As I write this morning, the snowplow has just rumbled up the road in the familiar winter ritual. Earlier this week, we had 8 inches of heavy wet snow that brought down trees and powerlines. Today, though, it is just a few powdery inches. Even so, it’s time for my annual reminder about the use of deicing salts and the harm they cause to our surface and ground water.

The New York DEC and DOT recently released the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force Assessment and Recommendations. It reminds us again that use of deicing salts can kill aquatic life, change the chemical balance in surface and ground water, and lead to increased phosphorus release from the sediments (see Figure 3 of the report below). In the Adirondack Park, an estimated 3687 miles of flowing water and 820 surface water bodies have the potential to receive salt-contaminated waters from roadways. Think of the miles of roads, sidewalks, and driveways here in Vermont that have connections to water and you see the magnitude of the problem.

Diagram showing impacts of deicing salts on aquatic systems.

Deicing salts are applied in the name of public safety and commerce. They do help keep roads and sidewalks safe for the driving and walking public. For many years now, the agencies and municipalities responsible for public safety have been trying to minimize the use of these materials and continue to keep us safe. They are succeeding in reducing the amount of salt they use and applying it more effectively. One important thing that still needs to change is public expectations for our roads. That is where you and I come in.

Preparations for snowfall management by road crews start well before the storm. Drivers and pedestrians alike should also begin their preparations for snowfall before the first flake falls:

  • Review the snow management plan for your area and know what type of winter management occurs on the roads you need to travel. Align your expectations to the management plan.
  • Make sure your vehicle and your footwear are up to the task of moving on snow and ice. Some all season tires just can’t cope with the rigors of Vermont winters! Neither can some footwear.
  • Leave more time to get where you need to go. Maybe you can even delay your trip until after the snow stops.
    Small snowplow at work. Image: A. Stoynov on

    Small snowplow at work in British Columbia. Image: Albert Stoynov on

  • DRIVE SLOWER! I can’t emphasize this enough – NO amount of maintenance will result in a perfectly dry driving surface during weather events. YOU need to adapt and be ready for changing conditions.

Read more about home-based winter management of deicing materials in an earlier post (January 2023). How we manage our own driveways and sidewalks matters a lot. Please remember that deicing salts are not intended to be traction material!

We must reduce the use of deicing products, be they salts or other chemicals. ALL of them harm our lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Public opinion and safety influence the level of management on our roads and sidewalks. Let your town know that you want them to use less deicing materials. Show the road crews you support their efforts by changing your own driving and walking habits when it snows.