GV graduate student explores negative effects of road salt on lakes


GVL / Rachel Slomba

Gillian Hanton, Staff Writer

As Michigan residents endure the coldest months of the year, most are comforted by the fact that they can still travel without an issue. 

Salt, the most commonly used de-icing agent for highways, roads and driveways, ensures the safety of drivers throughout the state and country. 

Because of the effectiveness of this agent, however, people have failed to recognize salt’s properties as an environmental contaminant. 

Grand Valley State University graduate student Ellen Foley has dedicated her thesis to investigating the effects of salt pollution in Church Lake and on a larger scale, the state of Michigan. 

After graduating in 2020 with a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Notre Dame, Foley decided to continue her education at GVSU by becoming a graduate research assistant at the Annis Water Resources Institute. 

When presented the opportunity to study the water quality of Church Lake as part of her research, Foley got right to work. 

She quickly realized the lake was experiencing major salt pollution from the East Beltline and contained an abundance of phosphorus; factors that negatively impact bodies of freshwater. 

“The thing with Church Lake is that it looks really beautiful from the surface and you wouldn’t know it’s having these issues if you just went to go swim in it or look at it,” Foley said. “I think it’s this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem.”

After studying the lake’s chemical makeup for over one and a half years, Foley has established that there is a relationship between increased road salt runoff in the lake and the high phosphorus levels. 

Her findings also suggest that salt pollution is not exclusive to Church Lake and has the capacity to affect other bodies of water in Michigan as well. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation currently allocates $25 million each year to spend on road salt to keep roads safe and navigable- which translates to approximately 450,000 tons of salt used each winter. 

Although the salt may dissolve, it never disappears and it’s silently polluting Michigan’s inland and Great Lakes, as exemplified by Foley’s study.

Foley said she believes solutions to this pollution are available, they just need to be executed.

“We want to get to the source of the problem, which is preventing the salt from entering freshwater systems in the first place, whether that be finding an alternative for road salt, green infrastructure or minimizing the amount of salt we’re putting down,” Foley said.

However, these ideas may be difficult to implement due to the popularity of salt in de-icing practices. 

Road salt is an efficient, cheap and trusted resource during brutal Michigan winters. Still, Foley said that it might take some time before the state is willing to consider alternatives. 

“When it comes to the issues of human safety and ecological consequences, the human safety part is going to win out,” Foley said. “We really need to evaluate our road de-icing practices if we want to keep our fresh waters fresh.”

Foley said she has faith that Michigan and the rest of the United States are making advancements when it comes to pollution and other climate-related issues. 

Although people may not be able to witness it firsthand, Foley said she is confident that necessary changes are being made. 

“There is so much research going on and I think that a lot of people, especially our age, really care about what is happening, so I have hope,” Foley said.