This week’s snowfall marks the first snow of the winter in Madison, and with temperatures below 32 degrees it likely won’t melt until tomorrow. While the City of Madison works to keep the sidewalks and roads clean, and Madison residents are picking up shovels and spreading salt in order to help, Madison officials are warning not to over-salt.
Salt is used by citizens and the government alike to melt ice in the winter, which makes it crucial for preventing roads from freezing over. According to a report from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the state of Wisconsin spent over $36 million on salt for the highways between 2016 and 2017, which doesn’t include the salt applied by citizens over that time period. Many stores sell it in large bags and some people who use it, like Kendra on Washington Ave., say they use more than one of them when cleaning the sidewalk.
“Couple bags. I would think. Depending on how big the sidewalk is,” Kendra says.
But according to Hannah Mohelnitzky, a representative of the City of Madison’s Engineering Division, that’s way too much. The City of Madison is part of a group called Wisconsin Salt Wise, an environmental advocacy group that aims to reduce salt pollution in Wisconsin. Mohelnitzky says that using too much salt to melt ice is a driver of that pollution, and the effects on the city are far-reaching.
“Environmentally, salt washes into our waters, it puts our aquatic life and freshwater resources at risk, from an economic standpoint once salt gets into the water it’s very costly to remove. From an infrastructure standpoint, salt weakens and damages our concrete brick and stone that makes up our homes, garages, bridges, roads,” says Mohelnitzky. “It also impacts our pets. Oversalted sidewalks can irritate our pets or their paws and then cause health concerns if ingested.”
Mohelnitzky says that one coffee mug full of salt is enough for ten sidewalk squares or a twenty-foot driveway.
An update on the City of Madison website lists some items for an environmentally-friendly snow cleaning kit. They are a pavement ice scraper, a salt spreader, a coffee mug to measure the salt, a broom, and a shovel. Residents are also encouraged to manually clear sidewalks and driveways to prevent snow from turning into ice in the first place. Crystal Campbell, a spokesperson for the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department, says that if the snow ends up becoming ice, then salt may not even work depending on the temperature of the pavement.
“Salt is only effective up to about 15 degrees, below 15 degrees salt doesn’t work. It doesn’t melt snow; it’s too cold,” says Campbell. “So you’d either have to use sand for traction or use a different de-icer that can work below 15 degrees.”
Campbell also says that people should sweep up extra salt piles in order to prevent contamination.
Meanwhile, the city of Madison’s government is also taking steps to decrease their own salt use. Mohelnitzky says that the city workers “go through training that shares how to responsibly use salt in everyday life, through machinery and equipment and why it is important to our environment.”
The Weather Channel predicts snow tomorrow and light snow on Saturday, then no more for the rest of the week.