The Cost of Ice Free Roads

07 Feb 2019 9:13 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

Rising salt levels and harmful chemicals in lakes are affecting the quality of drinking water.

Canadians are used to snow, so whenever it snows they go into the same routine: shovel the snow from the driveway and sidewalk then put down salt. And when they’re done, they go back to their daily lives not realizing the damage they’re causing to the environment.

The 2018 Back to Basics, Ontario’s environmental commissioner report, argues the importance of caring more about the environment.

“It (the government) should do more to protect Ontario’s water,” said Dianne Saxe, environmental commissioner of Ontario.

In the Back to Basics release, Saxe expressed her concern for water pollution, saying: “This is no time for the government to turn its back on source-water protection.”

The four most significant sources that pollute Ontario’s water are raw municipal sewage, agricultural runoff, toxic industrial wastewater and road salt.

Ontario uses salt to melt snow in winter to keep roadways and walkways safe for the public. Road salt is making its way into Ontario’s lakes, rivers and groundwater, polluting the water and posing a threat to aquatic plants and animals.

Salt affects plant and animal cells. It also blocks the water’s normal mixing process, which is essential to bring oxygen to the deep water. Salty water helps to dissolve the bond between metals and sediments, which makes it harmful to plants and animals, according to Back to Basics.

The application and storing of road salt and salt-saturated snow are three of the 22 prescribed drinking water threats under the Clean Water Act. Many municipalities find it difficult to reduce salt threats to Ontario’s water supplies.

Ten years after the Clean Water Act, many municipalities have made little or no progress in addressing the threats.

“In Simcoe, sodium (salt) levels in the town’s drinking water became so high in 2017 that the Haldimand-Norfolk health officer issued a ‘do not consume’ warning for people with high blood pressure and sodium-restricted diets,” according to Back to Basics.

Look at Frenchman’s Bay for example: Salt from “plowed snow” and “runoff from paved areas,” including nearby Highway 401 has caused the Bay’s chloride levels to be double the amount found in Lake Ontario generally, according to a 2010 study.

The rest of the salt either goes into other nearby bodies of water or goes into groundwater. This change in chloride levels affects the “number and age structure” of the fish.

But salt is not just bad for the water, it’s also bad for the environment as a whole. Road salt harms soil, clothing, injures animal paws, cars, sidewalks and infrastructure, causing higher maintenance costs.

According to the Canadian Water Quality Guideline, average chloride levels in freshwater should be below 120 milligrams per litre, and in short-term peaks below 640 milligrams per litre. However, if you look at Hotchkiss Creek’s chloride levels, you’ll see it exceeds the average amount as it goes over 6,000 milligrams per litre. Similar readings have been found in many Toronto area creeks, such as Etobicoke and Mimico creeks.

According to the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, chronic chloride levels in several of its creeks read well above 1,000 milligrams per litre and acute levels as high as 18,000 milligrams per litre. This is close to the chloride levels found in seawater, which is 19,400 milligrams per litre.

Back to Basics says that climate change also affects the chloride levels as it brings more extreme weather and chloride concentrations tend to be higher in years with “more precipitation” and “total snow depth.”

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, about five million tons of road salt is spread on roads across Canada each year.

In May 2018, changes to the Municipal Act regulations made municipalities responsible for snow and ice removal on sidewalks and bike lanes. But even though this change will provide safe roads and sidewalks, it’s going to result in even more salt use.

Road salt ineffective in temperatures of -18.

“The City of St. Catharines used approximately 10,000 tons of salt last winter,” says Mark Green, manager of environmental services.

The Ontario government formally recognized the harm of using road salt in 1975.

Other ways to de-ice snow, such as using calcium magnesium acetate, magnesium chloride or calcium chloride, exist but are often rejected because of their higher product cost.

Some municipalities, including Calgary, use beet brine for de-icing because it is less toxic and less destructive than road salt.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has successfully decreased the amount of road salt used on provincial highways while maintaining a high level of road safety.

According to the Back to Basics report, technologies such as using anti-icing liquids on roads before a winter storm helps prevent snow and ice from bonding with road surfaces, helping to reduce the amount of salt used.

Pre-wetting the salt with anti-icing liquids is another method used that helps the salt to stick on the roads.

The Ministry of Transportation has installed “Fixed Automated Spray Technology” and an “Advanced Road Weather Information System” at the Highway 401/416 interchange near Prescott, Ont.

And because the systems work together in applying anti-icing chemicals before a storm, salt has been used less and in a more effective way.

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