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Pass the salt

GAYS MILLS - The other day I awoke from a "reading nap" dream (not a nightmare) I was having about road salt of all things. I had been reading an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about road salt when I nodded off, so the dream sort of made sense. The dream: a truck was backed into our drive and a couple of stout lads were unloading 1,500 pounds, almost a ton, of road salt. It was in 50-pound bags and it made quite a pile.

The article told about how much salt we use in Wisconsin to battle against ice and snow on winter roads. I did some rough calculations on the newspaper margin and came out with how much salt is used per person in an average winter. You can check my math: 1.42 million tons of salt divided by 5.8 million Wisconsinites = 489 pounds per person.

Another interesting statistic: counties and local governments use an average of 510,000 tons of salt on the state's 30,000 "lane miles" of highways and interstates. That works out to 340 pounds of salt per lane mile. I assume there are 14 lane miles on two-lane Highway 131 between Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove, which would require 4,760 pounds of salt. Extrapolate that seven-mile stretch out across the state and you get an idea of the scope of the use of salt.

It turns out that salt has gotten a lot more expensive over the years, nearly $78 a ton now compared to less than $30 in 2000. That was the point of the Journal article and of course that part of keeping the roads safe during winter is crucial.

One creative thing some counties have been trying is using salt brine sometimes in place of regular coarse, dry road salt. Crawford County was an early adapter of salt brine. Using salt brine is vastly more economical than using road salt and works well under certain conditions. It is sprayed onto roads ahead of expected snow and can work where road salt can't.  Road salt is not effective when temperatures are below 15 degrees, whereas brine is. 

One thing I read is that up to a third of dry road salt bounces off the road as it's being applied. Brine tends to stay where it lands on the blacktop. Surprisingly, applying beet juice, a by-product of processing sugar beets, has also been found to be an effective way to treat winter roads.

The drawbacks of road salt use are that it eventually winds up in the off-road environment, soil and water, which doesn't help either. Also, road salt is tough on vehicles and causes rust and corrosion.  A mechanic friend told me that salt brine is actually worse on rusting a car out than road salt is. On the plus side, road salt has greatly improved the safety of winter driving. 

The first use of road salt in the U.S. was in New Hampshire in 1941. Wisconsin started using road salt in 1959.  Prior to that roads were simply plowed and sanded. Using tire chains, studded snow tires and probably just not driving as much in winters before 1959 made life a lot different than it is now