Our Views: Another reason for Earth Day: salt

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Gazette Editorial Board
Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Earth Day never seems to lose its relevance, even though many of the environmental problems prompting the day's creation have been resolved, at least in the U.S.

For every problem eliminated from our things-we've-ruined checklist, a new one pops up. Well, these new problems don't “pop up.” They are years in the making, but we only seem to notice them when the damage becomes too obvious to ignore.

Case in point: A new study shows America has a salt problem, and we're not talking about the sodium in food. This one comes mainly from the salting of roads.

Salting roads isn't something new, of course. We've been doing it for years without feeling any obligation to stop or significantly cut back our use.

This new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should give us pause, however. It examines chloride levels in 371 North American lakes and concludes 44 percent of those lakes show signs of long-term salinization. Extrapolating from these findings suggests salt threatens more than 7,700 lakes in North America.

As Xavier Ward reported in The Gazette on Monday, researchers examined Geneva Lake's salt levels over 15 years and found the lake is in the upper tier for elevated salt levels, which comes as no surprise given the lake's proximity to roadways.

The consequences for upsetting freshwater bodies' salt levels are broad, affecting everything from drinking water quality to lake ecology. High salt levels hurt native species while making a lake more attractive to invasive varieties better adapted for salty environments. Certain types of algae also thrive in saltier environments.

The solution to this problem isn't complicated: Local governments must find alternatives to salts or find ways to use less of it. Some municipalities, such as Williams Bay, take steps to reduce salt use. This involves using a sand-salt mixture, for example, to maximize the efficiency of salt.

We feel part of the solution is for drivers to start adjusting their expectations, especially on roadways near the water. Drivers have become increasingly impatient, demanding ice and snow be completely cleared from roadways, regardless of how much salt it takes. But maybe it's time for drivers to change their attitudes and embrace more ways to reduce salt use. Meanwhile, municipalities should consider asking drivers to slow down on roads where less salt is being applied because of concerns about the environmental effects of runoff.

Residents should become more aware of how they're using salt at their properties, too. Driveways and sidewalks are large contributors to salt runoff, and many people pay little attention to the amount of salt they're using. They also often toss salt on snow and ice that can be easily cleared with a shovel.

The key to solving many environmental problems starts with raising awareness. Until people begin to appreciate the detrimental effects of their actions, they're not likely to change their ways. The culprits seem to change—whether DDT, lead paint, mercury emissions, etc.—but the plot stays the same.

Earth Day, this Saturday, is our annual opportunity to raise awareness. To solve the salt problem, people need to understand it's a problem.



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