Thursday, April 10, 2014

Our Waterways' Salty Demise

By Kyle Van Dyke

MAHWAH, NJ – This winter was a tough one. For a while, there was at least one snow storm every week, and often twice per week. But all the salt laid down on the roads to combat icy driving conditions had to go somewhere, and the Northeast's waterways are probably feeling the results.

You may have heard that New Jersey ran out of road salt in mid-February, which is used to de-ice the streets and highways we drive on. New Jersey used 258,000 tons of road salt last year, and 370,000 tons as of February 11 this winter. Try to spread that by hand.

“But so what? Who cares if we used a lot of road salt? That's why we have it, isn't it?”

Well, yes; but for one thing, using so much of it is fiscally restraining. New Jersey's League of Municipalities has stated that the severe winter weather has put so much undue stress on towns and cities that it was hoped that the federal government could send financial aid.

Salt costs $53 per ton. That's $19.61 million spent in New Jersey on road salt this winter alone.

But road salt isn't just expensive to taxpayers, it's environmentally damaging. When springtime comes, all the snow melts and washes the salt into the storm drains, eventually leading to fresh water bodies like New Jersey's Ramapo River, where the salty water can kill fresh-water-acclimated plants and small aquatic animals. Also, upon reaching the fresh water bodies, the salty water settles to the bottom (due to its higher density), which prevents dissolved oxygen from reaching the bottom as well as nutrients on the bottom from reaching the top, starving organisms of oxygen and nutrients.

Salt (sodium chloride, or NaCl) works by reducing the freezing point of water, meaning that it takes even lower temperatures than 32 degrees Fahrenheit to turn it into ice. This makes it ideal for spreading on roads to prevent car accidents, but considering these fiscal and environmental costs, is there something better we can use?

Well, the standby alternative to road salt is sand. Although there has been a debate among municipal officials on “sand v. salt” for many years, recently the tide has been in salt's favor. Although salt is twice as expensive as sand per ton, sand is less effective in making the roads safer, has to be cleaned up afterward, and creates a dust that can cause air-quality problems.

But despite the benefits of using salt over sand, the damaging ecological impacts of salt remain. In a 2006 presentation, Leila Goldmark, an attorney at an independent environmental organization in New York state, pointed out that the waters in the Hudson River Valley have up to 25% more chloride than seawater (salt is made up equally of sodium and chloride) and 100 times more than forest streams not close to areas where streets are salted. This is not a natural or harmless occurrence.

Perhaps the only savior of New Jersey's waterways, like the Ramapo River, is the coming change in climate, which will result (on average) in higher temperatures and fewer winter storms.

Maybe then we can just leave the salt on the table, and out of our rivers and streams.


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