Saving Madison From Salt

From the Madison Water Utility

It doesn’t look like much – a sparse basement conference room filled with folding tables and guys in sweatshirts and baseball caps quietly taking notes. But organizers say that this – one of the first road salt application training classes ever held in Madison – is about as important as it gets.

“All the salt we put down is ending up in our waterways … people are really starting to pay attention,” says Kathy Lake, environmental specialist with the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD).

“Road salt is very inexpensive. It’s a cheap insurance policy against liability, but it has impacts and they are widespread,” explains Madison Water Utility water quality manager Joe Grande. “I think we have the opportunity to lead on this issue, but there are other municipalities that are ahead of us.”

According to a report from Public Health Madison Dane County, more than 240,000 tons of salt have been dumped on Madison and Dane Co. roads since 2010, and that doesn’t include what was spread on county highways, parking lots, sidewalks and driveways. Experts say it’s far too much, adding up to an enormous environmental problem in our area. That’s why Madison Water Utility, MMSD, and the Madison Area Municipal Stormwater Partnership are coming together to host trainings like this one aimed at teaching private contractors and municipalities how to keep salt use in check.

“We’re all trying to maintain public safety and safe roads in the wintertime. But there are different approaches we can take to minimize the impact on our lakes and drinking water,” says Grande. “People want to work towards that.”

“We’re dispelling the myth that more is better. More salt is not better,” insists Connie Fortin, one of the road salt application trainers and owner of the environmental consulting firm Fortin Consulting. “All we have to do is put out the building blocks of science (and teach) the strategies of still getting our job done, but doing it in a smarter way.”

Madisonians don’t have to look far to see the damage road salt has already caused. On University Ave. near Whitney Way, a small municipal facility sits at the center of some very big concerns. Madison Water Utility Well 14 pumps about 800 million gallons of drinking water to nearby homes and businesses every year, but the groundwater that feeds it contains high levels of chloride from road salt. Chloride levels in water pumped from the well have doubled in the last 15 years and show no signs of decreasing. Grande says the presence of chloride doesn’t make the water unsafe, but it can affect the taste. And there’s no real feasible way to remove it.

“Well 14 is just really the tip of the iceberg when you’re talking about the impacts of salt on Madison’s drinking water … We do see impacts at four or five of our other wells. Looking ahead and projecting from the impacts that we see now, we’ll have to make some very difficult decisions in the future.”

But there are some bright spots, at least when it comes to Well 14. Officials with the city and county have partnered in an effort to reduce salt application on University Ave., which is maintained by Dane Co. road crews. The county will use anti-icers to spray brine on University Ave. before a winter storm hits, helping make plows more effective and reducing the amount of salt needed to clear the roadway.

The effort to reduce road salt use in Dane Co. goes far beyond training the people driving the trucks. The WiSaltWise campaign is also focused on educating the general public on responsible road salt use.

“Unless people understand, they’re going keep putting pressure on public works crews and everybody for more and more salt,” says Fortin. “So it’s a massive undertaking. It’s similar to how we started recycling and getting people to understand that. And now they do it, and they accept it.”

“Our whole goal is to try to raise awareness. Wisconsin Salt Wise emphasizes that we’re all partners in this,” adds Grande.

Lake adds that an educated public can put pressure on store owners to make sure large parking lots and sidewalks are properly cared for.  “Wisconsin Salt Wise is working really hard to try and get that information out to everybody. What is an application rate that makes sense? How do I make it happen? When I’m walking into a store, what should the salt pattern in the parking lot look like? If we can provide the same level of service, and save money, and protect our water – it’s amazing.”

Fortin agrees that buy-in from both the public and the people who take care of roads and parking lots is key.

“It will save (applicators) money, make them look good, their performance will be better. And it will save our lakes and rivers from all that extra salt. If they’re educated and they understand, they’ll change.”

Posted in City of Madison, Newsletter.