bags of salt makes it the go-to tool for many of us. Unfortunately, the low price and abundant use has meant an increase in the amount of sodium chloride in the Lake and in the watershed around the Lake.

Winter road salt maintenance

 LGA Project Manager Randy Rath, right, discusses how the Town of Lake George is going to use sophisticated salt-spreading equipment with Town Highway Superintendent Dan Davis. The Lake George Association purchased the equipment for the Town of Lake George in order to test its use reducing salt application in the Lake George watershed.

Working Towards a Solution

Besides researching alternative products, we worked with a number of organizations (even holding a lakewide salt reduction meeting in April 2013) to develop a list of Best Management Practices that we are implementing and encouraging to be implemented so that communities (and homeowners!) can reduce salt use. Anti-icing practices, using brine where practical, the use of calibrated spreaders on the back of DPW trucks, wider use of road temperature sensors (to help properly apply the salt) and other practices can all reduce the amount of chemicals being used and still have the roads safe for driving.

Homeowner and Business Best Management Practices

The LGA works with a coalition of organizations to develop the Best Management Practices, including a number of model "Snow and Ice Control Manuals" for the watershed towns to offer guidance for keeping their roads passable while monitoring and measuring the amount of salt or other de-icing material it is applying.

  • Shovel early and often: It stands to reason that when you remove snow and ice by shoveling, you’ll need less salt and the de-icing material will be more effective. Begin your cleanup work as early as you can and keep up with the snowfall (unless freezing rain is forecast to follow the snow) so the sun can get at the pavement/sidewalk and melt it away. You may even decide that salt isn't needed.
  • Use an ice chipper: A specialized ice-chopping tool (not an ice pick) will allow you to work faster and more efficiently removing ice or a hard buildup of snow than a standard snow shovel.
  • Apply only what’s needed: Sprinkle de-icing material on icy areas only, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for working temperatures and application rates. Winter salt is most effective between 32 degrees F and 10 degrees F. If the temperature is above or below that, you can consider alternatives such as using a small amount of sand for traction, or chopping and removing the built up snow/ice with an ice chipper or shovel.
  • Apply protectively: Keep salt application away from any storm drain, or where melted runoff can mix with salt and then flow into a storm drain. In many communities, storm drains lead directly into the Lake.
  • Reposition downspouts: Make sure downspouts are pointed away from paved (or other hardened) areas so that water isn’t draining onto your walkways or driveways where it can refreeze.
  • Reposition snow piles: Shovel unsalted snow to lower areas of your property or onto lawns to direct melting snow away from paved areas.
  • Do your homework: Research de-icing materials before you purchase them to determine which is best for your specific property and need. Not all products have the same ingredients. Consider purchasing a de-icier that is chloride free.

Learn More About Road Salt and Water Quality