Is salt really that bad for water?

More and more, salt is becoming a normal part of the winter landscape. As one of the many tools used to clear snow and ice, salt is spread over most surfaces where you walk, bike, drive and park your vehicle. That’s a lot of area covered in salt!

over-salted stairs
Figure 1 – Salt is not just for the roads. Over salting on stairs.

You might not think of salt as a pollutant. However, TVO’s article Oversalted: Why Ontario needs a new approach to snow removal states “Environment Canada completed a five-year study in 2001 that concluded road salt should be added to its list of toxic substances, although the department did not actually ban the use of road salt.”

Keeping everyone safe and protecting the environment can be a tough balancing act. But using too much salt or when not needed isn’t good for plants, pets’ paws, cars, and buildings. If you have read my blog “The hidden costs of winter salt and ice melter you might not know about” you’ll know what I mean.

But what about fresh water in lakes and streams and me – groundwater? Is salt really that bad for water? Doesn’t salt just go away after it melts the ice and if not, can’t technology be used to simply remove the salt from water?

Stream in Waterloo Park in winter.
Figure 2 – Salt is damaging to fresh water including groundwater.

Did you know?

  1. Salt is a long-term pollutant that stays with water. Once salt is spread on the ground it stays in the environment. You might not see the salt anymore after the snow melts or when the salt is washed away with the rain but it’s still there. The salt can soak into the ground to mix with me and will build up over time or enter a local waterway through a storm drain.
  2. Water and wastewater treatment does not remove salt from water. Removing salt requires desalination which is extremely expensive and energy intensive, and greatly increases greenhouse gases. Including desalination as part of the treatment process would also result in much higher water costs for the community.
  3. When talking about water pollution, it’s the chloride in the salt and ice melter products that’s the problem. This includes environmentally-friendly products. Basically, if it melts the ice it most likely contains chloride and is damaging to water.

Salt impacts the taste of drinking water

For drinking water, it’s all about the taste. The Ontario Drinking Water Objectives for chloride is 250mg/L. This is when a salty taste may be detectable by some people.

Video: snow and ice clearing tips

The maps below compare the chloride levels from 1998 and 2018 at the Region of Waterloo drinking water supply wells. The orange and red dots are groundwater wells with chloride levels near or exceeding the 250 mg/L limit. Currently, the Region of Waterloo must mix groundwater from different wells to lower the chloride levels.

water quality map comparing chloride levels in Region of Waterloo municipal wells between 1998 and 2018.
Figure 3: Water quality map comparing chloride levels in Region of Waterloo municipal wells between 1998 and 2018.

Salt is harmful to aquatic life

The Canadian Water Quality Guideline states for the protection of aquatic life that the long term exposure of chloride levels for freshwater should be below 120 mg/L.

Did you know a dragonfly eats hundreds of mosquitoes every day? Unfortunately, a salty pond can impact their numbers. A CBC article Salty dragonflies mean more mosquitoes, researchers reported in a study on how increased salt levels in a pond had little affect on mosquito larvae but were impacting dragonfly larvae.

Non-native or invasive species can also begin taking over areas meant for native wildlife. The price of salt: How road salts are affecting our Great Lakes written by Lake Ontario WaterKeeper shares how “Spots in Ontario have become so salty that there have been sightings of saltwater animals in the freshwater creeks. Reports of saltwater blue crabs living in Mimico Creek is just one troubling case that illustrates the extent of sodium chloride pollution in watersheds of Lake Ontario.”

Increasing salt levels in surface water is not limited to the GTA. The Grand River Conservation Authority measures water conductivity in the watershed. Although conductivity data does not measure chloride levels, it is an indicator that chloride is likely present.

Protecting water from salt pollution is a complex issue. It might not be realistic to stop salting completely; however, there are actions everyone can take to use less.

