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Road salt harmful to plants and animals

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By Lee Einer

‘Carthago delenda est!” cried Cato the Elder, “Carthage must be destroyed!”

And so the Romans did, reportedly by leveling the city, selling its surviving citizens into slavery, and then sowing the land with salt.

The Spanish adopted a similar practice. When a landowner was convicted of treason, salt was poured upon their lands, spelling death not only for the resident plants, but also humans, and any animals, birds and insects that depended on those lands for their habitat.

We have known for ages that salt is a killer of the soil and all that grows upon it.

So why do we put it on our roads?

It’s a rhetorical question. I realize that it’s done to melt snow and ice from the road. But there is a cost in excess of the monetary.

Let’s talk about the cost.

The salt slush that is formed after salting the roads is splashed up on the roadside soil, plants and trees, killing them. The salt kills soil’s biotic communities, which in turn deteriorates soil structure, meaning that the soil loses fertility and cannot hold as much water. The topsoil, stripped of life, becomes part of the salt runoff.

The salt water runs into the storm drains, and from there into the Gallinas river. There, it becomes a problem for the fish, and for vegetation that grows in the river and along its banks. While trout are fairly resistant to high concentrations of salt, crayfish and other crustaceans which are food for the trout are more vulnerable.

Large herbivores, such as elk, like salt. They like it way too much. Ingestion of road salt has been linked to the deaths of elk and bighorn sheep in Jasper National Park.

Birds easily overdose on road-salt-seed-eating birds may not be able to distinguish between grains of road salt and the grains of sand and rock they need for their crops.

One grain of road salt can cause a bird to develop behavioral irregularities, and as little as two grains of road salt can be lethal to them. Mass poisoning of as many as a thousand birds at a time has been recorded. Birds also die from salt ingestion by indirect means, as the impaired behavior due to salt toxicosis causes them to fly into incoming cars.

The cherry on the cake is that salt corrodes metal. Including the metal in overpasses, bridges, culverts. And automobiles. I lived in that part of the midwest referred to as “the salt belt,” and I can tell you that salt-induced body rot was the main cause of death for the vehicles there.

Recently, planted medians on Grand avenue have been ruled out by the DOT. They don’t believe plants would survive there, because of the salt used on the roads. Despite the fact that properly designed, planted medians would help to infiltrate rainwater into our soil, reduce runoff and beautify a fairly scabby-looking stretch of city street, the knee jerk apparently is to keep the salt and nix the medians. Two thumbs down for that uncreative bit of thinking.

Granted, ice on the roads is a safety issue. But there are alternatives. Plain cinders or sand do not melt the ice, but they do provide traction without putting such extreme stress on the soil, vegetation and wildlife.

• • •

Natural ecosystems and human social systems have their similarities.

An ecosystem’s health and resilience is proportional to some degree to the number of species present in the system. But an even better indicator of an ecosystem’s health is not the number of sytem elements so much as the number of relationships between those elements.

So it is also, I think, with human communities. The more we interact, the healthier we are.

To that end, I have created an interactive website for permaculturists, gardeners and farmers in this bioregion. The site is for exchange of permaculture knowledge with a sense of place, a site where we can share what we have found out about what works well here, from plant species to soil repair to water harvesting.

You can visit it at www.nenmpermies.wetpaint.com

Websites are typically a passive medium — the webmaster is active in posting, but those who visit are limited to being passive readers. Because I value participation and group interaction, I have gone a different route and set this up as a wiki.

A wiki, unlike a standard website, is not just one you visit as a passive observer. Those who sign on to the wiki can become co-creators of the site, with the ability to add and edit content and even create new pages.

I am excited at the prospect and I encourage those interested to visit, share and contribute.

Lee Einer is the Optic’s feature editor and a certified permaculture designer. You can reach him at features@lasvegasoptic,.com