The day that road salt and stormwater quality are connected

25 Mar

I pine for this day. The day that road salt and stormwater quality are connected in the minds’ of our county’s leaders and those of our citizens.

For now, I live in a world where — at least in the U.S. and in particular, the area by the Chesapeake Bay (once one of the healthiest estuaries in the world) — where governments are at the nascent stages of addressing stormwater run-off and water quality. (Get to know a bit about T-M-D-L, if you’re curious.)

storm water damage road salt snow snow howard county maryland

On Mar 25, when it’s expected to rain later in the day, this couple-few-inch-high pile of road salt was dropped by a salt truck on a cul-de-sac with but 14 houses on it.

Where I live at this time, in Howard County, Md., the county is in the early stages of implementing storm water fees to pay for state-/fed/whatev-mandated storm water and TMDL fixes. This is a not-small problem. Nor is it a not-small-dollars project. It’s big. I went to a stormwater preso at which the HoCoGov’s new stormwater chief and others spoke; the chief said the county was looking at possible stormwater-related expenses over the next decade or so of upwards of $800 million. Say he was off by a hundred mil or two. It’s still a lot of money.

To this stormwater fee and other (probably more extreme) measures in coming years, I say, Amen.

What I don’t get is the apparent disconnect in thinking between how much we salt our roads in recent years and the impact on stormwater. Road salt impacts water quality and plant life (think: health of our ponds, man-made lakes and streams). Road salt impacts bacteria and soil quality, which impacts plants, which impacts their ability to hold soil in heavy rains and to absorb water into the soil … which impacts stormwater run-off. I’d be curious to know how many tons of road salt have been applied this year. In the last five years? In the last decade? That salt went somewhere into our community’s soil, streams and bodies of water. It may dissolve, but it doesn’t “disappear.”

Yes, there are times when we need to salt the roads. Of course. But nearly every time it snows? What has happened to our sense of safety and security that the roads need to be salted so much? Both the volume of road salt and the frequency of salting seems to have increased per inch of snow on the ground. I seem to have noticed in recent years a quicker reflex to salt roads, more salt being used and more disheartening piles of salt dropped by (probably idling) salt trucks. This could be mere perception on my part and factually inaccurate. I don’t know. 

Rain? Temps in the high 30s. Yet our roads are salted. We're going to have to pay for the environmental cost of "generous salting."

Rain? Temps in the high 30s. Yet our roads are salted. We’re going to have to pay for the environmental cost of “generous salting.”

Today, there’s a beautiful snow outside, it’s already melting on the roads, and there are predictions for rain this afternoon. Yet on the cul-de-sac where I live — where a mere 14 houses exist — a salt truck came by. And left this beauty (see the photo). A whopping pile of salt that has one place to go: down the hill, into the soil, into the streams, then our stormwater management ponds and into our lakes. 

Green or Blue?

LEED buildings are great. Solar power is cool. LED light bulbs save money and energy in the long run. And libraries with more natural light are all awesome. Pieces of the puzzle of a “more green” community. But how about being a bit more and  blue (water) focused). Road salt, how we use it, how quick we are to use it and the quality of the equipment that applies it are also a part of the equation of being a green community. 

They deal with it just fine in Mass.

I just came from a few weeks’ stay in Concord, Mass., earlier this month where it snowed eight inches in one day and it stayed cold that day, the next and the next. Melting wasn’t much on the agenda. The town doesn’t salt roads there. They plow and sometimes use gravel. I know and trust that there are many factors involved and decision-making matrices re when to plow, salt, not plow, not salt. And I get that as a citizen I don’t understand what that looks like from a front-row seat.

Without systems thinking, today’s solutions are often tomorrow’s problems

What I do know, is that as a citizen, I’m concerned that today’s “solutions” seem to be co-creating tomorrow’s costly problems, particularly vis-a-vis road salt, soil health, stormwater run-off and that funny abbreviation that fed and state agencies are now taking quite seriously: TMDL.

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One Response to “The day that road salt and stormwater quality are connected”

  1. Elizabeth @ The Bare Midriff April 14, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    My husband and I CRINGE every time we see the salt on the ground for days and days after an overzealous road salting. It’s odd how something so logical (the stuff on the ground ends up in the water) can so easily escape our thinking. Thanks for posting about this!

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