The Great Lakes State is getting saltier – it matters when it comes to your drinking water

Years of salt use to de-ice roads considered the cause
Posted at 7:57 AM, Feb 14, 2019

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WXYZ) — Walking along a branch of the River Rouge in Southfield, Marie McCormick, executive director of Friends of the Rouge, points out the high volume of traffic up above.

“You have really close proximity to the road, here,” she said pointing out Telegraph Road and a nearby apartment complex.

In some ways, it’s great to have a tributary that empties directly into Lake Erie — one of metro Detroit’s prime sources for drinking water — it means plants, animals and recreation. On the other hand, thanks to its proximity to the road, it means salt runoff.

“It runs off really quickly,” said McCormick. “So if you drop salt really close to these bodies of water it flows in and changes the chemistry of the water.”

That’s the catch 22 for local governments, and the Michigan Department of Transportation, when it comes to road salt. Studies show lakes, streams and even wells are getting saltier. Scientists believe that road salt is to blame, but it’s also considered the safest way to decrease crashes.

MDOT has worked to reduce the use of salt in recent winters because it costs less money, and it’s safer for the environment.

“We’re happy with our management practices we’ve incorporated,” said Mark Geib, MDOT’s Transportation Systems Management Operations Director. “It’s shown up in our numbers that our management plan works, but we’re always watching to see how we can get better.”

The current practices include a computerized system on each salt truck MDOT sends on the road, that system is calibrated based on the current weather conditions — it reduces wasteful salt usage. They also pre-wet salt to ensure it sticks, and trucks drive slower than in years past to reduce the amount of salt that bounces off the road.

“Without some of the management practices we’ve incorporated, the amounts we use would be greater.”

McCormick said last year that still meant more than 500,000 tons spread across Michigan roadways — that doesn’t include what local counties and cities used to de-ice their roads.

With some scientists warning that fresh water sources could become so salty they’d be undrinkable (less severe predictions warn that salty water could harm animals, insect and plant-life), folks like McCormick are recommending people take safer approaches to de-ice their personal property.

Rock salt, the most common de-icer used by homeowners, becomes ineffective when temperatures drop below 15 degrees. While some de-icers, such as calcium chloride and manganese chloride, work better in lower temps, they are also more expensive.

McCormick recommends using more muscle and less salt — the more shoveling you do, the less salt is needed. You can also cut rock salt with items that increase traction: sand, wood chips, saw dust and kitty litter are all useful. It’s also possible to sweep up unmelted snow after major snow events to re-use it rather than letting it get into your yard, or sewer drains.