Let’s Keep it Clean – Reduce Your Salt Use

By Sage Passi

Master Water Steward Joe Knaeble takes on excess salt use in his neighborhood.

Photo credit: cleanwatermn.org

We are working with Watershed Partners to “get this watershed message out about winter salt use. Follow this link to their feature story, The Iceman Cometh—Sidewalk Salt Pollutes Our Lakes and Streams, on their website about Joe Knaeble, a Master Water Steward, who has swept more than 270 pounds of excess deicing chemicals from his neighborhood over the past two winters.
“Our snow removal and salting practices need to be re-examined in order to strike a balance between public safety and protecting our groundwater,” says Knaeble, adding that, “protecting groundwater is also a public safety issue”.

Knaeble, a Master Water Steward, decided to develop a flyer about putting sidewalks and driveways on a “low-salt diet” and hit the pavement of the commercial corridors in the Wedge neighborhood in Minneapolis. Ultimately, he spoke with 40-50 store employees, learning how they deal with snow and ice. You can follow what happened next in his story by going to the link above.

Watershed Partner’s Minnesota Water Let’s Keep It Clean Website

The Let’s Keep It Clean website, unveiled in December 2106, is a a great place to check out stories about local people who are taking action to protect their local lakes and streams.

Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, a member of Watershed Partners, is partnering with this consortium of educators from cities, watershed and watershed management organizations, agencies and other community partners to support this media outreach and call to action. Seventy public, private and non-profit organizations in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul metro area are working together to inspire people to protect water quality in their watershed.

Founded in 1996, the Metro Watershed Partners is a project of Hamline University in Saint Paul. RWMWD has been a member of Watershed Partners since its inception.

Every month a new story will be contributed by different Watershed Partners that will feature community actions that residents can take to address water quality issues. As time goes on you will find more resources and information on this new website.

What kind of stories can you anticipate?

The Watershed District’s parking lot provides a teaching opportunity
to learn about pervious and impervious surfaces. ESL students test
the pervious pavers that allow water to soak into the ground.

In early November, I connected with Maddy Wegner, Training and Innovation Director for Youthrive and a local writer. Maddy agreed to help us cover a story about a group of Harmony Learning Center’s Adult ESL students who helped plant our recently installed Clean Water Legacy funded rain garden at their school.

I worked with Randee Edmundson, teacher and Citizen Advisory Commission member, and Liddy Rich, their ESL teacher, to prepare students for a tour. We led them on a bus trip to visit BMP (Best Management Projects) in the Kolhman Creek subwatershed, including Casey Lake neighborhood rain gardens, Maplewood Mall and downstream at the Watershed District office. On this tour we followed the water to lakes downstream and learned about approaches to infiltrating stormwater runoff. Maddy Wegner interviewed the participants on their journey and Scott Andre, a freelance photographer, took photographs.

To read about the Watershed District’s work with Harmony ESL students follow this link on Watershed Partner’s Let Keep it Clean website.

Harmony Adult ESL students tour the rain gardens at Maplewood Mall.
Back to the topic of reducing salt use…….
One heaping coffee mug is enough to clear a 20-foot driveway
or 10 sidewalk squares (250 square feet).

Photo credit: cleanwatermn.org.
This winter has been an especially challenging season with its freezing rains and widely fluctuating temperature changes. Many people are grappling with the issue of salt use. I can tell by the interest shown on one of recent posts on social media when we linked to Joe Knaeble’s story on the Watershed Partners’ website. Our Watershed Facebook page received 778 hits when we linked to this stewardship story.

Lesson Learned: One person’s actions can “snowball” and have positive effects downstream!
“Be an influencer!” says Joe Knaeble. “We need to dive into this (salt) issue, from above and below. After all, The resource at stake is dear to all of us.”

It’s not easy making decisions about how to treat our roads, parking lots and sidewalks in the wintertime. The use of salt is a challenging issue because of safety, liability and environmental factors. But we can make wiser choices about how we address these challenges.

