An open hand holding rock salt.
A handful of road salt is shown Dec. 13, 2022 on Jones Island in Milwaukee. Increased salinity can affect water quality and can harm nearby ecosystems. (Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter to get our news straight to your inbox.

This winter has already brought significant snowfall to much of the U.S. Historically, more snow has meant more road salt. It’s an effective way to clear roads — but also brings cascading environmental impacts as it washes into rivers and streams. 

But amid one powerful winter storm that walloped the Midwest in December, employees from the La Crosse County Facilities Department in Wisconsin did something a little different. 

As usual, they clocked into work well before dawn to plow the county’s downtown parking lots. They were followed by facilities director Ryan Westphal, who walked each of the lots, checking for slick spots. Finding none, he didn’t lay any salt down on top. 

That’s a major departure from how he would have handled the situation a few years ago – before their department made the decision to dramatically cut back on salt use to prevent it from flowing into waters like the nearby Mississippi River, which new data show has been growing saltier for decades.

Under the previous protocol, in Westphal’s words, his crew would have “salted the crap” out of the lots after a snowfall like this, without giving deference to whether they actually needed it. Today, there’s a careful calculation after each time it snows to ensure they’re using just the right amount of salt. 

Westphal acknowledged that the new way isn’t faster, nor is it easier. If a half-inch of snow falls today, for example, a handful of employees will take a few hours to plow the lots, versus the one employee who could have thrown salt down in an hour. 

But he said the extra time is worth it. 

“There’s pretty good evidence that if we continue to use salt at the rate we do now, it’s going to be detrimental to the rivers and lakes eventually,” Westphal said. “We need to do something about it now.” 

The use of road salt during winter is nothing new for people across the Midwest, particularly in its upper stretches where the presence of snow and ice can linger from December into April. But there’s growing awareness of the harm it can cause to freshwater resources – wreaking havoc on aquatic life, disrupting ecosystems, making its way into groundwater and corroding pipes. 

New data reveal that levels of chloride – one of the elements that make up salt – have increased by more than a third since the late 1980s across the entire Upper Mississippi River basin, which extends from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota to southern Illinois. Reported increases are even higher at monitoring sites in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the problem is magnified in smaller rivers and streams that can’t flush the same volume as the Mississippi. 

There are other reasons for increased chloride in water, like salt from water softeners and the use of potassium chloride fertilizer, but road salt is typically a dominant source in colder states. 

It’s leading people like Westphal – as well as those in state and federal environmental agencies – to realize a change is needed. 

The river is getting saltier 

Unlike other pollutants, chloride doesn’t break down in water over time. In other words, once it’s in, there’s no getting it out. Just a teaspoon of salt can pollute five gallons of water forever. 

So the increase in chloride in the river isn’t from a recent overabundance of road salt being laid down in the winter months. It has built up over decades. And because it doesn’t break down, it’s all headed down into the Gulf of Mexico. 

In a forthcoming report on water quality in the upper river, the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) found that chloride had increased at least 35% across the basin between 1989 and 2018. All 14 sites on the river where chloride was measured, plus one on the Illinois River, which feeds to the Mississippi, showed increases in the pollutant during that time period, according to UMRBA data. 

At a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources monitoring site in Lynxville, about an hour south of La Crosse, chloride levels in the river had increased by more than 60% since the 1980s, according to a 2021 study from two Mississippi River water quality specialists with the DNR. 

A loader carries a load of salt to a waiting truck Dec. 13, 2022 on Jones Island in Milwaukee, Wis. (Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

And chloride levels in the portion of the river that runs through the Twin Cities metro area increased 81% between 1985 and 2014, according to a 2016 report from the nonprofit group Friends of the Mississippi River. 

Chloride levels are rising at all 43 DNR river monitoring sites across Wisconsin.

“It really shows that we’re not on a sustainable path,” said Shawn Giblin, who coauthored the 2021 DNR study. “You can’t keep having 1 to 4% annual increases. You’re eventually going to get to chronic toxicity levels.” 

The concept of freshwater becoming saltier, known as freshwater salinization syndrome, isn’t unique to the upper Midwest. In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said its scientists have been studying the issue because of “dramatic” salt concentration increases in freshwater around the country and globally. 

Both the EPA and state environmental agencies set limits for when chloride becomes toxic to aquatic life. In Wisconsin, for example, 395 milligrams per liter of chloride in a water body for days at a time is considered chronically impaired, while 757 milligrams per liter, which is instantly toxic to fish, is considered acutely impaired. 

