Connie Fortin, long-time chloride expert, is focusing upstream on low-salt infrastructure design to reduce saline pollution.
After decades of saline seminars, dozens of salt symposia (which are a real thing), and personally training more than 20,000 plow drivers, Connie Fortin has decided it’s time for a change. She’s thinking big about reducing road salt in Minnesota.
Few people know as much about advanced chloride management as Fortin, who has spent decades running a consulting firm focused on the trenches and gutters at the side of the road. Her work lies at the intersection of Midwestern winters, infrastructure runoff and traction, a place that few people spend much time pondering. But it’s a problem that’s critical to the health of Minnesota water, as salt pollution has been steadily worsening over the past decade.
Now part of planning firm Bolton & Menk, Fortin’s latest work is aimed at reducing the big-picture problem of road salt, going “upstream” and re-thinking designs for roads, buildings, and infrastructure that might require less salt in the first place. The resulting salt-eye-lens is a fascinating new way to think about parking lots, overpasses, or sidewalks.
The problem of road salt
Much like noise or particulates, road salt is something people don’t usually notice. As long as the road is clear, most drivers don’t much ponder how it got that way.
In truth, there’s a great material cost to bare asphalt. Each Minnesota winter, MnDOT plow drivers spent around $130 million dumping 246,000 tons of salt on state roads. County and city crews add a lot more to this total – not to mention individual salters (like myself, this month) – which gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.
Historically, the use of road salt has increased dramatically since the mid century, as driving has become an inflexible part of many American lives. Recent winter storms — the Twin Cities has seen the fourth largest snowfall on record (so far) — prove how dicey roads can become, and how powerless plows are to remove snow without help from chemicals.
Salt is the cheapest, easiest way of clearing road surfaces, breaking down ice by raising its melting point. Alternatives to salt include a bunch of different brines (salty de-icing sludge) that agencies have been tinkering with for years in an effort to reduce salt pollution. For example, potassium acetate doesn’t contain any salt, while another made from beet sugar does; in both cases, they work only in certain conditions.
In the end, all that salt goes somewhere. The pollution impacts of adding so much salt to the ecosystem, the lake and rivers of the metro area each winter, has started to spiral out of control. According to the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River, 40 Twin Cities water bodies are exceeding chloride water quality standards, and another 40 may soon be “impaired” — unable to support life.
Thankfully for Minnesota’s lakes and streams, most public works agencies have become more judicious about reducing salt use. The brines certainly help, and pushing city plow drivers to be more judicious about when and where they salt is what Fortin’s work has emphasized for years. But that’s not really enough.
“I’ve trained plow divers for 20 years, trying to get them to use science in winter maintenance and to be confident in dropping down their salt; we’ve done a lot of good there,” Connie Fortin told me. “But my new passion is, instead of trying to reduce the salt problem, to work one step higher in the food chain and design it away.”
Fortin sold her longtime saline management consulting firm to Bolton & Menk last year. In her new role, she’s been able to think bigger about salt. She’s excited to share the news of her innovative approach with anyone who will listen.
“We’ve brought to our civil engineers the real life problems maintenance people face and said, ‘let’s solve these problems; let’s design for winter,’’ Fortin explained. “We developed ten concepts that we are going to look at every time we develop something for cold climates. It’s so easy.”
I was only able to access five of the ten tips (the rest is proprietary), but thinking about infrastructure from the point of view of glaze ice offers a refreshing perspective. Fortin’s rules center on key ideas that seem like common sense, but reflect angles often overlooked by engineers and architects working on big projects. A lot of the work centers on getting ahead of the freeze-thaw cycle, for example, and preventing meltwater runoff in advance.
Here’s one low-salt hack: in order to cut costs by reducing overall height, roads and freeways often dip down to go underneath bridges or overpasses. This creates the perfect storm of ice, funneling water into shaded depressions during each freeze-thaw cycle. It’s far better to raise bridges higher to keep roadways level, which can often reduce salt use by multiple orders of magnitude.
Another one of Fortin’s lessons is to think about how sunshine and trees work, especially conifers. The angle of the sun makes a huge difference toward melting ice, and shade is a sun-killer. Make sure confers are planted to the north of any sidewalks or parking lots.
“If we could remove some of the conifers along shaded routes along interstates, and replace them with deciduous trees without leaves that don’t block the sun, we’d allow sunlight onto the road and we don’t have to salt it so much,” Fortin explained.
Other rules include thinking about winter sun angles, using permeable pavement to drain meltwater, and making sure that salt storage is designed to prevent runoff. It turns out that a lot of salt prevention is simply thinking closely about melting hydrodynamics.
Fortin’s principles remind me of earlier generations’ “design with nature” mantra, and offers to shed new long-term perspective on what is often, in the middle of a winter snowstorm, a very short-term problem. While reducing driving overall is still the most important goal for urban design, it’s also important to connect the dots between today’s icy street and the health of the river flowing just over the horizon.
“We need to do more than just put the problem on the shoulders of the plow drivers,” Fortin told me. “They can make a huge difference, but even if they drop their salt 50%, we still spend over $100M a year buying salt for our roads.”
According to Fortin, her program teaching Low Salt Solution seminars is the first program of its kind, anywhere in the world. (After countless salt symposia, she should know.) The program even has its own certification process, which is the kind of thing that engineers and transportation agencies love to embrace.
“I’m enthused about the possibilities of designing the problem, not away, but way reducing the scope,” Fortin said.