Salt in Wounds: Are we destroying our lakes with road salt?
Wednesday, February 6, 2019, 8:30 AM - If you think that stains on your boots, extra rust on your car or hurting your dog's paws was the worst that could happen from all the salt we use on our roads, think again. Excess road salt washes into our lakes and rivers, putting freshwater species and ecosystems in real danger according to environmental groups.
"When it comes to road salt, less is more," says Kelsey Scarfone, Water Programs Manager at Environmental Defence. "When we go overkill on our road salt application, we're killing freshwater species at the same time."
The Weather Network recently spoke with a coalition of environmental groups who say, "enough is enough". Environmental Defence, WWF Canada and the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) have joined forces to call attention to what they say is excessive usage of road salt. They want government action, and are starting with the province of Ontario.
"Road salt is a toxic substance in freshwater that isn’t regulated," says Elizabeth Hendriks, Vice-President of Freshwater Conservation at WWF-Canada. "Ontario has an opportunity to manage salt responsibly for wildlife and for the people who want to see these habitats protected.
The groups drafted a letter to the Ontario Government, which asks to "Stop the Assault" on lakes and rivers. Their goal is to get the government to recognize chlorides (salt) as a provincial water quality objective. This would make chlorides easier to track and monitor through the province.
CANADIAN FRESHWATER LAKES AND RIVERS COULD BE TOO SALTY
Road salt certainly is necessary and has its merits in de-icing roads, sidewalks, and parking lots, as well as in improving safety at the ideal temperatures. However it’s common practice to use much more than necessary. It's the overuse that leads to runoff that makes lakes and rivers saltier than they should be.
Officials say salt has become a major contaminant in our freshwater across the country. Environmental Defence has analyzed studies from around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that prove the problem in the area is getting worse every winter.
"We've seen saltwater crabs surviving in the Mimico Creek, in some GTA creeks, water can get so contaminated with salt that it can reach ocean levels. Freshwater species simply can’t survive all this salt," says Scarfone.
OCEAN LEVELS OF SALT IN CANADIAN URBAN WATERWAYS
It’s a tough pill to swallow.
"Road salt builds up in our rivers and creeks, causing them to become too salty for freshwater species like fish, turtles and frogs to survive," says Hendriks. "In some urban areas, we’re starting to see the emergence of seasonal seas – waterways with close to ocean levels of salt."
According to Environmental Defence, these spikes in salt levels through the winter months are lingering long after the snow is gone -- even well into the spring and summer months, leading to chronic issues.
There are many other freshwater bodies around the country that have no monitoring for salt chlorides and could also have their habitats impacted by salt use.
THE SCOOP ON SALT: ACCORDING TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE
- Millions of tonnes of road salt is applied to our highways, roads, sidewalks and parking lots throughout the winter.
- Salt is pretty effective at melting ice and snow when temperatures are between 0°C and minus 7°C to minus 10 °C, it’s often massively over applied. When temperatures are below that cold threshold road salt is not very useful.
- In some places, salt storage is also a problem, where piles of it are left outside and uncovered, allowing rain and snow to wash it in large quantities directly into our waterways.
- Recent studies have found salt concentrations in some greater Toronto area rivers and creeks to be as high as sea and ocean water. Salt levels that high are lethal for many freshwater species.
- Salt is seeping into our drinking water too
People are also at risk.
"In the Region of Waterloo, the groundwater aquifers holding precious drinking water are located directly under huge parking lots and paved spaces. The excess salt from winter maintenance on these areas can seep into the groundwater, and puts drinking water at risk," Scarfone said.
Road salt could also be damaging to infrastructure. It takes less than a cup of salt to melt ice from a metre of pavement, however, often times huge piles are applied to parking lots and public spaces. WWF Canada says, less is more.
"We often misjudge how much is required, putting down as much as 100 times more than what is needed to create safe conditions," says Hendriks on behalf of the WWF Canada. "Everyone can play a role in reducing road salt contamination by shovelling first, using the right amount of salt, and only using it in the right conditions."
STOPPING THE "AS-SALT ON OUR WATERWAYS"
You can take action as well. Here’s a link to the Environmental Defence page where you can send your own letter to the Ontario Government.
The Ontario government recently released an Environment Plan where they mention the damaging impact road salt is having on waterways.
There are also some things you can do at home to make an impact:
- Use the right amount. You only need a pill bottle size amount of salt for every square metre of sidewalk or walkway. Thoroughly shovel first, and consider clearing a smaller walkway to reduce your impact.
- Colder than -10°C? Consider an alternative. When it’s really cold, salt is not effective. If the temperature is too cold for salt, look into alternatives like sand.