Last month’s snow and ice invariably raises questions about how local and state officials maintain roads during winter weather.

For years, Clark County Public Works has judiciously used salt to improve public safety and transportation mobility during winter travel.

The county mixes salt with water to create salt brine, which is 23.3 percent salt. This solution is sprayed on roads as an anti-icer before the arrival of a snow or ice storm to inhibit ice crystals from binding to road pavements. (This is sometimes erroneously referred to as “de-icing,” even though you cannot “de-ice” something that does not yet exist.) Clark County occasionally sprays salt brine as a de-icer once snow and ice has accumulated. The county also will mix salt with gravel that is spread on curves, hills and other trouble areas where drivers need more traction.

The Washington State Department of Transportation and cities in Clark County also use salt, in one form or another. So do Public Works agencies across large sections of the U.S. The term “salt belt” refers to states in the Midwest and Northeast that experience harsh winter weather and use large amounts of salt to reduce the inherent travel hazards.

Some neighboring agencies, such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), have been reluctant to use salt. In recent years, Portland and ODOT have relied on a solution made with magnesium chloride, although ODOT in 2012 launched a salt pilot program on Interstate 5 near the California border and on U.S. 95 in southeast Oregon.

All chloride products are corrosive, not only to cars but to bridges and other transportation infrastructure. That said, there are several important points regarding Clark County’s use of salt.

First, public safety is Clark County Public Works’ No. 1 priority. People can get hurt or even killed during inclement weather. Our community counts on Clark County to keep roads as safe as possible during winter weather.

Second, salt is an effective way to control snow and ice, both in terms of cost and its ability to reduce winter travel hazards.

Third, Clark County is not Chicago or Buffalo, N.Y. Winters here tend to be wet and mild. Relatively small amounts of salt are used on county roads, certainly nothing like is standard practice in the Midwest and Northeast. Because the amount of salt used is relatively small, there is minimal environmental impact on streams, rivers, and groundwater.

The Washington State Transportation Center conducted a study along SR 97 in Chelan County, from December 1999 to May 2000. Despite significant use of chloride products for snow and ice control, there was no measurable negative impact on Peshastin Creek, a fish-bearing stream that parallels a portion of the state highway.

Although Clark County Public Works strives to be careful and reasonable in how it uses salt, the county encourages residents wash their vehicles after a winter storm, preferably at a commercial car wash that sprays the vehicle’s underside. (It’s also a good idea to wash your vehicle after a weekend at the beach.) Getting your vehicle to a car wash after a winter storm takes time and costs money, but it’s far more convenient and cheaper than taking your vehicle to the body shop for expensive repairs.

After large sections of Portland were virtually paralyzed by a relatively small amount of snow on Dec. 14, transportation officials on the other side of Columbia River are facing increasing pressure to consider using salt. ODOT announced on Dec. 16 that it would expand its pilot program and begin using salt on a limited basis across the state. The agency said its use of salt would be “surgical” on a case-by-case basis, where it will have the greatest effect on public safety and transportation mobility.

This article was a Guest Post from Jeff Mize, Clark County Public Works

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