As snow piles up in the winter, we oftentimes turn to salt to melt snow and ice. Salt, however, causes adverse environmental impacts, especially on our streams and rivers. Excess salt can saturate and destroy a soil’s natural structure and result in more erosion to our waterways. High concentrations of salt can damage and kill vegetation. Salt poses the greatest danger to fresh water ecosystems and fish. Studies in New York have shown that as salt concentrations increase in a stream, biodiversity decreases. Excess salt can seep into groundwater and stormwater runoff. Effective ice control can help prevent excess salt runoff to our waterways.
De-icing in the Winter
There are many alternatives to salt including potassium chloride, calcium chloride and magnesium chloride corn processing byproducts and calcium magnesium acetate (CMA). Most can be found in your local hardware stores under various trade names, so check the labels for chemical content. While these alternatives can be spread in a dry form or sprayed as a liquid, their best use occurs when they are used with salt. They tend to increase the efficiency of salt thereby reducing the amount that needs to be applied. When over-applied, all chloride compounds can be harmful to the environment. Non-chloride corn byproducts recycled from mills and breweries have been shown to be effective de-icers as well. While they are often advertised as organic or natural, they can have extremely high phosphorous content, a major water pollutant. Numerous studies have shown calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) to be the most environmentally benign de-icer. Many northern states use CMA on roads in sensitive areas (wetlands, endangered species’ habitat, drinking water supply, etc.). A couple of disadvantages with CMA however, is that it does not work well below 25° Fahrenheit and it is the most expensive de-icer. Because all de-icers can be harmful to the environment when applied in excess, the best strategy is to reduce the use of these chemicals as much as possible.
- The first line of defense should simply be to shovel sidewalks and pathways to keep them clear and to prevent ice from forming. Also, consider that salt and de-icers are not effective when more than 3 inches of snow have accumulated.
- Consider the temperature. Salt and calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) have a much slower effect on melting snow and ice at temperatures below 25° Fahrenheit.
- Track winter weather and only use salt and de-icers when a storm is about to come through. If a winter storm does not occur, sweep up any unused material, store and reuse for the next big storm.
- Apply de-icing products discriminately, focusing on high-use areas and slopes where traction is critical. Apply the least amount necessary to get the job done. This will save money in product costs and will also help minimize property damage to paved surfaces, vehicles and vegetation.
- Reduce salt and other chemicals by adding sand for traction.
- Become familiar with various de-icing products and wetting agents such as magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, which can improve the effectiveness of salt and reduce the amount needed.
- If you observe ongoing issues of ineffective ice management or examples of poor application, such as excess piles of road salt left to disperse, share your concerns with the property manager of your residence or business.
- Plant native vegetation that is salt tolerant in stormwater drainage swales and ponds that may receive salt-laden runoff. Not only will these native species have a greater chance for survival, but they will continue to act as an effective buffer for our local waterways.
- Store salt and other products on an impervious (impenetrable) surface, such as a basement floor, to prevent ground contamination. Also store products in a dry, covered area to prevent stormwater runoff.