Rock salt seems like an unlikely artistic medium – but not to Annie Irene Hejny.
Last April, she swept up rock salt from six parking spaces and came away with four gallons of salt, which she used to create her latest work, “Seeing Salt.” It was her capstone project, and it earned her certificate as a Minnesota Water Steward.
Minnesota Water Stewards is a program of the Freshwater Society, which gives community members the knowledge and skills needed to improve water health at the grassroots level. After training in stormwater management and groundwater health, water policy, community-based social marketing, landscape assessment and installation of clean water practices, stewards complete a capstone project that improves the health of local water while involving and educating their community.
Hejny, who is known for creating art with river water and sediment, decided to use her art to communicate the environmental damage produced by road salt. She talked about her art and shared her knowledge during a panel discussion held in her studio in the Casket Arts Building on Saturday, Nov. 11. With her was Michelle Spangler, a Water Steward who started the Northeast Adopt-A-Drain challenge, and Abby Moore, an outreach coordinator with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) who oversees the Water Stewards program.
The first question was, “How does MWMO define fresh water protection?” Moore answered, “By managing what gets into the river. The watershed in Minneapolis is 100% developed and covered by roads and bridges.” One of MWMO’s goals is behavior change – getting people to see how salt usage impacts water quality and convince them to use less of it. “Salt is a big part of our winter education program,” she said. “Just because you cannot see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
She noted that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a Smart Salting Certificate program that landlords and building managers can earn. She said MWMO had worked with the City of Minneapolis to calibrate their salt spreaders to use less, and to prioritize which streets are salted, such as major thoroughfares, and which might be left alone (side streets).
When asked, “Who are Water Stewards?” Spangler replied, “People who care. People who talk to neighbors and family members and engage more of the community in adopting drains and installing rain gardens. Some talk to the Legislature about salt use.”
One of the things Hejny learned through the program was that salt is a “forever chemical.” “One teaspoon of road salt pellets pollutes five gallons of water. It never goes away,” she said. A pockmarked sidewalk is a sign of an over-salted sidewalk.
Moore took note of a University of Minnesota study that found that 78% of the salt laid down each winter ends up in groundwater or on surface water. The rest goes into the soil. “Madison, Wisc., has so much accumulated salt in its water system, water coming out of the tap tastes salty,” she said. According to the City of Madison website, at least three city wells are expected to surpass the “taste threshold” of 250 milligrams per liter in the next 17 years.
The 25 people who crowded into Hejny’s tiny studio had lots of questions about salt, ranging from when did Minnesota start using so much de-icing salt on the roads (the 1970s) to Hejny’s artistic process to what individuals could do to help the environment.
Hejny said once she decided to use road salt as a medium, she started “seeing salt” everywhere. Her process was straightforward: Take river water and salt and apply it to various materials and see what happens. “This stuff is really corrosive,” she said. When she applied salt granules to fabric she had dyed with locally gathered indigo, it ate through the fabric. When she used snow, salt and blocks of grout in various amounts, some of the blocks disintegrated. She said the salt continued to work on the grout even after it fell out of the blocks. Unlike some of her previous works, she said, “This stuff won’t last. The materials will be eaten away over time.” She called the piece, “When too much is too much.”
On the individual level, the panelists had several nuggets of advice for handling winter’s snow and ice without using salt. The first was to get out and shovel – early, and often. Letting snow compact makes it harder to get down to the concrete and encourages ice buildup, particularly with heavy, wet snows. Removing the snow early also means walkers will have less chance to make a mess of your sidewalk.
If you have to use salt, clear the walk and put it down on the ice. But don’t put it down on dry pavement. Spangler suggested shoveling your sidewalk full width, but placing salt only in the middle.
“More salt does not make the ice melt faster,” said Moore. In fact, salt loses its ice-melting potency at 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The recommended amount is about a pound for every 250 square feet of pavement, or seven sidewalk panels. That’s about a granule every three inches. You don’t have to get out a ruler to measure. Hejny said, “Don’t toss it or dump it. Just sprinkle.” She also cautioned against following the application directions on the salt container or bag. “Don’t trust them. They’re trying to sell more salt. It’s bad for the environment, and it’s not ‘pet safe.’”
If traction is needed, use sand or chicken grit, but be aware that sand can also be a pollutant when it goes down the storm drain. When sidewalks are clear and dry, sweep up the salt and grit and reuse it after the next snow event, rather than applying more.
Shoveling, selecting the right material for traction, lightly scattering salt and sweeping are part of the Smart Salt Pledge.
There are steps you can take during the summer months to make your winter easier and less icy, the panelists said. Spangler said water had a tendency to pond on the public sidewalk in front of her house. Over the summer, she dug a small hollow in the grassy boulevard. “Now the melting snow has someplace to go,” she said. Moore mentioned a “dippy gutter” over her front door; straightening it eliminated ice from the stairs below.
You can also use the summer months to talk to neighbors and friends about salt use, Spangler said. The panelists suggested tailoring an anti-salt message to the person’s interests. Tell anglers about how toxic salt is to aquatic life. We’ve all seen parking lots that are white with salt; point out to landlords how they could save money by using less salt. Take the Smart Salt Pledge yourself and set an example.