Salt is a normal part of the winter landscape. Salt is spread over most surfaces where you walk, bike, drive and park your vehicle. So is it really that bad for water? Read the I Am Groundwater blog to find out. #iamgroundwaterblog

Related posts:

The hidden costs of winter salt and ice melter you might not know about

With winter here, salt is top of mind for me. Let’s talk about the cost of using salt (and ice melter and de-icing products).

images of a building, child drinking water, winter boots, dog, frog and leaf. All can be damaged by salt.
Hidden costs of salt

The obvious one is the cost of purchasing it. For that reason alone, it makes sense to spread only what you need and only when you need it. And did you know you can sweep up leftover salt to save for another time?

Not that money is a big deal for me, but if we’re talking money, it’s hard to put an exact dollar amount on the environmental cost of using salt.

According to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2018 report (Volume 2 – Clean Water – Chapter 2 : page 87) the hidden cost of salt on infrastructure and the environment range from $200 to $470 per ton of salt applied.

A National Post article “The awesome price we pay” outlines some of the costs of using salt. The author writes “Dalhousie University estimated that it costs it an extra $15,000 in cleaning and maintenance each year just to repair all the damage salt does to floors and baseboards”.

What are the hidden costs of salt?

  • Your drinking water. Since this is my blog I’ll start with me. The salt and other de-icing products spread on the ground can eventually mix with me. Over time this will make me – groundwater – taste salty.
  • Sore paws. Have you ever watched a dog trying to walk through salt? Salt trapped in their paws can irritate and crack their skin.
  • Damage to buildings and concrete surfaces. Salt is toxic and will eat away at outside structures (brick/concrete/sidewalks), doorways and flooring may become damaged, increasing repair costs.
  • Health of soil, plants and landscaping. If sprayed with salt, vegetation can lose its hardiness to the cold and be killed by freezing temperatures and high salt levels.
  • Footwear and clothing. Salt stains and can ruin footwear and clothing.
  • Vehicles, bicycles and wheelchairs. Salt accelerates rusting, causing damage and increasing repair costs.
  • Health of waterways for aquatic life. Salt changes water density, which can negatively affect the seasonal mixing of lake waters. This mixing is important to increase oxygen levels required by aquatic life for survival.

That’s my list. Do you have an experience to share about the cost of salt? Also, check out the Region of Waterloo’s website for tips on clearing snow and ice.

Cheers, Groundwater

Salt and ice melter are important tools for keeping you safe from ice. But what are costs? The hidden costs of winter salt and ice melter you might not know about. #iamgroundwaterblog

6 mistruths about winter salt

Groundwater here. Let’s talk salt. I’m not talking beaches or seasoning but the stuff spread on the roads, parking lots, sidewalks, driveways, stairs – pretty much anywhere outside you walk, bike or drive in the winter.

Don’t get me wrong, salt has its benefits. It’s easy to find, relatively cheap and for the most part does a good job of melting ice so it’s safer for you to get around.

But if you are me – groundwater – salt isn’t so great. Unfortunately, what is put on the ground can end up where I am and overtime that same salt and ice melter will make me – your drinking water – taste salty.

map showing chlorine levels in wells in 2018
2018 Chloride levels at Region of Waterloo municipal well sites

Here are my top six mistruths about salt that I think contribute to it being a water quality concern for me and my cousins in lakes and streams.

