More Tahoe-Truckee snow this winter means more ice melt for roads |

More Tahoe-Truckee snow this winter means more ice melt for roads

Agencies have been changing the way they put sand versus salt on Tahoe-area roads — it's a battle between public safety and environmental intelligence.
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TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s no secret: When snow and ice accumulation increases in the Tahoe-Truckee region, so does the usage of ice melt by citizens, businesses and road crews.

What might not be widely known, however: The ice melt consistently peppered over the region’s roads and sidewalks, ultimately ends up washing off into the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe.

Which begs the question, is there such a thing as environmentally friendly ice melt?

“Some are friendlier than others,” said Heather Tone, office manager of the Truckee River Watershed Council. “They all have issues, so it’s a ‘lesser of evils’ sort of thing.”

Myriad ice melt options includes calcium chloride, calcium magnesium acetate, magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium chloride (rock salt) and urea.

According to, all those ice melts can damage concrete to varying degrees and most can damage grass and plants when overapplied. Some are even lethal to pets if ingested.

Those labeled as “environmentally friendly” are calcium magnesium acetate, magnesium chloride, and potassium chloride and urea/carbonyl diamide.

Yet, no matter the label, each one can damage concrete or vegetation or both — as well as pollute the town’s waterways.

“If it were strictly up to us — which it’s not — we’d love it if nobody ever used ice melt,” Tone said. “But, that’s extremely hard in this area.”

That especially rings true this winter, thanks to the El Niño-influenced influx of snowstorms.


In fact, Truckee’s Public Works Department trucks have already dumped more ice melt this season than they have in five years, said Thom Ravey, the town’s street maintenance manager.

“We have used a lot this year because of the frequency of weather events,” Ravey said. “We’re at approximately 1,000 tons (of ice melt) right now. We’ve been averaging about 5 to 600 tons over the last four years.”

Truckee’s road crews use a de-icing mix made of 90 percent sand and 10 percent salt. The ice melt is scattered over the town’s main arterial roadways, as well as the areas Ravey calls “hot spots” — hills, curbs, intersections, and “shady areas that tend to develop icy conditions.”

“You need some type of traction for safety, but what we do is try to limit the amount of salt exposed to the environment by using a 10 percent mix (of salt),” Ravey said. “We strike a balance between the needs of melting ice and the impact of additional salt into the town’s waterways.

“Preserving our natural environment is job No. 1 — because (our environment) is why we live here.”


Placer County, meanwhile, uses a mix made of over 95 percent sand and less than 5 percent salt to de-ice its Tahoe-area roads, said Don Anderson, assistant roads superintendent.

Anderson said the county dropped its salt ratio below 5 percent nearly a decade ago to limit the salt runoff into rivers and streams.

“It’s better for the environment, better for the whole situation,” added Anderson.

Placer County will also occasionally use salt brine — a combination of salt and water sprayed on roads before anticipated snowstorms — that it receives from the state, Anderson said.

For Washoe County, the public works department uses an ice melt with a significantly higher salt ratio.

The road crews spread a mix of 75 percent sand and 25 percent salt, said Rich Thomsen, roads supervisor.

Washoe County also uses salt brine before anticipated snowstorms, Thomsen noted.

According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, the sand/salt mixture it uses on Tahoe roads “creates unwanted sediment, but is an essential part of wintertime maintenance.”

Still, what’s spread on roads is done in the most environmentally safe way possible; according to NDOT, it has reduced winter road maintenance-related sand use from 4,300 cubic yards per year in 1990 to roughly 850 cubic yards these days, and reduced salt usage by 70 percent.

As for Caltrans, which manages the state highway system, its trucks primarily use salt brine, said Liza Whitmore, public information officer for Caltrans, District 3.

“Salt brine is 50 percent less salt than just applying general salt to the road,” Whitmore said. “It’s about reducing the amount of salt that goes into the environment. We have to worry about what’s going into the environment, the runoff, when it melts.”

Salt in the water

So just how much salt ends up in the average US waterway?

The short answer: A lot.

In fact, a year ago a research publication — Science of The Total Environment — found that 84 percent of US streams it measured had increased chloride concentrations. According to the publication, the rise comes from sodium chloride, the most affordable and most common ice melt used.

“Everything trickles down (to the waterways) eventually,” said Tone of the TRWC. “The less that we use and the more environmentally safe products we use, that just creates a healthier environment for our bugs, our fish, our birds … and us, quite frankly.”

Tone said that even those who don’t live near waterways should be eco-conscious about using ice melt.

“You may think, I live really far from the rivers and don’t have a creek or a stream by my house,” she continued. “But that’s not really true. Things get washed away — into your lawn or into the gutter and the storm drain, and it all kind of ends up in the same place.

“If we all chip in than it can make a big difference. The reality is our Truckee River flows right down to Reno, so it’s not just impacting us locally, but it’s impacting a bigger area regionally. That’s a lot of people that it’s reaching, and they use that water, too.”

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