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How our miraculous transportation system turns water into brine

How our miraculous transportation system turns water into brine

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

When English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge published those words in 1798, there was no dense network of modern concrete and asphalt roads in Great Britain (or anywhere else) and there were no automobiles or trucks to ride on them. And so, of course, there was no salting of roads in winter.

The excerpt quoted above is from Coleridge’s famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and refers to the mariner’s desperate desire for drinkable water while floating on the ocean.

We as a society are inching closer each year to bringing the ancient mariner’s predicament on land because of our practice of salting roads in winter to make them safer for driving. The amount of salt we use for this purpose in the United States has gone from 0.15 metric tons per year in the 1940s to 18 million metric tons annually as of 2017.

The result has been dangerously escalating salt concentrations in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Some urban bodies of water exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for protecting aquatic life by 20 to 30 times. Humans, of course, aren’t aquatic life, but the trend in the salinization of surface water is troubling given the important role those waters play in water supplies around the country and the world.

The proposed solutions tend to emphasize substitutes—sand and beet juice (yes, really)—or more parsimonious use of road salt. What those proposing solutions do not explore is whether a road system serving over a billion motor vehicles—the vast majority of which consume petroleum and spew climate warming gases—is the best one for our needs. The assumption generally is that the current system cannot be changed and that all the problems attendant to this system have to be addressed without disturbing its basic structure.

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