Around nine inches of snow fell on Madison last weekend, and some roads around the city are still snow covered, though by now it’s been packed down and cleared. That’s because the city decided not to salt most of the city’s roadways, and instead plowed and spread sand so cars could still drive through city streets.
But it was a tale of two cities downtown, as UW Madison not only salted their roads and sidewalks, but are now being criticized for oversalting their pathways.
Hilary Dugan is an assistant professor of Limnology at UW Madison, and as she biked around the city on Sunday, she saw a clear difference between bike trails maintained by the city, and those maintained by UW Madison.
“What we saw was the city out plowing,” Dugan says. “They were out plowing all the roads, but they weren’t salting. What I was noticing on the weekend, going from the city of Madison to the UW Madison campus, was just the different approach to road salt use. I was frustrated that we can’t be more tactful in ways to reduce road salt, which I think the city is doing a really good job at.”
In a post on Twitter, Dugan showed both a photo of a city bike path and a UW Madison bike path. While the city path was covered in snow, the path on campus had piles of salt that covered the entire walkway.
While salt can be used to melt ice and snow off of roads, paths, and sidewalks, it also poses a danger to area waterways. When the snow melts, the salt doesn’t just disappear, it washes away with to snowmelt, eventually making its way into area lakes and streams, Dugan says.
“What we’ve seen over half a century is the background salinity in Madison lakes getting saltier,” Dugan says. “And certainly we have extremely high salt concentrations in some of the rivers and storm sewers in the winter during these runoff events. Aquatic organisms in Wisconsin are evolved to live in freshwater habitats, so as we increase the salinity, that’s creating an adverse habitat for a lot of organisms.”
Additionally, salt is less effective at melting snow when the temperature falls below 15 degrees. That’s why, when the forecast showed frigid temperatures to continue until next week, the city’s Streets Division didn’t spread salt after last weekend’s snow.
But UW Madison says that their use of salt was necessary. A UW-Madison spokesperson told the Wisconsin State Journal yesterday that leaving the 60 miles of sidewalk and 13 miles of road that make up the UW campus unsalted would be too dangerous.
They added that campus staff are trained to use the minimum amount of salt possible, and that they are focused on reducing salt use wherever and whenever possible.
Bryan Johnson with the city’s streets division says that throwing large amounts of salt won’t always fix the problem of icy roadways.
“I think we sort of just reflexively think more salt feels safer, but it doesn’t do anything,” Johnson says. “All it does is wind up in the waterways. Even the salting of sidewalks, driveways, parking lots, roads, it all plays a role.”
In December, the city of Madison added new fines for property owners who use excessive salt, with the express purpose of reducing the amount of salt that ends up in area waterways. While the ordinance change is focused on educating the community on excessive salt use first, violators could face a $50 fine the first time around and up to $100 in subsequent cases where property owners overdump.
The city will begin to clear off their roads tomorrow, when the weather is a bit warmer for the salt to be effective. Even then, Johnson says that they won’t be throwing salt across the whole city. Instead, they will focus on the areas where compacted snow still sits in the roadways.
“We’re going to have an opportunity tomorrow to sort of bust that up for those major thoroughfares,” Johnson says. “Now, a lot of the places it’s already melted down to bare pavement from either people tracking salt from other sources, and pavement just gets warmer from car traffic anyway. There’s some spots that are fine, but there’s still some turn lanes, or other shadier areas that still have that persistent hard pack of snow on those main routes that we don’t want. We are going to running the salt routes starting tomorrow morning and just trying to dribble salt out in those spots where that snowpack is still covering the whole traffic lane on those major thoroughfares.”
Hilary Dugan says that she isn’t calling for road salt to be banned, and applauds the cities efforts to be more salt-conscious with their roads. But still, she says that mountains of salt when it’s too cold for it to effectively melt snow, will only cause more issues down the line.
Last week marked Wisconsin Salt Awareness Week. For guidance and more info on when and how much salt to use after a snow storm, visit Wisconsin Salt Wise.
Photo courtesy: Adam Winger / UNSPLASH