Road salt usage in Hennepin County down 80 percent since 1980s

In his 40 years driving a snow plow for Hennepin County, Jimmy Johnson has seen a lot of changes. But one of the most dramatic is the amount of salt his truck leaves on the roads.

"I like it because I get it on my car too and I don't like corrosion," said Johnson. "So, I think as long as it works too, that's the way to go."

Hennepin County Public Works says it uses 80 percent less salt on the roads now that it did in the 1980s. County officials say new technology like monitors that show drivers how much salt they are using, pre-treating roads before snowstorms and using more brine, a combination of salt and water, has allowed them to use salt more efficiently and effectively.

"When you just put the dry salt down, it bounces and scatters and you wind up losing 60 percent of your salt off the road," said Andy Kraemer, Hennepin County's transportation-operations manager. "So using brine has really helped us reduce our use."

County officials say plow drivers used 31,000 pounds of salt per lane mile a year in the '80s, but they only use about 6,000 pounds per lane mile now. It's part of a concerted effort to use less salt because of the harm it eventually does to the county's waterways.

"Lake Minnetonka. The Mississippi River. There are lots of beautiful lakes and rivers in Hennepin County and once the salt gets in those, it doesn't come out so that's why we are doing it," said Kraemer.

Johnson says salt is still the most effective way to get rid of ice on the road, but at least plow drivers are heading in the right direction. 

"There's a fine line where you gotta use enough to be effective," said Johnson. "If you are not putting enough down to be effective it will start refreezing on you and not do you no good."

County officials say they save about $100,000 a season when they cut salt use, but big storms can eat away at those savings a bit.