Produced by: Chesapeake Bay Program

Snow and ice removal is something we all have to deal with every winter. Most of us use chemical deicers to clear our stairs, sidewalks and walkways. But in large doses, many popular snow removal methods can be harmful to our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

There are lots of ways you can keep walkways safe for you and your family, while also helping to reduce pollution to our waterways. Read on for some helpful guidelines for removing snow and ice the Bay-friendly way.

How can deicer harm the Chesapeake Bay?

A snow storm isn’t much different than a rain storm. Snow and ice eventually melt and run off roads, sidewalks and parking lots. As it flows across the land, melted snow and ice can wash deicer and other harmful pollutants into streams and storm drains.

Think about all of the deicer used on roads, sidewalks and parking lots throughout the region. The runoff coming from your walkway or driveway may not cause much harm by itself. But collectively, all of that deicer adds harmful amounts of salt and nutrients to the Bay and its local waterways.

Deicer can be particularly harmful to freshwater ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. Salt may be toxic to animals that live in these fresh water bodies.

Deicer can also harm plants growing in your yard. Many trees, shrubs and grasses can’t tolerate salty water that runs off walkways and driveways in winter.

What are some different types of chemical deicers?

There are several types of deicers to choose from. Use this list to help you make the best decision for your family and the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Rock salt (technically known as sodium chloride) is the most commonly used deicer. It contains cyanide, an anti-caking agent that can be toxic to underwater life. It is also the most harmful deicer for plants.
  • Calcium chloride is considered a better choice than rock salt because it does not contain cyanide. However, it can also harm plants. Although calcium chloride costs about three times more than rock salt, you only need to use about one-third as much (one handful per three square yards).
  • Magnesium chloride is considered the least toxic deicing salt. It contains less chloride than rock salt and calcium chloride, making it safer for plants and animals.
  • Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) is considered the best overall choice for safely melting ice. It is less toxic than deicers containing chloride. However, it can cost up to 20 times more than rock salt.

Whatever you do, never use fertilizer as a deicer. The nutrients in fertilizer and urea-containing deicers can run off your property, polluting local rivers and the Bay.

How can I use standard deicer the Bay-friendly way?

Even if you use rock salt, you can apply it in a way that keeps you and your family safe while causing the least amount of harm to plants and local waterways. Keep these tips in mind when applying deicer:

  • Apply deicer before snow and ice start to accumulate on the ground.
  • Before you apply deicer, make sure you remove as much snow and ice as possible. Deicer works best when it is applied to thin layers of ice.
  • Follow the directions on your deicer. You only need about a handful of rock salt per square yard. If using calcium chloride, you can use less—about a handful for every three square yards. Using more than that won’t make ice melt faster.
  • If you have salt-sensitive plants growing near your walkway, don’t use rock salt within five to 10 feet of them.
  • Once you establish a dry, safe route to the house, block off slippery areas. There’s no need to treat areas you won’t be walking on!

How can I remove ice without chemical deicer?

Sometimes you don’t need to use deicer. To treat small, thin areas of ice, try the following techniques:

  • Apply warm water mixed with table salt or water conditioning salt
  • Use sand to improve traction on slippery areas
  • If forecasters predict ice or snow, cover small areas (such as your steps) with heavy, waterproof plastic, such as a tarp.