Viewpoint: Keeping the salt out of surface, drinking waterWhen it comes to winter weather, it seems that there are two kinds of Minnesotans.
By: Angie Hong, South Washington County Bulletin
When it comes to winter weather, it seems that there are two kinds of Minnesotans. The first curses the snow as it billows in, cranks up the thermostat to combat the frigid air and buys plane tickets for a tropical destination. The second group of Minnesotans secretly relishes the adventure of winter. With the snow comes the opportunity for sledding, skiing and snowmobiling. Sub-zero temperatures also mean the lakes will be amply covered in ice for skating and ice fishing.
Not sure yet whether you love or hate winter? Don’t worry; you’ll have plenty of time to make up your mind. Winter in Minnesota lasts a long, long time. In fact, it may seem odd to talk about water quality at this time of year, when our lakes are buried under a layer of ice, our swimsuits are wadded up at the bottom of a dresser drawer, and the spring fishing opener is still months away. However, even in the winter, there are things we can do to ensure that our lakes and rivers will be fishable and swimable come summer.
Road salt poses one of the largest threats to water quality during the winter. Salt splashed from the road kills nearby vegetation and can leave a border of dead and dying trees and shrubs along major roadways. Excess sodium from the most commonly used road salt, sodium chloride, destroys soil structure, which reduces its ability to retain water and increases the amount of erosion. Both sodium and chloride can also leach into subsurface groundwater supplies, impacting the water we drink. One teaspoon of salt is enough to contaminate 5 gallons of freshwater, making it deadly for many species of fish, including walleye.
Municipalities are faced with a major challenge during the winter months. As much as they would like to limit the use of salt to protect water resources, they also have a responsibility to keep the roads safe for travel. In response to this dilemma, two local programs have been developed during recent years to train snowplow and salt truck drivers on how to best apply salt and other de-icers during the winter. The goal of the training programs, led by Fortin Consulting and the University of Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), is to move municipalities and private companies toward a more scientific approach to winter street care. In lieu of dumping large quantities of salt onto parking lots and streets, much of which goes to waste, drivers are trained to pre-treat roads when storms are forecasted, precisely measure the rate of salt and chemical application, and target salt to the areas that need it the most — intersections, hills and curves.
At your home, you can help the effort by limiting the amount of salt and de-icers you use on your driveways and sidewalks. As a rule of thumb, if there is a layer of salt remaining on your driveway after the ice melts, you used too much salt. If you do have excess sand or salt, sweep it up and throw it away so that it is not washed into the storm sewer or a nearby lake.
Whether you spend your winters on top of the ski hills or under the covers, we can all make smart decisions to protect the quality of the natural resources we enjoy throughout the year.
Angie Hong is an educator with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program. She can be reached at (651) 275-1136 x. 35.