Protecting water from salt and pollution this winter

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Each winter we salt our roads and sidewalks to protect against sliding cars and slippery walks. Doing so is an important safety measure, but it can also pollute our local ecosystems and drinking water resources. But by using a few best management practices we can keep our roads and sidewalks safe while protecting our natural resources.

How does salt affect the environment and our local communities?

Salt is a serious threat to the environment and public health, but unfortunately the damage it causes is largely invisible. Salt gets washed into local lakes, rivers and streams throughout the winter, and the chloride permanently pollutes the water. Chloride negatively impacts aquatic life in a variety of ways, decreasing the number and diversity of fish and other wildlife.

Having too much salt in the water isn’t just an environmental problem; it is also a public health issue because drinking water sources are also susceptible to salt pollution.

In Minnesota drinking water comes from both above-ground water sources and groundwater, both of which can become polluted due to excess salt. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found 30 percent of shallow monitoring wells, mostly in urban areas, are polluted by too much salt.

The cost of salt should also be considered. When salt is over applied, it needs to be purchased more frequently, and the costs of those purchases add up each winter. Too much salt could also damage your sidewalk, leaving you responsible for repair costs.

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How you can make a difference and protect our local water?

Though salt pollution in our water is a major issue, it is also an issue that we can all impact by making a few small changes. Those simple changes include:

  • Always shovel when it snows. Clearing sidewalks of snow can prevent ice from forming later.
  • Use less salt. The salt needed to get rid of ice is actually pretty small. A 12-ounce coffee cup worth of salt is enough cover 10 sidewalk squares or a 20-foot driveway.
  • Don’t apply salt when its 15° Fahrenheit or colder, as most salt stops working at 15°F. Consider using sand instead to provide traction. It’s easy to sweep up, which further prevents pollution.
  • Remember to slow down and be patient. Salt doesn’t work immediately upon application, so give the salt you have applied time to work before applying more.
  • Be understanding if your local snow maintenance crews are using less salt this year.
  • Sweep up extra salt or sand to prevent it from getting washed away later. Any visible salt left after the ice has melted isn’t doing any more work and can be reused later.
  • Work with your local community groups to reduce salt use in your neighborhood. A big difference can be made when neighbors work together!
  • Educate friends and neighbors about what you’re doing to reduce salt use and encourage them to do the same!

By taking small actions we can all make a big difference in protecting our local water from salt pollution. By doing so our ecosystems will stay healthy, our drinking water will be protected, and money will be saved!

Learn more about how salt pollutes our water and what you can do by visiting the following websites:


This information was provided by Hennepin County Environment and Energy, Environmental Education,