Hold the Salt!

While doctors often recommend cutting back on salt in your diet to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and other heart health issues, many of our local streams also suffer from health risks stemming from too much salt. Road salt (sodium chloride) is most commonly used to remove ice from roads, parking lots and sidewalks. As snow and ice melt, road salt is carried into our lakes, streams and wetlands, where just one teaspoon can permanently pollute five gallons of water. Chloride from road salt is a major threat to water quality in northeast Ohio and other areas of the country where road de-icing occurs. Since chloride is not easily filtered from water in the natural environment, it builds up over time in the soil and in shallow groundwater. And, since these shallow groundwater tables are the source of stream water during dry weather, chloride levels in streams can remain elevated throughout the year – even in summer! Because most water quality control practices – detention basins, bioretention cells, etc. – don’t permanently remove salt or chloride from runoff, it is extremely important to control salt at the source by being strategic about when, where and how salt is applied.


  • At high concentrations, sodium chloride is toxic to fish and insects, and at low levels it reduces the reproduction and survival rates of their young.
  • Direct road salt splash can kill plants and grass.
  • Sodium in road salt can destroy soil stability, decreasing the ability of the soil to filter water, and increasing soil erosion. It can actually cause soil to release more nutrients into water.


  • Shovel and follow application directions. The more snow and ice you remove manually during a snowstorm instead of waiting until the end, the less salt or chemical de-icer you will have to use and the more effective it will be when you do use it. Adding more salt than is recommended won’t speed up melting, so follow label directions (1 cup per sq. yd) and spread salt out a few inches apart for best results.
  • Less is more. Save your back and reduce chemical application by evaluating where you need snow removed. Do you need access to every door or the entire patio? Consider paths versus full snow removal of an area.
  • 15˚F is too cold for salt to melt snow. Most salts stop working at or below 15˚F. An alternate is to use small amounts of sand for traction instead, but remember that sand does not melt ice and too much sand can become sediment pollution if it washes into streams or storm drains.
  • Sweep up extra. If salt or sand is visible on dry pavement it is no longer doing any work and will be washed away into your local streams through a storm drain or ditch system.
  • Pet Safety. Even if the de-icer says it’s safe for pets - look at the ingredients! Calcium and magnesium chloride can burn their paws. Use potassium acetate (hard to find, so ask to create demand) or just use sand. And when you take your animals on a walk, cover their feet and/or wash them off after a walk.


Many Cuyahoga County communities adopted and continue to follow Sensible Salting practices in response to salt shortages and associated rising salt prices during the winters of 2008 and 2009. These practices include limiting salting on secondary roads and overnight, focusing salt application at intersections, hills, curves and bridges, proper calibration of equipment, and ‘spot salting’ (salting at 150 foot intervals) on major roads. It is estimated that following the Sensible Salting practices leads to a 30% reduction in salt use while maintaining safe driving conditions. These efforts should certainly be applauded. However, due to the persistent, accumulative nature of chloride in the environment, chloride levels will continue to increase until wide-scale adoption of salt alternatives is achieved.

For a deeper look at the impacts and trends related to road salt and the environment, check out this article from the Water Environment Federation Stormwater Report.

Follow this link for a thorough analysis of Alternative de-icers.

Blog Author: Jared Bartley, Rocky River Watershed Coordinator

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