Winter Choice: Salt in Water or Ice on Roads


Slippery, ice-coated roads — or more salt in the water table.

Those are the trade-offs in the winter battle to keep roads open in Onondaga County and other snow-belt areas.

“We constantly get calls from the public and environmentalists,” said Brian Donnelly, commissioner of transportation for Onondaga County. The public demands roads be cleared quickly and efficiently, he said. Environmentalists warn that over-using rock salt can have irreversible effects on salinity levels in streams and ponds.

“The county is concerned with being as environmentally safe as we can,” said Donnelly. “But the over-arching concern is the safety of the traveling public. That always comes first.”

Donnelly is echoing a dilemma faced by towns across the state.

Rock salt is a “necessary evil,” said Stuart Findlay, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute.  It is a not-for-profit environmental research group in Millbrook, N.Y. “People want to drive wherever they want, whenever they want,” said Findlay. “That forces towns to use more rock salt, which hurts the environment.”

Rock salt was first used to clear roads about 50 years ago. Thirty years later, scientists realized that the chemicals could permanently remain in the ecosystem, said Findlay.

Rock salt forces its way into surrounding soil and nearby lakes and streams. The chemicals are circulated through the ecosystem affecting both plants and animals, according to environmental scientists.

Recently, towns around the state have adopted new techniques for distributing rock salt to minimize environmental damage.

In Onondaga County, for example, the transportation department uses an estimated 53,000 tons of rock salt each winter to maintain its roads. In 2008, the county added 10 new trucks to its fleet to spray a liquefied form of the salt.  This distribution method reduces splatter and doesn’t allow the rock salt to bounce off the road into the surrounding grasses.

This technique allows the county to use 15 to 20 percent less salt, said Donnelly, the Onondaga County transportation commissioner.

Many towns have also begun to change the equipment that carry the rock salt to track how much is being used. This allows drivers to adjust the distribution rate based on the speed they are traveling and the temperature of the road.

New Paltz added trucks with these computer-monitoring systems last year. The amount of salt used has been reduced from 2000 cubic yards per lane to 750 cubic yards per lane, said Mike Nielson, New Paltz highway superintendent.

New methods allow towns to use less salt, say environmentalists and highway officials. This saves the town and the taxpayers money. The new equipment that allows drivers to change the distribution speeds save enough money to pay for themselves in a short time, say highway officials.

Municipalities can learn about new techniques at the Cornell Local Roads Program. It is a program funded by the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation. This program educates New York towns in safer snow management techniques, said Dewey Amsler, an instructor for the program.

“There has definitely been a shift since 2000 in how people approach snow management,” said Amsler. “We are making progress as people become more aware of the environmental issues with rock salt.”

The real challenge, according to Clarkson University biology professor Tom Langen, is in educating the public about the environmental concerns of rock salt. Langen has studied the environmental problems of rock salt for the state transportation department. The towns have started adopting new techniques, he said, and now the message needs to be directed at the community.

“The public needs to realize that they can’t drive as fast as they want in the winter,” said Langen. “People need to slow down or put on chains, and stop demanding that the towns use more and more rock salt.”

(Ben Klein, a senior with dual majors in magazine journalism and political science.)


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