Road Salt Melts Snow, But Wreaks Havoc on Groundwater

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road salt melts snow

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Every winter, the United States dumps more than 20 million tons of salt on roads. That is about 13 times more salt that is used by the entire food processing agency.

Salt lowers the freezing temperature of water and thus melts street clogging snow and ice.

From the Washington Post:

The biggest concern with road salt is how it affects water quality. The stuff just doesn’t disappear when the snow and ice melts, it washes away into lakes and streams or seeps into groundwater supplies.

Researchers in Minnesota recently found, in the Twin Cities, 70% of the salt applied to roads stays within the region’s watershed.

Once it gets there, the contamination is difficult and expensive to remove.


If the groundwater is too salty, this can affect the local wells. It not only becomes a health problem for those on strict sodium diets, but can also become a big problem for everyone who has to drink it!

That nasty, salty flavor ruins its refreshing quality that most people enjoy in their drinking water!

Salty groundwater can make for salty drinking wells

This can cause people to buy bottled water for regular drinking instead of benefiting from their naturally occurring water source. Those days when no one wants to make a glass of ice cold well water could soon become more and more common.

When salt migrates into lakes and streams, it can also harm aquatic plants and animals

When salt dissolves, it releases a large quantity of sodium and chloride ions into the water. This sudden presence of these ionic compounds interferes with the natural equilibrium of freshwater ecosystems.

These marine organisms rely on sophisticated mechanisms to regulate the transfer of material in and out of their bodies. However, the dense concentration of sodium and chloride ions can throw this highly evolved system into disarray

Changes in the salinity of a pond or lake can also affect the way the water mixes as the season change. Salinity, or the concentration of salt in a body of water, experiences fluctuation depending on the season. These changes have the potential to have further far-reaching impacts.

As soon as salinity begins to shift, so too does the circulation pattern of deeper waters. Prevailing winds, temperature and water density can influence this pattern; bringing together and separating freshwater from deep oceanic water.

This can cause pockets with dangerously high salt concentrations to form near the bottom of a pond or lake as well connections which act like underground rivers.

Though these effects mainly remain unseen, they can lead to habitat dead zones with much lower levels of oxygen due to poor water mixing rates.

It is invaluable for maintenance crews and caretakers to monitor salinity levels closely throughout various times of year.

Reducing Salt Usage

road salt on snow-covered road

As researchers continue to look for substitutes, there are plenty of ways road crews can cut back on their salt usage.

Pre-Wetting Salt

Pre-wetting salt before application can be beneficial for many reasons. Not only does it facilitate its even distrbution and higher chances of sticking to surfaces, its controlled application can make the process smoother with enhanced coverage.

Studies indicate that pre-wetting upon use of salt offers improved adhesion for better performance and outcome. Additionally, salt that has been moistened beforehand is often considered easier to spread evenly across its desired areas, which can save time and energy when tackling home improvement or maintenance tasks.

Weather Monitoring

Weather monitoring is key for efficient snow removal. Knowing the forecast gives you a chance to act ahead of time so that bodies responsible for salting roads, pathways, and non-evened surfaces can prepare in advance.

Acting on a potential storm before it hits by applying salt can help stop snow from sticking to the ground and make further clearing easier after the storm is over. Over time, this technique usually proves more efficient than waiting until after the snow has already covered these surfaces to begin preparing or removing it.

What You Can Do

While municipal road salting is the largest contributor to increased water salinity, you can do your part by not using traditional salt on your own property.

There are many nature-friendly salt alternatives available, and they can help reduce the amount of salt that is washing into your local waterways around your home. 

  • Mark Spowart

    A writer and photographer, Spowart has publication credits in Canada, United States, Europe and Norway with such publications as The Globe & Mail, The National Post, Sun Media, Canwest News, and Canada News Wire.

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