Governments in Waterloo region spend $3.8M annually on road salt

According to information from the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge and the region of Waterloo, a combined 43,000 tonnes of salt will be used to keep roads ice-free this winter. 

Almost all drinking wells used by Kitchener and Waterloo have elevated sodium levels, experts say

Salt spread by private industries likely matches or exceeds volumes used by governments on roads, according to experts. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

According to information from the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo, a combined 43,000 tonnes of salt will be used to keep roads ice-free this winter. 

All that salt costs $3.8 million each year.

Responsibility for salting and snow removal is split between the cities and the regional government. Each has its own fleet of trucks, de-icing methods, and salt purchase price.

Salt by the numbers

Kitchener buys the most salt among the four governments, but their purchase price per tonne is by far the least. They pay $1.3 million annually for 15,500 tonnes. While the others in the region pay about $90 a tonne, Kitchener pays $83. 

The eight per cent difference adds up to significant revenue savings. Were Kitchener to pay the same price as the other governments, their salt would cost an additional $108,000 dollars per year. 

They spread an average 13 tonnes of salt on each kilometre of road they are responsible for clearing. 

Cambridge uses the least amount of salt on its roads, averaging only five tonnes for each kilometre. They also purchase the least salt, spending $600,000 on 6,500 tonnes annually. 

A spokesperson from Cambridge noted that the city receives significantly less snowfall than other municipalities in the region. 

No regulations for parking lots, sidewalks

That 43,000 tonnes is likely only half of the total salt being used in the Waterloo region says Claire Oswald, associate professor of geography and environmental science at Ryerson University. 

"Double that, and maybe add a bit more, and then you would have what is actually going on to the landscape," she said. 

According to Oswald, there are regulations on how much salt should be put on government roads, but those regulations don't exist for parking lots, sidewalks and other private spaces.

Rock salt spread on a sidewalk in downtown Kitchener. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

Over-salting comes from public expectations and liability concerns, she said.

Paul Johnson, operations manager for Wellington County, makes the same argument.

"I would say that most contractors out there will get a lawsuit a season, at least. That's per site," he said. 

"It depends on how big they are, they might have 60, 70, 80, maybe 100 or more sites that they maintain and so, the potential is quite great that they'll get a lawsuit." 

Health and environmental impacts

Eventually, that salt makes its way off the roads and into the environment says Eric Hodgins, manager of hydrogeology and source water at the Region of Waterloo. 

"We see increasing sodium and chloride levels in pretty much every single one of our wells. The concentrations are increasing to the extent that they exceed, in many cases, the Ontario drinking water standard, for either sodium or chloride," he said. 

Over-salting in parking lots is a common occurrence according to Paul Johnson, Operations Manager at Wellington County. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

Elevated salt levels in lakes and streams also have a detrimental effect on the smaller organisms living in them says Derek Gray, a professor of Biology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

He added that these bugs and plankton end up passing the salt up the food chain to larger animals such as fish and birds.

Cutting back

Over the last few years, local governments have moved to reduce their salt use. 

They've employed computerized spreaders that control how much salt is put down depending on the speed of the vehicle.

Many municipalities also pre-wet the salt, making it sticky and less likely to bounce off the road when applied.

There are also pre-storm brine sprays used by some municipalities, Eric Hodgins said. They make snow removal easier by preventing it from binding to the road in the first place. 

Though salt use changes from year to year depending on weather, a spokesperson for the City of Waterloo said they cut their salt usage by 6,000 tonnes between 2013 and 2017.