NEWARK, N.J. — To contend with one of the snowiest winters on record — with storm after storm pelting the state — New Jersey has caked its freeways, local streets and country roads in thick, powdery layers of salt.
Or to put it another way: The state Transportation Department has used more than 460,000 tons of salt — nearly an 80 percent increase over last winter — enough to season a large order of McDonald’s french fries for every New Jerseyan every day for nearly 368 years.
Now, as spring approaches, the consequences of using so much salt will become clear: The big thaw will float the chemical into lakes and streams, threatening freshwater fish and posing a risk to the water supplies of millions, experts say.
Many people may already find that their tap water tastes a bit unusual — even salty — and the situation could get worse.
So significant is the runoff of sodium chloride as this punishing winter draws to a close that some water companies have warned customers their tap water could contain elevated sodium levels — a concern for those on a salt-restricted diet.
“We haven’t seen any real great concentration of either sodium or chloride in the water relative to prior years,” Steve Goudsmith, a spokesman for United Water New Jersey, told The Star-Ledger of Newark. “However, as you know, most of the ground is still frozen solid and we could see an uptick as the snow melts.”
The utility company, which serves about 800,000 people in Bergen and Hudson counties, took the extra precaution this year of sending letters to about 50 medical facilities pointing out that an increase in levels of sodium and chloride are expected during this season, and encouraging dialysis centers to make any necessary adjustments to water softening equipment, Goudsmith said.
New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest investor-owned water utility, which serves 2.5 million people, said it would rely more on its groundwater supplies when sodium levels rise in its surface drinking water sources.
The company’s water quality director, Anthony Matarazzo, said the company did not typically remove the chemicals from its water because “the amount from the runoff is less than the intake found from salt in a regular diet.”
The federal government does not set limits on sodium in drinking water, but the state Department of Environmental Protection recommends an “upper limit” of 50 parts per million.
United Water and New Jersey American have both had some of their systems exceed that amount in years past, and while that doesn’t pose a risk to healthy people, it could be a concern for those who are under doctor’s orders to cut back on their use of salt.
“This can be a serious health issue for those folks,” Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, said of the salt runoff. “And it’s not good for the environment either.” Indeed, Sheehan is not the only environmentalist concerned about the effect salt runoff could have on wildlife.
Jennifer Coffey, the policy director for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association in Central Jersey, said the elevated amount of salt could kill some freshwater fish and amphibian species such as frogs, and posed the greatest risk for species development.
“We can expect to see some impacts on the development of species as spring emerges,” Coffey said. “Spring is a time for growth and birth in nature. So I would expect there may be some impacts on the eggs, the larvae and other species that may be heavily water dependent.”
There could be a ripple effect as well, said Coffey, pointing out that fish are the bottom of the food chain, and are relied upon by birds and other species as a primary source of nutrients.
But for now, the DEP says it has found the effect of road salt runoff on the environment to be minimal.
Road salt can “harm vegetation along the sides of roadways,” Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the department, said, but added that it does not pose a significant danger to wildlife.
“Road salt impact on the environment is generally minimal,” Ragonese said. “In larger waterways, it tends to dilute and flush out pretty quickly.”