“Could we install solar roadways?” “No, too expensive.”
“What about using reindeer and sleighs to get around in the winter?” “They poop a lot, you know.”
“Maybe we should all just stay home for six months when it snows.” “Is that called being hygge?”
It’s Monday morning and I’m talking with staff from City of Stillwater, Brown’s Creek Watershed District, and Washington Conservation District, puzzling on strategies to protect our local lakes and streams from salt pollution. Salt, also known as chloride, is a growing problem across Minnesota and especially in urban areas where there are dense concentrations of parking lots, roads, and sidewalks. For millennia, people have invented a wide variety of contraptions to get around in the winter – from skis to snowshoes, sleighs, and skates. Today, however, it’s standard practice to spread salt and sand on roads and sidewalks to ensure that folks can keep walking and driving throughout the winter.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) added Long Lake in Stillwater to the list of lakes and streams impaired by chloride, bringing the statewide total to 54 (see map). Other local water bodies already listed as impaired by chloride include Tanners Lake in Oakdale, Battle Creek and Carver Lakes in Woodbury, Kohlman Lake in Maplewood, Battle Creek, and Judicial Ditch 2 in Forest Lake. Chloride is toxic to fish and aquatic animals and can prevent lakes from turning over in the spring and fall.
We’re also seeing rising concentrations of chloride in our groundwater. Nearly 40% of shallow aquifer monitoring wells in the Twin Cities area have chloride concentrations that exceed the water quality standard, and 27% have chloride concentrations higher than drinking water guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency offers SMART Salt certification trainings to help plow drivers, contractors, and property managers reduce their winter salt use and save money, without compromising public safety. “We’ve reduced our winter salt use from 1200 pounds per year to 800,” says Shawn Sanders, Stillwater’s Public Works Director. Similarly, Mayo Clinic has reduced its winter salt use by 60% without any increase in slips and falls, using strategies outlined in the certification course.
Despite the success of Minnesota’s SMART Salt certification program, most experts agree that we’ll need to enact bigger changes to avoid permanently damaging our freshwater resources. Communities across the northern United States and Canada are experimenting with other salt-reduction strategies, including requiring chains or studded tires in the winter, installing heated sidewalks in downtown areas, and using beet juice in combination with sodium chloride to reduce the total amount of salt needed to clear ice from roads.
This brings us to my preferred strategy for protecting lakes and rivers in the winter – government issued reindeer and sleighs to replace cars in every household. If that sounds impractical, I’ll gladly consider a six month hygge holiday instead. Hygge is a word in Danish and Norwegian that describes a mood of coziness and “comfortable conviviality” with feelings of wellness and contentment. Most often, you experience hygge with a small group of friends or family, possibly in front of a fireplace with warm wooly socks and a steaming drink in hand, but definitely not behind the wheel of a car, careening through rush hour traffic in the middle of an ice storm.
Here are four ways you can help to protect lakes, streams, and fish from salt pollution this winter:
- Drive slower and wear appropriate shoes when it is snowy and icy outside. This helps to support plow drivers and property managers in their efforts to reduce salt use. You can also use ice cleats or nano-spikes to avoid slipping when walking in town (slip them on over your boots).
- Use less salt on your driveway and sidewalk. 12oz of salt (one heaping coffee mug) is enough to clear a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares (250 sq. ft.). Always shovel before using salt.
- Skip the salt when it is colder than 15°. Salt works by lowering the melting temperature of ice so that it melts when the temperature is below freezing (32°F). However, traditional road salt (sodium chloride) doesn’t work when it’s colder than 15°F, so it is a waste of time and money to put down salt on very cold days. When it’s very cold, you can use sand or kitty litter for traction.
- Sweep up and reuse left-over salt after the ice melts.
- Sign-up for a free SMART Salt certification workshop if you’re a winter maintenance professional. Workshops are scheduled for Dec. 13, Jan. 18 and Jan. 25 at pca.state.mn.us/roadsalt.