Here are some basic recommended approaches to winter maintenance that can minimize our impact on local waterways:


  • Remove snow early, when it’s still easy to shovel. Use a scraper to remove packed snow.
  • Shovel often; and, if you can’t shovel, hire someone who can.
  • Only use salt on ice, not snow.
  • Don’t use sodium chloride when it is colder than 15°F—it won’t work. Magnesium chloride and calcium chloride work at colder temperatures (-10° and -20° respectively)
  • One pound of salt (one heaping coffee mug) is enough to clear a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares (250 sq. ft.)
  • Sweep up and reuse left-over salt.
  • When it is too cold for salt, use grit or sand to create friction instead. You can sweep up and reuse these materials.

Salt left on the sidewalk means you’ve used too much.
Photo credit: cleanwatermn.org.

I recently drove to Northfield to offer some assistance to my 67-year-old sister who fell and broke her kneecap while walking to her car during an especially dangerous ice storm. While cruising along Interstate 35W South, I contemplated my options at my own house and thought about the challenges residents and winter maintenance staff at city and county levels schools, businesses and other entities face when having to consider how to address this issue. It’s not simple. With increasingly unpredictable changes in weather patterns it’s certainly getting trickier.

There are thousands of miles of streets and highways in Minnesota, along with parking lots and sidewalks that must be maintained to provide safe conditions throughout the winter. Winter maintenance of these surfaces currently relies heavily on the use of salt and solutions of salt, primarily sodium chloride, to prevent ice build-up and remove ice where it has formed

Winter maintenance staff supervisors throughout our Watershed District and others in the metro area have been taking a closer look at their salt use and looking for ways to reduce their consumption in order to lessen the detrimental effects on local lakes.

Connie Fortin assists maintenance staff from Ramsey County and
cities in our Watershed District in learning how to work with the

Winter Maintenance Assessment Tool (WMAt)

Watershed districts and watershed management organizations in the metro area and others have been working with the MPCA and Fortin Consulting to offer Smart Salt Level 2 trainings that introduce city and county staff to the Winter Maintenance Assessment tool (WMAt) to identify Best Management Practices to effectively manage salt use to protect our water resources in a responsible and strategic approach. The WMAt is a web-based tool that can be used to assist public and private winter maintenance organizations in determining where opportunities exist to improve practices that result in reductions in salt use and track progress. RWMWD is planning another training this spring so that others can reflect on their approaches this winter and plan for the future.

Woodbury students prepare for water quality monitoring
at Battle Creek Lake by practicing a dissolved oxygen test.

While preparing Woodbury Elementary School’s students for a winter field trip to Battle Creek Lake this winter with our water quality monitoring staff, I was asked a very pointed question by one of the kids, 
“How does salt hurt our lakes?”

A few years ago I prepared a “Live Slide Show” for students to present to each other that introduced the subject of salt’s impact on lakes. Playing different roles like a biologist, Pollution Control Agency specialist, snowplow driver, homeowner and a highway department official gave them an opportunity to consider salt use from different vantage points. The lesson culminated in a survey they took to their parents to review their salt use at their own homes. 


Here are some facts incorporated in the “Live Slide Show”:

  • Continuous levels of chloride concentration (as low as 250 mg/L) which is the equivalent of one teaspoon per five gallons have been known to harm aquatic life.
  • There are numerous reports of increased terrestrial bird deaths due to road salt.
  • Road salt can be toxic to plants, hindering their ability to absorb water and nutrients and reducing shoot and root growth.
  • Chlorides sink to the bottom of a lake and may interfere with the lake’s seasonal turnover of its layers, reducing dissolved oxygen levels at the bottom.
  • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Groundwater Report found that thirty percent of the wells in the Metro have chloride concentrations that exceed the state standard. Seventy-five percent of Minnesotans rely on groundwater for their drinking water. High amounts of salt in groundwater cause drinking water to taste salty. The cost to remove salt from drinking water using reverse osmosis would be expensive.
  • Chlorides have been shown to decrease the biodiversity in wetlands, altering the development of wood frogs, decreasing the number and types of fish available and increasing mortality rates of organisms that rely on an aquatic system.

