Wisconsin Salt Awareness Week, observed from January 22-26, 2024, aims to shed light on the often-overlooked consequences of excessive road salt usage in winter. While road salt is crucial for ensuring road safety during icy conditions, its environmental impact on drinking water and freshwater ecosystems cannot be ignored.

As winter approaches, the use of road salt increases to prevent accidents and maintain safe road conditions. However, the runoff from melted snow carries salt into nearby water bodies, posing a threat to both drinking water sources and freshwater ecosystems.

Impact on Drinking Water:

  1. Elevated Sodium Levels: The runoff introduces elevated sodium levels into water sources, compromising the quality of drinking water. Excessive sodium can be harmful to human health, particularly for individuals with certain medical conditions.
  2. Contamination of Wells and Aquifers: Groundwater, a significant source of drinking water, can be contaminated as salt infiltrates wells and aquifers. This poses a long-term threat to communities relying on groundwater for their water supply.

Impact on Freshwater Ecosystems:

  1. Disruption of Aquatic Life: Freshwater ecosystems, including rivers and lakes, are particularly vulnerable to elevated salt levels. Excessive salt concentrations can disrupt the natural balance of aquatic ecosystems, harming fish, invertebrates, and plant life.
  2. Loss of Biodiversity: Prolonged exposure to high salt concentrations can result in the loss of biodiversity in freshwater habitats. Sensitive species may struggle to survive, leading to a decline in overall ecosystem health.

Best Practices for Smart Winter Salting

  1. Shovel
    • Clear walkways and other areas before the snow turns to ice. The more snow you remove manually, the less salt you will have to use and the more effective it will be.
  2. Let the Sun Take Over
    • If your shoveled area gets some sun, then you may not need to do anything else even if the temperature is below freezing.
  3. Sand
    • Sand is abrasive, so when applied on ice, it makes it safer to walk on the slippery surface immediately. If it snows again, then you’ll need to reapply it.  “Sandbox sand” is difficult to spread because of the smaller grains and sticks together easier; so look for “sand” or “masonry sand.
  4. Scatter If needed at all…
    • If you use salt, scatter it so that there is space between the grains. Believe it or not, a coffee mug of salt is enough to treat an entire 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares. If you see oversalting, follow these simple steps.
  5. Switch
    • When pavement temperatures drop below 15 degrees, salt won’t work. Switch to sand for traction or a different ice melter (PDF) that works at lower temperatures.

Wisconsin Salt Awareness Week serves as a reminder of the environmental consequences associated with road salt usage. While the need for road safety is undeniable, it is crucial to adopt sustainable practices and explore alternatives to mitigate the impact on drinking water sources and freshwater ecosystems. Public awareness, responsible salt application, and the implementation of eco-friendly de-icing methods are essential steps toward preserving both road safety and environmental health.