Snow and Ice Management

        Salt is a fundamental part of life and is used in everyday tasks to the point it taken for granted.  We use salt to tenderize our meats and add flavor, we use it in saline solutions when we are sick, we use it as a preservative, we use it to condition our water in our softeners. But what about salt on the roads? If we put it in our water softeners, why then does it get a bad name for polluting our water ways when we use road salt on our roads?  Softener salt, table salt, and road salt are all chemically the same, its sodium chloride, always has been always will be.  At face value, the only difference on the consumer side of things is the label and how it is refined.  Softener salt and table salt are more refined than road salt. Meaning its cleaned of trace minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and other aggregates. So, is road salt considered a public health concern because it wasn’t refined? Well, no, at least in my opinion, the minerals were there before us so what’s the argument?

          My main argument on conservation is a conservative relocation of the minerals. In nature we have zones that create certain habitats that occur naturally because of the available local minerals, waterways, food sources, and weather conditions.  You can’t grow a banana tree in Ohio naturally, but we don’t see any groups protesting that they are endangered in Ohio.  So, using that logic is it salt that is detrimental to the health of our waterways or is it the relocation of salt itself? And how would we approach public safety while keeping our waterways clean simultaneously?  The approach, as I always favor, is education, and lots of it.  Obviously only a few things grow in the salt flats of Utah and are considered a desert climate, but it is a naturally occurring ecosystem, or lack there of depending on who you ask.  Now I don’t think that our current consumption of road salt is ever going to put us in a position where we are turning northeast Ohio into a salt flat. However, I do believe we are dumping a tick tock too much onto our roadways in the name of public safety. 

        Let me explain, in my daily conversations with people I see that there is a disconnect between snow fall and salt applications. I hear things like they just need to put more salt down, or why are the roads clear only after it is done snowing? Why don’t they plow while it’s snowing etc.  Many people mistakenly believe that Salt melts snow and ice, it technically doesn’t.  I’m sure I just got a bunch of raised eyebrows from my readers, but I confidently stand by that statement. I’ll elaborate, and I’ll ask an intriguing question in the process, if salt melts ice and snow why do most manufactures of rock salt claim they only work to five degrees or some other obscure number? The answer is that salt won’t work in super low temperatures because it’s not the salt itself that melts snow, it’s the chemical reaction between the sodium chlorides and moisture, and at very cold temperatures there is a lack of moisture.   

        My company firmly believes that our approach to salting is both beneficial to public safety and conservative to our waterways.  We preach a simple keep it wet attitude and we won’t burn snow and ice with the use of salts. Keeping it wet has proven to us that we can keep our driving lanes safe with less salt.  I think the main reason people consider a snow-covered drive lane unsafe is they can’t visually see drive lanes, or they can visually see snow on the roads, which I must admit is intimidating. I’ve had my fare share of close calls out in some of these brutal storms.  We must remember, however, roads can become covered in moments without notice even with salt pre applied, but that doesn’t mean the conditions are icy, what it really means is salt won’t work as fast want it, to give you the illusion of a safe passage.

        We as daily drivers also must also take responsibility for our own actions and methods to secure our own safety and not rely 100 percent on municipalities and contractors.  We service many condos and being in the Chagrin Valley they are riddled with some significant hills.  These hills must be kept passable during storms but every season there are individuals that get stuck trying their luck and blame the contractor or municipality for getting stuck.  A reasonable argument if you’re new to the area.  100% of the time if we show up and are able to drive past your stuck vehicle pushing snow up hill, in 2 wheel drive….. We were never going to prevent you from getting stuck in the first place.  I have taken many pictures of stuck vehicles, and the overwhelming conclusion is you’re running tires that aren’t appropriate for this NEO winter or downright illegal and unsafe. Now, before we get off on a rabbit trail of tire selection let’s get back to the basics of salt.  

        When snow comes down fast it limits both our visibility and our traction on the road, there’s no argument there. However, putting more salt down because of events like this won’t make it melt any faster in most applications, and generally, because of the untimely nature of snowstorms, we can’t be everywhere at once. And it’s not even the ambient temperature that matters, it’s the temperature of the tarmac that we concentrate on when we decide on how much salt we are going to apply to a certain area.   Adding a egregious amount of salt in a location will create an enormous amount of flash runoff because of the amount of ice and snow being melted actually displacing salt that hasn’t even performed its duties yet and whisking it away, this has even caused refreeze events because of the amount of water being created and reduced salination causing a more dangerous drive lane. The trick is finding that medium and I think that’s “keeping it wet”, putting down just enough salt to prevent snow and ice from binding to the pavement creating an unsafe situation and not too much that unnecessary runoff occurs whisking away unused salt. If we keep it wet and you are driving a safe vehicle to begin with you will be driving on pavement even though the driving lanes could potentially be snow covered. Yes, it may take additional manpower to manually remove the snow from the drive lanes in some cases as opposed to burning it off but I think the tradeoff of better sustainability of our water ways is well worth it.

        Salt inherently is a natural mineral of Northeast Ohio, one of the largest salt mines sits underneath Cleveland’s Lake Erie coast, it’s about 1800 feet deep, but it’s there.  So how can we argue that saltwater runoff is bad even though there’s a 12 square mile mine of salt under Cleveland? It’s been said that this salt is left over from a large inland sea some 400 million years ago, whether you believe that or not, the salt is still there and at the time so was a different ecosystem.  Now fundamentally I don’t believe that humans can destroy this planet, even with nuclear capabilities we would just change the eco system, we wouldn’t be around and something else would thrive, and there is a lot of data to back that up, hence the findings of a huge salt mine from years past. The proponent of conservation is our way of life and not saving the planet. Salts in our soil act as a sponge sucking up all the moisture leaving little for the existing plants to use to uptake nutrients causing a decline in natural vegetation.  Now you could say let’s plant plants that thrive off or tolerate salt, which we do have abundant native plants that do tolerate salts. However, they are only abundant because they are privy to the salt content in recent history and not the salt content we have applied to our roads in the past 50 years.  If we go the route of planting more plants that tolerate salt, we risk using invasive species and over crowing other natural habitats fundamentally changing the habitat which we were trying to avoid in the first place with our salt applications. 

                      In conclusion, is salt a necessary evil? Or is it not evil at all as long as we understand its capabilities and negative effects? I personally won’t be advocating for the state and municipalities to stop using salts, I might gripe about how much they use, I’m sure we have seen them out on 40-degree days salting away.  But I think, as said earlier, as long as we educate ourselves and take personal responsibility, we can all have a safer commute to work and enjoy our Northeast Ohio landscape just a little longer.

About the Author

Jimmy has been building and landscaping for the better part of 20 years and is dedicated to the sustainability of our current landscape and advocates for the conservation of our waterways and natural areas. Jimmy is certified in bio retention cells, among one of many, that are designed to mitigate polluted storm water.  When Jimmy is not dedicating his time to the sustainability of our natural environment you may find him fishing in one of the many beautiful fisheries Ohio has to offer.