Though the Mississippi River is under the limit, many smaller tributaries are not. In Minnesota, 50 lakes and streams are considered impaired by chloride, and another 75 have chloride levels near the standard, according to the state’s pollution control agency. In Wisconsin, 51 rivers and one lake are chronically impaired by chloride, DNR data show – most in the southeast part of the state. 

Ecosystems hurt by high chloride

High chloride levels can have far-reaching destructive impacts on ecosystems. 

Salt increases the electric current in a body of water and makes the overall environment less habitable, said Lauren Salvato, who coordinates the water quality program for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association. By adding more and more to the water, the ecosystem starts acting more like an estuary, an area where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean.

Toxic amounts of chloride can kill freshwater aquatic plants and animals. That includes zooplankton, microscopic animals that feed on algae. Die-offs can then lead to harmful algal blooms, which have their own adverse effects

Chloride can also make its way into groundwater, the source of  drinking water for about two-thirds of Wisconsinites and about three-fourths of Minnesotans. Salt’s other component – sodium – can alter the taste of water and could pose health risks for people who are on low-salt diets. 

Finally, elevated chloride levels can also pose an infrastructure problem, corroding lead and copper drinking water lines and leading to contamination.

Searching for solutions

Many municipalities are already experimenting with ways to fix the problem. Brining, where salt is mixed with water before being applied to roads, resulted in a 23% reduction in salt use on average on Wisconsin highways, a 2022 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found. Some places even use beet juice to help the solution work at a lower temperature, since standard road salt is much less effective at temperatures lower than 15 degrees. 

That can be combined with other techniques, like pre-wetting salt so it doesn’t bounce off roads and using underbody plows, which can remove hard-packed snow better than plows with a front blade. 

In Minnesota, the state pollution control agency leads a Smart Salting training program to help road salt applicators better understand how too much salt can affect the environment. The training aims to help applicators identify the best balance between ensuring safe traveling conditions and protecting the environment. 

A truck plows and salt roads in Wauwatosa, Wis. on Dec. 9, 2022. (Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

To date, about 5,300 people are currently certified under the program, said Brooke Asleson, the state’s chloride reduction program coordinator. 

The idea emerged in 2005, sparked by concern about Shingle Creek, which joins the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and was the first water body in the state to be designated as chloride-impaired about a decade prior. 

Two years ago, the state made it a requirement for any entity that receives a municipal stormwater permit to get trained on proper salt use and the importance of protecting water quality. Enrollment in the Smart Salting training has significantly increased since then, Asleson said. 

Some participants simply weren’t aware that they could be using less salt, she said. After implementing techniques from the training, many are able to cut their salt use in half. 

One other change that could make a difference: protecting people from slip-and-fall lawsuits as long as they follow proper salting guidelines. 

“Ultimately, the fear (from applicators) is if they don’t put enough road salt down, someone’s going to slip and sue them,” said UMRBA’s Salvato. 

New Hampshire legislators passed a law in 2013 that gave partial immunity from lawsuits to snow-removal companies that participated in a voluntary training program for applying road salt. Similar bills have been floated in Minnesota – where it’s been proposed but not yet passed – and Wisconsin, where one is currently being drafted.  

Communicating why it matters

Advocates for reducing road salt say public awareness is critical. 

The general public is “mostly unaware” of trends in chloride contamination and the harmful effect it can have on the environment, according to a chloride resolution UMRBA adopted in February 2022. The resolution aims to facilitate upper basin states working together to reduce chloride in the river. 

The EPA has also convened a group of cold-weather states to help them share information about easing the impacts of winter road maintenance on the environment. 

“It is a big lift to tackle this chloride issue,” Asleson said. “The more collaboration we can do as states to share information and knowledge with each other, the better off all of us will be at protecting our environment.” 

For Westphal, in La Crosse County, it wasn’t hard to convince his staff to get on board with being more mindful of their salt use because many of them share his appreciation for the Mississippi River and nearby lakes. His passion for the issue comes from a longtime friendship with Giblin, the Wisconsin DNR water quality specialist. 

But this winter, which has already been a snowy one, could be a big test. 

To get more salt applicators on board, Westphal sees three things that need to happen: Grant money for brining equipment and other materials, protection from lawsuits, and finally, some pressure from the state to heavily encourage people to make the switch. 

Westphal said it comes down to “selling people on the right thing versus the easy thing.” 

The Mississippi River, running just blocks away from their downtown campus, serves as a powerful reminder of why he thinks it’s right. 

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Popular stories from Wisconsin Watch

Madeline Heim / Milwaukee Journal SentinelReport for America corps member

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps member who writes about environmental challenges in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-996-7266 or mheim@gannett.com.