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Road salt impacts water quality, but careful application may help

winter road

Michigan prides itself on being shark- and salt-free – but it’s not really salt-free. An estimated 450,000 tons of road salt makes it into Michigan lakes, streams, wetlands, and drinking water aquifers.

When road salt gets into waterways, it can contaminate drinking water, damage aquatic ecosystems and native species, and degrade infrastructure.

Road salt isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but there are some methods to use less salt.

Christe Alwin is an environmental quality specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. She said calibrated equipment can help salt truck drivers be more exact in their salt application, but residents and businesses can also do their part.

“Driving slow, driving safe, preparing for the winter event - should we do that, that can lessen the burden on needing to apply additional salt to manage the expectation to resume normal driving conditions as soon as possible,” Alwin said.

Alwin said the state routinely tests waterbodies for chloride and has a work plan on limiting pollution from road salt.

Map of chloride levels across the state
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy
Chloride levels across the state

Megan Tinsley is a water policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council. She said beet juice has been studied as an effective substitute for salt, but it’s not a viable alternative yet.

"Switching from road salt to an agricultural product is not attainable at this point, and it’s not desirable from a biological standpoint because those types of products will still leach into our waterways and create their own set of problems,” she said.

Tinsley said agricultural products may play a role in the future, but for now, the best bet is being more precise in the application of road salt and using less to reduce its environmental impacts.

For more information on the impacts of road salt and management strategies, watch the full discussion hosted by the Michigan Environmental Council.

rock salt
According to the Salt Smart initiative, twelve ounces of salt, or 1-1.5 cups, is enough to treat a 20-foot-long driveway or about 10 squares of sidewalk.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at