River-Friendly Snow and Ice Removal

February 21, 2017

Are you a pusher or a scooper? Of snow, that is.

With all of the snow earlier this winter you likely have a distinct preference for one or the other. I’ll leave it to the medical professionals to advise on proper shoveling techniques. What I’d like to focus on is how to remove snow and ice without negatively impacting our streams. Looking out the window as I write this, it feels a bit out of touch to be writing about snow and ice, but looking at the calendar, I am hoping this information will be put to good use very soon!

Where you put your snow and how you get rid of ice can affect our streams in several ways. Here are some tricks:

First, remove the snow as it falls, before it gets tracked down. This is your first and best defense in preventing ice from forming.

Next, you want to take an extra second to think about where to pile the snow—this will help you down the road. Those that live along a stream may be tempted to push snow into it. After all, “snow is just water.” This is not a good practice, however!

Here is why: Snow from your driveway and sidewalks absorbs oil, antifreeze, overcast fertilizers (particularly with the first snowfall of the year), sand, road salts, or any chemicals that drip off of vehicles. Dumping snow straight into the river introduces all of these to the stream in high concentrations. This reduces water quality, impacting habitat.

Sure, as it melts this is mobilized and makes its way to the stream anyway. However, a large portion of it soaks through the soil first. The ground and our native riparian plants are nature’s water filter, separating the contaminants from the water before it eventually makes its way back to the river.

Therefore, piling the snow in your yard is your greatest option. Pile it in a place where when it melts it doesn’t run across a sidewalk, road or driveway. As we all know, what melts in the day refreezes at night and you could wake up to an ice rink the next morning. A blanket of snow can actually be beneficial to your lawn, as it provides an insulating layer that protects against extreme temperature fluctuations and harsh winds. Additionally, once water reaches an impervious surface (concrete, asphalt, etc.), it’s headed for the gutter and from there the storm sewer—which sees little to no treatment before running straight into a stream near you.

If you follow these tips and still end up with ice, you have a few options. Chipping away by hand provides a great arm and cardio workout right in the driveway. If you are rolling your eyes, you likely are thinking about deicers instead. Deicers, when used properly, are a great tool. When used improperly they can ruin your concrete, impact our streams, hurt your pet’s feet and even ruin your floors if you track them in on your shoes.

Available options range from rock salt (sodium chloride), calcium chloride, calcium magnesium acetate and even urea (fertilizer) or sand. Each has varying costs, benefits and problems—diving into these would take an entire article to cover. That said, sand doesn’t melt ice—it just provides traction. Urea is only effective in high quantities and will runoff into the streams adding excessive levels of nitrogen, which grows algae and causes many imbalances in the stream. It should be avoided out of respect for our rivers and in-lieu of truly better options.

Whatever you use, it’s important to read the label carefully and apply only the amount necessary. If after the ice is melted some of the product remains, you’ve applied too much and can use less in the future. Remember to sweep up the excess before it makes way for the gutter.

Keep in mind that if a product has the potential to damage your landscaping, shoes, concrete or pet’s feet, it will wreak havoc on the nearest stream, too.

Follow these tips and you can rest easy knowing that your snow removal is effective and isn’t impacting our high-quality fishing, rafting and drinking water.

Holly Loff is the Executive Director for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council advocates for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on February 19, 2017.