Experts explain how leftover road salt impacts water sources

Some of our roads look as if they’re painted white from all the salt leftover from Saturday’s storms.

Road salt and parking lot salt is entering our local streams and creeks at an alarming rate says Dr. John Jackson from the Stroud Water Research Center.

Just this weekend, a stream that enters Philadelphia’s Tookany Creek had water twice as salty as ocean water at one point and water as salty as ocean water at other times. 

While melting snow and rain (which is coming later this week according to FOX 29's Weather Authority) carries road, driveway, parking lot, stairwell, and sidewalk salt into our storm drains and into our local streams and creeks right away, some of that pavement salt will end up enter our waterways in the summer.

Here’s how: salty water from melted snow and rain will seep into our ground. That salt water will make it down to the pool of water that’s always below ground. This reservoir of groundwater is what wells tap into for their water source. And research suggests that well water in some areas is becoming saltier as a result of road and parking lot salt.

In times of drier weather, this saltier groundwater will flow into our streams and creeks, which leads to our local freshwater being saltier all year long, including in the summer.

Dr. Jackson said the amount of salt in our local waterways has dramatically increased over the past few decades. This also goes in hand with our increased use of deicing salt over the last few decades.

To give you a feel for how much deicing salt is being used these days, Dr. Jackson says imagine all the people that live in Pennsylvania. Then imagine 200-400 pounds of salt for every one of those people. That’s his estimate of the de-icing salt we go through each year in Pennsylvania alone.

He said the amount of salt we use on roads, parking lots, and sidewalks is out of balance with the environmental and infrastructural consequences (research suggests excess road salt accelerates the aging of concrete and steel, like on bridges).

So, Dr. Jackson is encouraged by research that studies how less salt can be used without compromising safety. He points to the work of the Maryland Department of Transportation. They’ve had success in reducing road salt by using salt brines more often and through specific snow plowing techniques.

PennDOT also uses salt brines on the road. If you’ve ever seen lines of white on a road or in your neighborhood before a snowstorm, it’s from a salt brine. 

PennDOT explains their approach to salt brines and fighting snowy roads in greater detail on their website

Watch the video above for more specifics on how deicing salt affects our area or read this article. 

The article also lists some of the organizations looking for more volunteers to measure salt levels in our local streams and creeks.



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