7 Tips to Weather the Winter — Water-Wisely!

Winter has descended in full force, and with it comes blizzards, nor’easters, and every other type of snowstorm. It also brings the potential for some serious water pollution. While managing the ever-growing blanket of snow and ice this winter, be sure to keep these tips in mind in order to protect our water supply and environment.

  1. shoveling_snowShovel early and often. While this may not seem like much of a pollution deterrent, it actually makes a huge difference. Removing the bulk of snow before it is allowed to freeze greatly reduces the amount of deicing products needing to be applied. Consider utilizing a garden hoe to remove that last pesky layer of ice.
  2. Dispose of all of that shoveled snow in vegetated areas, and avoid shoveling into streets or waterways. Snow that is shoveled into the street has nowhere to go but into storm drains and streams, picking up pollutants along the way. However, snow disposed of in vegetated areas will soak into the ground, reducing the amount of polluted runoff entering waterways. The ideal place to dispose of snow is in a rain garden.
  3. Avoid using deicers such as rock salt as much as possible. When winter ends and all of the snow and ice starts to melt, the remaining salt finds its way into storm drains and streams, and enters our drinking water supply untreated. Rock salt wreaks havoc on aquatic life and can cause dead zones at the bottom of lakes and reservoirs. Because it is so widely used, northern water bodies are becoming increasingly overloaded with salt, and the cleanup is both expensive and energy-intensive. In addition to polluting the environment, salt deteriorates pavement and concrete, corrodes vehicles, and leaches into soil, which changes soil composition and inhibits plant growth. It is also detrimental to pets’ health when ingested and paws when walked upon. Other deicers such as calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and acetates do not contain salt and are a better option, but should still be used only very sparingly, as they still have a detrimental effect on the environment.
  4. sanding_icy_drivewayUse only the smallest amounts of sand required for traction control. While admittedly a better option than deicing products, sand has the potential to cause environmental damage as well. Sand can clog storm drains, causing flooding. It can also enter surface waters, clouding the water, burying the ocean floor, and filling in habitats. Due to these environmental concerns, sand should be used only sparingly on icy surfaces and should be swept up promptly at the first sign of spring. Sawdust is an alternative option for traction control that causes less pollution. Still, it should also be swept promptly in the spring.
  5. Pick up pet waste regularly. It can be tough to get motivated to pick up Fido’s waste when the windchill is sub-zero. However, pet waste is loaded with bacteria that enters our waterways through runoff at the first thaw. Don’t wait until spring to clean up after your pets. A little proactive prevention really helps to preserve the integrity of our drinking water supply.
  6. commercial_car_washChoose a commercial car wash facility over washing your car at home. While those warm winter days may entice you to break out the garden hose and bucket, the residual water has nowhere to go but down the driveway, particularly when there is a lot of snow cover. Bringing with it soap, dirt, and pollutants along the way, this water enters storm drains and waterways untreated. The Clean Water Act requires that car washes to pipe their used wash water directly to water treatment plants or into state-approved drainage facilities specifically designed to protect the environment. In addition, a commercial car wash uses about half the water used during a home wash. The negligible cost of a commercial car wash is well worth the benefit to the environment.
  7. Dispose of ashes from heating stoves properly. Wood ash contains many elements that can be beneficial to gardens including potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Therefore, composting wood ash is acceptable. However, coal ash absolutely must be disposed of at a landfill or ash recycling center. Coal ash contains elements such as cobalt, boron, and arsenic, which are toxic to people, animals, plants, and our waterways.

How Dangerous is Dumping Snow into the Ocean?

A “snow farm” located in Boston Harbor. When it all melts where will it go?

If you’re in New England this year, the only thing on people’s minds – apart from the Patriots’ Superbowl win – is the extreme snow fall we’ve faced.

Cities around the region are reaching record-breaking snow accumulation resulting in budget-breaking snow clean up for cities and towns.  What’s got most officials worried is that it’s only February.  Winter here in New England has a long way to go.

In Boston, a harbor city, with historically narrow and windy streets, crews are running out of places to put the snow.  Streets are becoming impassable, sidewalks are nearly non-existent.  Traffic is slowing to a halt, trains are freezing on the rails, creating difficult and dangerous traveling conditions for all.

When conditions go beyond salting and plowing, some municipalities use diesel-powered snow melters to dispose of the snow.  Massachusetts’ Governor, Charlie Baker announced that the state has bought two of these to help with condition across the state.  These machines are costly, but provide a slow, but guarantee of snow removal. But with the amount of snow the entire state has faced in recent weeks, snow melters will take a long time to whittle away at all the piles. Coastal cities, like Boston, are considering another dramatic option – plowing snow into the ocean. While this option is equally successful at getting rid of snow, it could potentially be more expensive in the long run.

While the act of dumping snow into the ocean has long been banned, there is the option for cities and towns to request a waiver from the state in situations where the accumulated snow poses a danger to the public.  However this has now become a very difficult debate for officials to maneuver – one of protecting public health no matter what side of the debate you are on.

It’s important to remember that dumping snow into the ocean is nothing like the snow that falls into the ocean during a snow storm.  Plowed snow is snow that has been dragged through the streets, always with large amounts of salt, oil, and any other debris left on the roads. That pollutes the ocean, and so can only be done if the snow constitutes a danger to public health — a point, some argue, Boston has approached.

But doesn’t that debris and pollution enter the ocean when the snow melts and drain through the storm drains?

The short answer is, “Yes”. Paul Levy, the first director of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, writes that he thinks it’s pretty silly to let Boston build up the snow in giant snow farms right near the water, but not let the city push the snow into the harbor – when it’s going to melt into the water anyway.  Forcing the city to create snow mountains only means wasting time that could be better spent getting rid of snow from increasingly clogged streets, he says in a blog post.

In a response to his original call for ocean dumping, Levy commented, “I’m not suggesting we make a habit out of it. I’m suggesting that when you have an emergency situation, with gridlock on the streets, extraordinary measures are called for. It’s just a matter of time before someone dies because an ambulance can’t get there; or a person slips off a snowbank in front of a car or truck, or isn’t seen walking on the street and gets flattened, or whatever. If doing the harbor disposal for a day or two could expedite the street cleaning, it’s worth a bit of environmental degradation. After all, we engage in environmental protection, at least in part, as a public health measure. If we are too pure about that, we can end up causing a different kind of public health problem.”

With more snow expected this week, the debate will continue whether to dump or not to dump.  Until it melts, we New Englanders, naturally a hardy group, will just continue to cry “Uncle” to Mother Nature.