Road crews have dumped almost a half-million tons of salt on New Jersey roads during this seemingly endless winter, state Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro said.
That is an immense amount: The winter’s 489,000 tons is nearly twice last season’s 257,000 tons, and much more than the 150,000 tons the state previously said it averaged between 2006 and 2011.
Expressed another way, this year’s total is enough salt to make an immense square salt lick about 230 square feet per side. It’s enough to give every one of the state’s 8.8 million residents two 50-pound sacks of rock salt — with more than enough left over to cut Delaware’s 898,000 residents in on the deal.
So, where does it all go? Not that far.
“There has been evidence that a lot of fresh waters are becoming saltier from road salt applications,” said John Bunnell, chief scientist for the New Jersey Pinelands Commission. The salt applied to the road washes into ponds and streams, and from there it lingers until washed away.
No studies directly address the impact of salt on the Pinelands, Bunnell said. Instead, water monitoring sites show the water’s conductivity, a common surrogate measure for salt, increases the closer one gets to roads and development.
In one 2008 study, Fred Akers, administrator of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, found the Mankiller Branch of Babcock Creek in Hamilton Township faced elevated salt levels because of its closeness to the Atlantic City Expressway. The small stream passes under the highway as it runs about a half-mile from Route 50 to Holly Street in Hamilton Township’s Laureldale section.
At one point, following a February 2006 storm, conductivity readings near the highway overpass increased at nearly 900 times a typical Pinelands stream. The road has since been expanded to a full interchange at Route 50.
“I’m concerned” about the long-term effects, Akers said. “It’s just common sense that if you put a bunch of chemicals on the land and the water it will have a negative effect.”
Amy Karpati, an ecologist with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said general studies throughout the Northeast show increased salt levels in water disrupt the way animals regulate the amount of salt in their bodies. The higher the salt concentration, the more water flows from the animals’ bodies.
As a result, Karpati said, frogs, salamanders and fish essentially dehydrate, even though they are submerged.
Salt levels also change plant communities, she said, clearing a path for salt-tolerant invasive species such as phragmites. The effect is not limited to roads, she said, with damage seen as far as 200 meters away.
Elsewhere, road salt can affect people by getting into the drinking water. Last month, New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest water provider, warned its customers that a warm spell that melted snow banks could leave their tap water tasting a little salty.
The company does not typically remove sodium and chloride during its water-treatment process, Anthony Matarazzo, the company’s senior director of water quality and environmental management, said in a statement, because the amount is less than in a typical diet. Still, he said, the company uses more groundwater when melting snow can affect drinking water.
None of the company’s 2.5 million New Jersey customers complained, company spokesman Peter Eschbach said.
Locally, salt has a limited effect on tap water, because most people in the region drink groundwater. Almost all of the region’s drinking water comes from the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, located about 800 feet beneath the earth’s surface.
Only Atlantic City relies, in part, on surface water. Bruce Ward, executive director of the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, said there has been no measurable increase of either sodium or chloride this winter.
It is unclear how much salt the region uses. The DOT broadly divides its road crews into southern, central and northern divisions, but Schapiro said it does not tally its divisional usage figures until the end of the season.
The South Jersey Transportation Authority has put down 8,046 tons of salt on the expressway so far in 2014, along with 22,359 gallons of liquid calcium, operations manager Kevin Rehmann said. The authority had used just 3,870 tons of salt and 5,295 gallons of liquid calcium by this point in 2013.
On Tuesday, Rehmann sounded weary as he helped the authority prepare for yet another go-round with the snow. Tallying up all the salt, he said, “This winter just won’t go away, will it?”
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