Outdoors

Keep that salt off the roads, walks

The Nature Call: Author calls winter helper 'poison'

Salt on our roads can act as a “poison” and abuse to our waterways. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
Salt on our roads can act as a “poison” and abuse to our waterways. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
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There was no crime in what I was doing, though it certainly violated the norms.

I mean, who goes outside in a collared shirt and dress shoes to sweep up used rock salt at work.

We probably see salt differently, that is the salt we pour on our walks and roads to combat ice. Maybe you love to see it — “it’s a victory for traction and an instrument of human ingenuity.” Perhaps you view it as a necessity, whatever the consequences, as a taken-for-granted part of life in the Midwest.

I did, too. But now I see salt as a poison, a vector for additional abuse to our waterways and the life therein.

Water quality, or more accurately, poor water quality, is a top issue in this state. Abuses of nitrogen, phosphorus, and manure runoff are legion. Well, add salt to that list.

Motorists speak for their drives and pedestrians for their walks: Grip is their battle cry. But who speaks for the rivers? What if we gave rivers a voice? Then we could have a fairer fight.

Some have tried and some are doing just that. In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas dissented in the Mineral King case. A corporation wanted to develop part of a valley called “Mineral King,” it was near Sequoia National Park.

The Sierra Club sued but the court’s majority rejected their claim saying they didn’t have standing. That is, the Sierra Club wasn’t directly hurt so case closed. But in his dissent Douglas said nature itself should be able to sue if it is being hurt. Imagine that.

Recently a federal court in Virginia ruled against a pipeline proposed to cross your national forest in Appalachia. Their opinion quoted The Lorax in taking to task the Forest Service for abdicating its responsibility to “speak for the trees.”

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New Zealand granted the Whanganui river rights of personhood after centuries of lobbying by the local tribe. If rivers could speak to us in Iowa they would yell. They’d complain and bellyache so much that we would give in and change our ways. We do that all the time for our children, grandkids and pets.

Snow tires, bigger travel delays and more grit tracked into the house are compromises I could live with for one less abuse to our waters. The Gazette featured a story on Dec. 13 of using beet juice in Cedar Rapids to reduce the salt load when treating icy streets.

Sugar melts ice, so does whey. Both are products from beleaguered state industries in need of sales, corn and dairy respectively. If we treated salt pollution seriously would those homegrown products become more attractive?

I finished sweeping my sliver of the world. The rock salt had laid like shattered glass, useless and dangerous on the walk. It had bothered me for days but I had promised myself I would let it go.

Oh, but the intervening days and glances made each tolling of the clock louder and louder. My tell tale conscious and insufferable do-gooderness won out. And like the plate of cookies that I swore I wouldn’t eat, I did the deed in a mad rush.

The “recycled” salt found a home atop the salt bucket guarding the entrance. The loss of its blue color revealed its journey. Satisfied, I claimed victory in this singular skirmish. But the war for our water continues.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.