On the boardwalk at Battle Creek Lake students will witness our water quality monitoring staff collecting water through a hole augured in the lake and demonstrating different water quality tests and methods they use to collect samples that are sent to a lab for further analysis, including conductivity, which is a measurement associated with chlorides. Students will have an opportunity to monitor some of the lake’s perimeters themselves using probes, dissolved oxygen kits and a clarity tube. 
Their nearest lake, Battle Creek Lake, is one of thirty-seven lakes in the metro area that has been declared impaired for chlorides.
For a list of lakes impaired for chlorides in the Twin Cities area.

Here is a video that illustrates this monitoring process on 74 lakes in the seven county metro area that the MPCA is coordinating to get a better handle on the impacts of salt on our local water bodies.

What else can one individual do besides lowering their salt diet?

Think about how fast you drive? The amount of salt maintenance crews need to use is impacted by the speeds we drive on our freeways and roads.

I’ve been really slowing down while walking and driving. I’m trying to be more careful and taking fewer risks since my sister’s recent fall. My “not too long ago” memories of breaking my wrist when falling on ice a few years back have made me more cautious. I’d like to avoid a repeat performance or similar accident.

A few years ago, before my own fall, I resorted to putting salt on my sidewalk at the base of my front steps and across my upper sidewalk. Earlier in the fall, I had hired someone to depress a channel in the sidewalk to direct gutter run-off in this area into my yard and garden edge when I replaced some of my sidewalk. I had to replace the first section of concrete slab in my sidewalk at the base of my front steps that had settled. I was tired of the pool of water that turned to ice at this juncture, making walking across it hazardous. So first, I tried this “engineering approach”. Despite this strategy, a thin, but slick, layer of ice still occasional formed there. So, I resorted to applying some salt to the icy patch.

“Wrong!” I declared to myself when my recently added native plantings of Canada Anemone and other wildflower, as well as some of my turf grass next to the sidewalk, died in the spring as a result of this addition of chlorides. Lesson learned…I never went back to using salt.

Grit provides a good option for alleviating slippery
sidewalks and steps. It can be swept up easily before
it goes into the storm drain and downstream.

So then what?

I invested in a bag of grit, which I have since been liberally spreading on any icy patches across my sidewalk and down my steps. It seems to be working. I know this will require sweeping up in the spring, but it is a lot less detrimental than using salt since the Mississippi River is only a couple blocks from my house. Plus it’s much less likely to get tracked into my house.

Early last winter while I was out of town, my friends, who were looking after my house while I was gone, bought a bag of sand and sprinkled it extensively all over my sidewalk after a big snowstorm. I swept up sand all over my house from the living to my bedroom and hallways all through the summer and had to keep that up all summer along my sidewalk. I can just imagine what ended up in the street too and headed to the river. 

Never again! 

I know that some people have large driveways and long sections of sidewalks that have to be maintained. I’m not sure if grit is cost effective in those scenarios. And, what about parking lots? What should maintenance staff at schools, churches and those taking care of other public property or business do when we get an ice storm or ice accumulation?  

Come to One of Our Level 2 Salt Trainings

During a recent Master Water Steward training session, a Master Water Steward posed the idea of designing her educational capstone to engage her neighbors in digging trenches and lowering the boulevards to capture the snow melt from their sidewalks.

At a recent Blue Thumb meeting I heard about Metro Bloom’s Blooming Boulevards project in the Harrison neighborhood in Minneapolis. In the summer of 2016, Metro Blooms and their  partners began installing native plants along boulevards around Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Sheltonn Johnson of Northside Economic Opportunity Network learns a
quick way to excavate boulevards in the Harrison Blooming Boulevards project.

Photo credit: Metro Blooms

Ash trees had already been removed from the boulevards, following the city’s plan to address emerald ash borer. By excavating the boulevards after the trees’ removal, the heavily compacted soil was loosened and swales were created where there used to be berms. This allowed water to collect in the boulevard, instead of running off and should benefit the trees that will be planted in the spring. This may also alleviate some ice conditions that arise on adjacent sidewalks.

For more information visit Metro Blooms Blooming Boulevards.

So what will YOUR first step be?

Take a look at your own salt diet and see what you can do to help our local water bodies and “keep it clean”. Then team up with others to find ways to work together to take further steps like Joe Knaeble, the “Ice Man”, did in his own neighborhood.