  1. Salt doesn’t harm the environment. FACT: Salt is a toxic substance and is a pollutant to water quality. Salt is a chemical but because it is found naturally and it’s used in your food, salt isn’t treated as such. Like many things it is about moderation and only using the right amount when needed.
  2. You can use an environmentally-friendly ice melter. FACT: Most ice melter and de-icing products including ones labelled “100 per cent natural”, and “pet, plant and environmentally friendly” use salt as their main ingredient. Even when you think you are using something environmentally friendly, it probably isn’t water friendly. Take a close look at the product labelling. If it melts ice it most likely lists chloride (Cl) as one of its ingredients and is damaging to water.
  3. Salt works in all temperatures. FACT: Salt (sodium chloride) works best between 0 and -10 Celsius. When it’s colder, it is best to switch to sand for traction or use an ice melter that works at colder temperatures. That ice melter is still damaging to water so make sure to follow product instructions and only use on icy areas only after you have cleared the snow.
  4. Salt goes away. FACT: Salt doesn’t leave the environment. It’s actually the chloride in salt that’s the problem. Chloride is highly soluble, meaning it gets inside me and won’t get out. Have you ever had a house guest who overstays their welcome? For me, that’s chloride.
  5. Water and wastewater treatment removes salt. FACT: Current water and wastewater treatment does not remove chloride in salt and ice melter products from water. Removing salt requires desalination which is extremely expensive and energy intensive, and greatly increases greenhouse gases.
  6. Salt is regulated and you must take training to use it. FACT: Anyone can spread salt. If the person spreading the salt hasn’t been educated on proper techniques and how harmful salt is to water, they often spread way too much or assume salt is the best tool when conditions say otherwise.

So there you have it. My six mistruths about salt. I’m sure there are others so I’d love to hear from you.

Salt is an important tool for clearing snow and ice but where groundwater is looking it’s not showing the same amount of love. Groundwater’s 6 mistruths about salt. #iamgroundwaterblog

9 actions you can take as a water protector

Imagine a day without me – groundwater. Not a day goes by you don’t use me. You drink me, clean and wash with me, and so much more.

Keeping me clean and making sure there is always enough of me to go around is an important job. One that everyone can help with.

Want to be a water protector? Here are my top nine ways to get started.

  1. Take shorter showers. Cutting back on your shower by even a few minutes can mean less water down the drain and more money you can save on your next water utility bill.
  2. Check your toilet for leaks. Paying for water you aren’t using isn’t fun. Did you know a leaky toilet can silently lose 300 litres or more a day? That’s like filling up three bath tubs! An easy way to detect a leak is to place a few drops of food colouring in the tank, wait 20 to 30 minutes and then check the water in the bowl. If the water has changed colour you have a leak. For where else to check for leaks visit the Region of Waterloo water conservation web page.
  3. Limit the use of salt and ice melter. Chloride in salt and ice melter soaks into the ground and mixes with groundwater once it has melted the ice. Over time this will make drinking water taste salty. The Region of Waterloo has snow and ice clearing tips that can help keep salt out of water.
  4. Support water education. The Waterloo Wellington Children’s Groundwater Festival provides fun, hands-on activities to 5,000 grade 2 to 5 students each May. You can help the Festival continue educating future water protectors by making a financial donation and/or volunteering during the event.
  5. Use a rain barrel. Save on your water utility bill by watering your plants with rain courtesy of Mother Nature. Using native plants in your garden can also help reduce how much you need to water and create a pollinator-friendly space.
  6. Set your water softener to the correct water hardness. Save on salt costs and help reduce the amount of salt going into the Grand River. Water hardness differs throughout Waterloo Region. Use the Water Softener Facts website water hardness maps to find the water hardness for your area.
  7. Return unused medication to your local pharmacy. Help keep medication out of waterways. Never flush it down the toilet or pour down the sink.
  8. Only rain down the storm drain. Storm drains connect directly with the local waterway. It is important only rain and melted snow enter the storm drains to keep streams and creeks clean.
  9. Report a spill immediately if you witness or suspect a spill has occurred or is about to occur. A spill is the release of a substance that is harmful to the environment, such as oil, fuel, chemicals or pesticides into a sewer or the environment. Quick actions can reduce the clean-up time and protect the local environment.

I’d love to hear from you. Why is protecting water important to you? Do you have tips to help others be water protectors?

Groundwater is your drinking water. I hope you agree it’s worth protecting. Groundwater shares 9 ways you can help. #iamgroundwaterblog