Editor’s Note: This guest post is an open letter that Madison resident Steve Arnold sent this month (March, 2015) to members (alders) of the Madison Common Council. It concerns Madison’s long-term use of road salt and its persistent impacts on the city’s lakes, springs, and groundwater.
March 18, 2015
The use of road salt in Madison is creating a variety of significant economic, environmental, and public health issues. The Common Council needs to rethink its policies and practices associated with snow removal.
My long history of concern about water issues motivated me to become a Friends of Lake Wingra Board member starting in 2005. The organization’s concern about excessive salting and rising chloride levels in the lakes was immediately apparent. I was a member on the Board of the Friends of Lake Wingra for eight years, two years of which involved serving as chair of the board.
The amount of road salt used in Madison to clear roads and parking lots averages between 12,000 and 18,000 tons per year. Chloride levels in Lakes Monona and Mendota have increased steadily during the past three decades, from a pre-salting era of 2-5 mg/l to 70 mg/l. The increase in those lakes since 2007 has been 20 percent. The pattern is the same in Lake Wingra with chloride levels now at 118 mg/l. Marshes and creeks have seen chloride levels above 800 mg/l, exceeding the established toxicity level.
When salt is applied to roads, sidewalks, and parking lots it washes into the lakes through the storm sewers. However, the majority of chlorides spread on roadways do not flow away with the next rainfall. The salt remains in the ground and continues to flow into the lakes even during the summer months. There is no natural process by which the chlorides are broken down or removed from the environment. Over the years, concentrations of chlorides increase. Soil chemistry is changed, reducing the capacity of the soil to infiltrate water into the water table, impacting both the water supply in wells and to springs that feed the lakes.
A lot of science exists with regard to the negative impact of the chlorides on aquatic life and changes to the both soil and water chemistry in lakes. Just 1 tablespoon of salt per five gallons of water can be toxic to aquatic life. Increased concentrations of chlorides can also impede the annual turnover of deep and surface waters. Adding to the environmental concerns are recent studies which indicate increased chlorides in several of the city wells, creating a public health concern. Of additional significance is the fact road salt contains a variety of impurities including aluminum, lead, phosphorus, chromium and cadmium. Of particular concern is cyanide which is the product of anti-caking agents mixed with the road salt.
It is difficult to find aspects of the environment and life within it that are not negatively affected by the use of road salt. If the impacts of road salt on our natural environment are not costly enough, the impact on infrastructure and machinery is also a cause for significant concern.
Reports indicate that road salt corrosion leads to brake line failures, gas tank issues, steering problems, and axle deterioration which have resulted in millions of vehicle recall notifications. The use of road salt on roads, bridges, and parking decks significantly reduces the life expectancy of those structures as well as their safety. In addition, we all know that a winter’s use of abrasive white salt takes its toll on the floors and carpets of our city’s building interiors.
The approximate cost of using road salt is 50 dollars per ton. But hidden costs bring the average cost per ton to 400 dollars. Those hidden costs include the maintenance and repair of roads and bridges, damage to underground utilities, increased maintenance of private and public vehicles, and everything else that is ruined by the corrosive power of road salt. For Madison, that could translate to nearly 7 million dollars in added costs to the community. And of course, once the Madison lakes are no longer perceived as an asset, the economic consequences would be even more dire.
It has been an unquestioned truth by most residents of Madison and their elected officials that bare pavement is necessary for safety. However, a study in New York, using 11 years of data, demonstrated that progressively fewer people were injured when the use of road salt was drastically reduced. Perhaps more revealing is the fact that hundreds of communities in states in the west and northwest part of our country use very little or no road salt. Many of these communities have snowfall and temperature averages similar to those in Madison.
Bend, Oregon is an example. There are 76,000 residents in Bend, plus all traffic headed to Oregon’s largest ski resort funnels through the center of the town. Other than plowing the streets after a snow event, Bend makes no effort to create bare pavement. The amount of salt used on city streets is zero. The State of Oregon also refrains from applying salt to state highways. Nor is any salt used on public or private parking lots. As a result of these snow removal polices and practices there are no chloride issues in the lakes and wetlands located in the community.
It is a mystery to me why the use of road salt in Madison has not emerged as a high level concern. The negative impact of road salt on the environment and infrastructure has been well-known for decades, yet city officials have been largely quiet on what is clearly a serious issue. Bold and aggressive policies that would eliminate or drastically reduce the use of road salt need to be implemented. Options to consider include: 1) Reduce salt usage to zero. 2) Salt only intersections on main arterial routes. 3) Salt only a 10 ft. long and 6 ft. wide section of on arterial routes every 100 yards. 4) Prohibit the salting of private and public parking lots.
The opportunity to begin the process of altering existing salting practices exists now. The engineering department is now in the process of finalizing the Lake Wingra Watershed Management plan. It is anticipated that this plan will be a model for Madison’s other watersheds. The health of the Madison lakes rests primarily on decisions made by Madison’s elected officials. Please make sure that the Wingra Watershed Management plan includes guidelines for the reduction or elimination of road salt.
 2014 City of Madison Salt Report
 2014 City of Madison Salt Report
 “Environment Impact of Road Salt Report”, New Hampshire Dept. of Environment Services
 “Hazards Identification for Human Ecological Effects of Sodium Chloride Road Salt” Lori Siegel, PhD, prepared for the New Hampshire Dept. of Environmental Services.
 “Road Salt and Water Quality”, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
 “Measurements of Cyanide in Urban Snow Melt and Runoff”, Research Journal of Canada.
 “The Use of Road Salts for Highway Maintenance”, Xianming Shi, Ph.D.
 “Road Salt and Traffic Injuries in Rochester “, Rochester (New York) Committee for Scientific Information
 Phone interview with Bend, Oregon Streets Dept. Employee on Jan. 26, 2014
Steve Arnold is the former chair of the board of directors of the Friends of Lake Wingra (FoLW), a citizens watershed protection group based in Madison, Wisconsin.