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Snowy days often lead to salty streams. Ohio's trying to fix that

A truck being loaded with salt for winter road maintenance. Contributed photo from the Ohio Department of Transportation
Contributed photo from the Ohio Department of Transportation
A truck being loaded with salt for winter road maintenance. Contributed photo from the Ohio Department of Transportation

Municipal road warriors in Ohio and across the country have increasingly turned to a big weapon in their fight against snow and ice to keep roads safe — salt.

It's an excellent de-icer. And cheap.

Dayton Public Works maintains 1,700 lane miles of road.

“When we deploy for a full operation, we (prepare) 43 dump trucks. And we're going to put approximately seven tons of salt on each truck,” said Frederick Stovall, director of the city’s public works department.

A close-up photo of the back of a road salt truck.
Adriana Martinez-Smiley
One of Dayton’s 43 trucks loaded with salt in preparation for a potential snow storm.

But that tool is having a worrisome side effect.

“We've been able to see a rising level of chloride and chloride ions that we know are affecting our waterways," said Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The Ohio EPA found urban areas have seen the biggest rise in salinity in local waterways.

The Cuyahoga River watershed near Cleveland saw a 37% increase in chloride levels between 2000 and 2018. Samples of groundwater taken from an aquifer in the Cincinnati metro area show a 150% increase in chloride between 1996 and 2018.

The increased levels of salt, if they continue to climb, could eventually affect our water quality.

That's why a new program seeks to reduce road salt pollution across the state.

Why should we be paying attention to this?

We’re not the only state in the U.S. facing this issue. Since 1975, road salt use in the U.S. has doubled.

A three decade long study from the U.S. Geological Survey found that U.S. groundwater is getting saltier around urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest because of rock salt.

In New York, scientists sampled private wells and discovered a majority exceeded EPA standards for salt in drinking water.

“When you put salt down, it doesn't just run off of the roadway and into a water body like a stream. It can accumulate in the groundwater and in sediments, which is really bad,” said Vicky Kelly, ecologist with the Cary Institute and lead researcher for that private well study in New York. “It's really bad because that means that we don't really know how much is out there.”

The corrosive nature of salt can also have impacts on water infrastructure, causing toxic metals such as lead to leech from pipes. It’s what caused Flint, Michigan’s water to become contaminated.

Kelly and other experts say that even if we stop putting salt down now, there’s no telling how long it will take to filter out.

“It became clear to me that we need to address this issue, and we need to address it right now,” Kelly said.

The new program Ohio leaders proposed

To try to get a handle on this issue, Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio EPA announced the H2Ohio Chloride Reduction Grant Program in December.

It will distribute $1 million to municipalities for equipment upgrades to reduce the over-application of salt on roads.

The grant, which is capped at $75,000 per municipality, can be used for things such as purchasing brine mixers and upgrading salt storage facilities.

“Nobody's saying that we shouldn't salt our roads in Ohio winters,” Vogel said. “But what we're talking about is being more efficient and using the best technology available to make sure that we're efficiently applying the right level of salt to keep us safe.”

Applying a salt brine solution instead of just regular rock salt reduces the amount of salt used and provides a more accurate application.

Adjusting salt storage practices can reduce the chances of salt traveling into the soil and groundwater.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is also working on a public education campaign for local governments on the risks associated with over-salting roads.

ODOT has been using brine for years now. Its brine is made up of 23% salt and 77% tap water.

“All of us who work at the Ohio Department of Transportation live here. We work here, we play here. We raise our families here. It's important to us that the environment is protected just as much as it is for anybody else,” said Matt Bruning, an ODOT spokesman.

Since the winter of 2018 through 2019, the department’s salt usage per lane mile has decreased from 22 tons to nine tons.

Back in Dayton, Stovall with the city’s public works said they already use brine. But city crews have to travel to the Montgomery County Engineer's Office to pick it up. That’s not always practical, Stovall said, including during a storm when weather can change quickly.

Through ODOT’s training resource, the city learned about the new H2Ohio program. Stovall said Dayton will pursue a grant to buy a brine mixer and storage tank.

If awarded, he said the city would be happy to share with neighboring communities who may need it.

“That's kind of what the governor's focus is — ‘All right, what other resources can we put out there to make sure everybody is prepared to be more environmentally efficient on the streets, but also providing safe streets for everybody to drive on,’” Stovall said. “So I think the more resources that are out there in our region, it's going to help all of us.”

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO.