Winter Road Salt and Water Quality

The Problem

Salt is used on roads in the winter to make them safer for winter driving. However, salt can't be collected and kept out of runoff, but rather salt dissolves and ends up in surface and groundwater, impacting aquatic ecosystems and drinking water supplies. Salt also impacts roadside vegetation and causes corrosion of vehicles and infrastructure.

Water quality impacts from road salt in the winter have unfortunately been a problem for a while. Road salt use has climbed steadily since World War II. For decades the balancing of municipal budgets and road safety with the environmental impacts of salt has been a challenge nation-wide. The bottom line is that salt is cheap and effective when it comes to keeping winter roads safe for driving. The New York Times ran a great Opinion piece in November of 1987 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.” We couldn’t agree more.

Both chloride and sodium levels in the Lake have more than doubled over the past 30 years. This graph was part of the presentation given by Larry Eichler from DFWI on the impacts of de-icing salt on the Lake George Watershed at the Municipal De-Icing Best Practices Forum held in April, 2013 in Lake George. Click here to learn more.

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.


Working Towards a Solution

Besides using alternative products, there are a number of Best Management Practices (BMP's) that can reduce salt use. Anti-icing practices, the use of calibrated spreaders and road temperature sensors, and other practices can all reduce the amount of salt that is used in order to keep roads safe for driving.

In April of 2013 the LGA helped organize a Municipal De-Icing Best Practices Forum for highway crews around Lake George. BMP's were reviewed by experts from NYS DOT and the Cornell Local Roads Program. As a follow up to that event, the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board (LCLGRPB) received grant funding from the Lake Champlain Basin Program for pavement temperature sensors for a few of the towns in the Lake George Watershed. The LGA is working with the LCLGRPB on this important initiative.

Click here to download the resulting report, Lake George Winter Road Maintenance Best Practices for Water Quality Protection. This document is a responsiveness summary to the 2013 Municipal Best Practices De-Icing Forum. It provides an update to the status of implementation of best management practices in winter road maintenance to protect the water quality of Lake George. It also provides an overview of the success of recent initiative to address these issues and outline future steps and priorities for moving forward. We are working to establish the relationship between improved efficiency and environmental stewardship.



Homeowner and Business Best Management Practices

  • 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 smartly: 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



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