One night recently, I had an experience that most women will be familiar with – a fashion crisis. I was scheduled to be a panelist at a roundtable discussion the next day and struggling to find an outfit that would be professional, look good, and yet still allow me to wear flat boots that would keep me warm and upright while walking several blocks from my car to the building the next morning. After watching me try on about a dozen different outfits, my husband asked me what I had worn every other time I needed to look professional during the winter. After all, I’ve had this job eight years. Thinking a moment, I responded, “Well, every other time I’ve just worn something that looked good and then slipped around on the ice the whole way to and from the building.”
Now that we are back in the icy grips of winter, it is hard to acknowledge the fact that we must allocate extra time in our already busy lives to get to work on time and to shovel the driveway and sidewalk every time it snows. At the same time, however, we have a growing problem in Twin Cities area lakes, streams and even wells that is almost entirely caused by the 365,000 tons of salt we are putting down on roads, parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks each year. Based on monitoring data, 40 lakes and streams in the Twin Cities metro area are set to be listed as “impaired” due to too much chloride, and an additional 40 lakes and 41 streams are listed as “high risk,” meaning their chloride levels are increasing and just under the threshold for impairment. In these lakes and streams, unhealthy levels of salt have built up over the years until reaching a point at which some species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are no longer able to survive. There are impacts below ground as well; the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) notes that 30% of private wells in the metro area have too high of levels of chloride.
In the east metro, Battle Creek, Judicial Ditch 2 (Sunrise River) in Forest Lake, and an unnamed stream in Oakdale/Woodbury are impaired, as are Battle Creek, Carver, Kohlman and Tanners Lakes. Wakefield Lake in Maplewood and Lake Gervais in Little Canada are on the high risk list.
Part of the problem with salt is that there is no known technology to take it out of lakes, streams and groundwater once it is in there, nor is there any good way to filter the salt out of runoff before it gets into our waterways. The only way to keep this problem from getting worse is to use less salt during the winter.
The Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project, led by the MPCA with involvement from the MN Department of Transportation (DOT), counties, cities, watershed management organizations and other stakeholders, is currently finalizing a plan for how to reduce salt use and protect water resources in the metro area without compromising public safety. Already, the DOT and many municipalities have started reducing salt use on their own by calibrating their equipment and using technology to determine which combinations of pretreatment, salt and other deicers will work best in different scenarios. At the same time, however, they are met with the challenge of protecting people like you and I.
We all know that we should drive slow when the roads are snowy and icy, but when we don’t, the plow drivers feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t get into accidents. Most of us realize we shouldn’t wear dress shoes in the winter, but when we don’t, the contractors clearing the mall and grocery store parking lots feel obliged to put down more salt so that we don’t slip and fall. When we get home at the end of a long day’s work, we know that we should really shovel the driveway before the snow turns to ice, but sometimes it just seems easier to sprinkle a bit of salt down and hope that does the trick. (As an aside, salt doesn’t work when the pavement temperature is less than 15°F anyway.)
This winter, I’m putting out a low-salt, clean water challenge to us all. Let’s build up our arm strength with our shovels, allow a little more time for safe travels, and tuck the fancy shoes (which will just get salt stains on them anyway) away in the closet for a while.
To learn more about the Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Project and get tips for applying salt and other deicers at your home or business, go to www.pca.state.mn.us/roadsalt.