BERLIN – Now that the latest major winter storm in a series of three epic weather events is behind the region, at least temporarily, the lingering question remains what effects will the mountains of melting snow all over the area have on the environment.
The third of three major storms rolled through the area like a steamroller on Wednesday, depositing several inches of fresh white snow atop the ghosts of snowstorms past. The mountains of snow along the roadways and in parking lots had turned gray and even black in many cases from salt, soot and other pollutants before Wednesday’s storm put a temporary bright, white covering on them, but as time goes by, the end result will be the same.
It will likely take weeks, or even months before the last vestiges of the black-gray behemoths piled around the region melt slowly into distant memory, but the environmental impact could be immediate. The melting snow, loaded with road salt, car exhaust and other chemicals will eventually find its way into the fragile eco-systems around the resort and across the county, but the jury is still out on just what those impacts might be.
Unlike a major rain event that washes across roads and parking lots and deposits pollution-laden rainwater immediately into area bays, creeks and streams, the affects of a major snowstorm are less pronounced. However, because the snow lingers for days or even weeks, it collects more salt, soot and pollutants that leach more slowly into the eco-systems.
“In terms of runoff, it’s not too bad with snow because typically the melting is gradual and doesn’t overload the ecosystems all at once because more can be absorbed,” said Maryland Coastal Bays Program Executive Director Dave Wilson this week. “It’s definitely a concern, and we’ll do our monitoring for salinity and nutrient loading, but it’s not nearly as bad as a rainfall event of the same magnitude because it is absorbed slowly as the snow melts and not blitzed all at once.”
Wilson said the general effects of salt and road pollution are likely greater along the count’s roadways, where huge piles of plowed snow turns gray first and later black. Because of the proximity of plowed snow to roadside creeks, streams and even manmade stormwater management ponds, the effects of the melting and associated runoff bear close monitoring.
“It can definitely make a difference,” said Wilson. “When roads are built, they often include stormwater management ponds along the roadways that become home to various creatures that are very sensitive to salinity. If all that snow melts along the side of the roads and is absorbed into those ponds, creeks and streams, it can definitely have an impact on the ecosystem.”
While the local area is battling piles of polluted snow, the state is facing its own problems. Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) spokesman Jay Apperson said this week the state agency is keeping a close eye on the effects of melting snow runoff.
“It’s an important issue for us,” he said. “Runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake and the coastal bays. The big question is the rate of melting. If there is a gradual melting, the impact will be minimal. If there is rapid melting, we could run into some problems.”
Apperson said massive piles of melting snow, laden with salt, road waste and other chemicals bear close monitoring, but agreed the effects are minimized somewhat by the gradual seeping into ecosystems adapted to handle it. He characterized huge piles of snow as essentially stormwater holding controls with the same basic functions as stormwater holding ponds, for example.
“Picture all the snow piled up as a type of stormwater control,” he said. “It’s sitting there slowly melting and allowing the ground to absorb the salt and other pollutants. It’s not entirely different than a stormwater holding pond in terms of its function of preventing a rapid entry of pollutants into the water bodies.”
Apperson said the impact of melting snow on freshwater creeks, streams and ponds is greater because of the associated rapid change in salinity. In saltwater bodies such as the coastal bays, for example, salinity levels change with variations in weather and tides.
“Salt that gets to freshwater bodies such as streams can adversely affect fish, amphibians and insects that are not adapted to those conditions,” he said. “However, the effect on those animals is not as great at this time of year compared to, for example, late spring, because they are relatively dormant in colder temperatures.”
While piles of graying snow in parking lots and along roadways are a concern in the long run, what to do with truckloads of snow removed from local roads is a greater immediate concern.
Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins said this week the town has just about exhausted its snow dumping areas, but dumping into the bay is a measure of last resort. Adkins said he has received permission to dump snow into the bays from MDE, but is hoping to avoid it, perhaps placing it on the beach, or the unused Inlet parking lot.
For years, heavy snow in Baltimore was dumped into the harbor before officials were enlightened about the practice’s possible impact on the environment. However, given the massive amounts of snow that has fallen on the metropolitan area over the last two weeks, MDE officials have relaxed the regulations somewhat. The same is true in the resort area, which has seen record snowfall amounts this winter.
“In general, relatively clean snow removed from paved areas following major storms may be placed into large tidal bodies of water, like the Baltimore Harbor or the Potomac River near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, for example, without causing an adverse environmental impact,” said Apperson.
Apperson added tidal flushing and other natural processes allow most saltwater bodies to absorb the influx of salt-laden snow without a major impact.
“The effect of salts or other common snow removal chemicals will be minimal when the snow is disposed of in a large body of tidal water,” he said. “Natural variations in salinity due to tidal action and precipitation runoff generally exceed changes in salt levels in these water bodies due to snow removal.”
However, the practice should be avoided with smaller bodies of water that don’t flush as readily with the changing of the tides.
“Disposal of snow that is heavily contaminated with road dirt, salt and other pollutants should be avoided,” he said. “The water quality of smaller bodies of water may also be negatively impacted by large volumes of snow containing road salt and other contaminants.”