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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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City of Madison bike path, a surface UW-Madison does not clear.

UW-Madison’s rock salt use is a balance of safety, environmental protection

The university’s use of different melting agents combined with salt reuse mitigates environmental harm.

Property owners in Madison are required by a city ordinance to use minimal amounts of rock salt or melting agents and sweep up any excess left on the ground. However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not bound to the same rules and fines as the city. 

Cities across the Midwest dealing with snow, ice and freezing temperatures have turned to rock salt to prevent potential dangers of sliding cars and slipping pedestrians. Rock salt is effective in melting ice, but it adds a host of environmental dangers, especially to the lakes and waterways in Madison as explained in the Madison Salt Use Ordinance.

If salt use rules are not followed, property owners are subject to fines. The reasoning behind these rules is to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians while simultaneously lowering the city’s salt use to mitigate the negative environmental impacts as well as public health concerns. 

The university’s exemption from the Madison Salt Use Ordinance has led to accusations from Madison residents of the university “over-salting” pavement.

“UW-Madison collaborates with local cities and villages to keep roads on and around campus clear, and it can be difficult to tell who takes care of which area,” Marketing and Communications Director for UW-Madison Division of Facilities Planning and Management Lori Wilson said in a statement to The Daily Cardinal. 

A recent slew of tweets showcased Madison streets covered in excess rock salt with the assumption that they have been treated by UW-Madison. Wilson explained that some of the images in the tweets are not roads the university are responsible for, but rather other property owners.  

“Some of the images featured in recent tweets are not treated by UW-Madison staff,” Wilson said.

The university’s goal is to balance the safety of students, professors and faculty with environmental effects that come with rock salt, Wilson explained. It is UW-Madison’s responsibility to keep campus roads and sidewalks clear, which requires using a sufficient amount of salt. 

“Falls on ice can be extremely harmful to individuals,” Wilson said. “Applying proper amounts of road salt is a commonly utilized and effective method for addressing these hazards and meeting our safety responsibilities. Staff are trained to use the minimum effective amount of salt.” 

Wilson further explained that the university uses a multitude of different melting agents depending on the type of weather and temperature. They do so to be more environmentally friendly and maintain their goal of never over-salting campus roads. Wilson did admit there are times when accidents occur and excess salt is released. 

“During our last snow storm, a larger chunk of salt became wedged in a machine, resulting in excess salt on the pavement,” said Wilson. “Once the operator realized this, he dislodged it. The next morning, he returned to the area with a sweeper/vacuum machine and sucked up the excess salt that was then returned to our supply for later use.”

Clean Lakes Alliance Marketing and Communications Director Adam Sodersten strongly recommended this technique of sweeping up and reusing salt. Sodersten described the harm rock salt can cause to aquatic ecosystems, and in turn, the economy. 

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“All of our storm sewers lead to the lakes, so anything that happens on the land is going to find its way to the lakes,” said Sodersten. “When we over-salt there's too many chlorides in the lake, it starts to affect plant life. If certain plants aren't able to thrive in the winter, then they're not there for smaller fish that rely on those plants for food, then less people will come to Madison to fish and then it affects our economy.”

Sodersten explained the best ways to treat icy walkways and roads is to use environmentally friendly melting agents such as sand, and when necessary, only a coffee cup worth of rock salt for an entire driveway. 

Madison pretreats roads with brine solutions to decrease the amount of salt needed after large snow and ice storms, and refrains from using salt under certain temperatures, Sodersten added. These tactics are often utilized by the university, according to Wilson.  

Sodersten praised UW-Madison for how it deals with snow and ice, keeping the importance of the environment in mind. 

“The University of Wisconsin is an environmental leader in many ways,” said Sodersten. “I'm confident that the university will continue to look at best practices and will find a way to do what's best for the environment.”

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