Salty decision: Why the City of Barrie will be sprinkling more salt than normal on roads this winter

18 Jan 2023 8:29 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

Salty decision: Why the City of Barrie will be sprinkling more salt than normal on roads this winter (

You may find the decision a bit abrasive, but the City of Barrie was left with few options.

The deteriorating condition of the Ferndale Drive North operations centre sand dome has forced the municipality to rethink its winter maintenance plans for road infrastructure.

Operations director Dave Friary says a structural inspection of the dome, carried out in the fall, revealed the building could not be used to store sand this season.

Instead, sand will be swapped for salt during more moderate temperatures at the beginning and end of winter. Salt will be used at low application only when required, to minimize environmental implications, he said.

“The trucks are all computerized now; they have spin rates and it cuts down on the amount we put down,” Friary said. “The last thing we want to do is contaminate (Kempenfelt) Bay.”

As salt supply depletes this winter, room will open for sand in an operations centre storage building, he said.

Typically, residential roads are maintained to snow-packed condition by plowing, then applying sand for traction.

But sand has limited effectiveness because it often blows off roads quickly. And high levels of chloride, one of the main components in winter salt, has become an issue in watersheds across northeastern North America, Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority environmental science and monitoring manager David Lembcke said.

“Barrie is very savvy with their winter maintenance,” he said. “They recognize anything you put down has an impact. There’s a bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’  It’s juggling human safety versus environmental impact.”

Lembcke said chloride concentration in the lake has increased by .7 mg/L annually since 1971. And 81 per cent of all salt entering Simcoe comes off roads.

Salt concentration above the 120 mg/L threshold can affect the health of some sensitive freshwater species; 640 mg/L will kill many of those off altogether. Many urban creeks already exceed the first number throughout most of the winter and can surpass the second after melting events. 

Municipalities are more frequently applying less-salty anti-icing and brining techniques in advance of storms.

But climate change, and expanding road infrastructure from population growth, often offset those efforts.

“If we expect I can go out on bare roads an hour after snowfall, that puts unbelievable strain on winter maintenance,” Lembcke said.

The city’s plan also means a street-sweeping recycling program, where sand is reclaimed and reused at a roughly $200,000 annual cost savings to the municipality, has been suspended indefinitely. It also didn’t run last year.

Dieter Mueller, who ran unsuccessfully for a councillor seat in the recent municipal election, has long advocated for the recycling program to be kiboshed. He alleges it risks exposing residents to heavy metal, asbestos from some stretches of pavement, microplastics and vehicle liquids.

“I guess my message got through to them,” he said. “The amount of contaminants in the sand, once it is swept off the street, is quite high. It becomes dangerous. If it goes back on the street the following winter, it increases. It’s like compound interest.”

Friary disagrees with Mueller’s claim.

“It’s an accepted practice,” Friary said. “We (had) it tested annually and everything works out. It’s environmentally friendly. We take out all the large pieces — the coffee cups, cans (and) sticks. We’re reusing a product, rather than buying clean, virgin sand. We use 75 per cent virgin sand and mix in the street sweepings; it’s not all recycled.”

The city’s new salt plan meets Ontario’s maintenance standards for municipal highways. It is expected to remain in place until the operations yard is redeveloped, likely within two years. An update on the project is expected to be presented to council this spring, he said.

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