Something’s Fishy in Maryland

Allison Welch
Dead fish - credit Karl Van Neste

Karl, a Salt Watch volunteer in Maryland, is passionate about water sampling and protecting our waterways. He is promoting change in the water quality world, and he encourages others to also work for cleaner water.

Karl first got involved with water quality in the early 2000s. He stumbled across chloride monitoring through a local organization, the Muddy Branch Alliance, which works to protect the Muddy Branch stream and the surrounding habitat. Now, Karl monitors monthly at several sites along the Muddy Branch with the help of friends and other volunteers.

One day in March of 2021, Karl and some of his buddies were cleaning up trash in a local lake. As they worked their way around the shoreline, they noticed more and more dead fish in the water. One of Karl's friends encouraged him to grab a chloride testing strip and check for salt pollution in the water. The test result was higher than the maximum reading on the typical chloride testing strips. That meant chloride levels in the lake were over 600 parts per million (ppm)!

The team purchased higher-range test strips, returned to the lake and measured the chloride levels again. With the better equipment, the volunteers were able to confirm a chloride level of over 1500 ppm. Comparing this reading to the 50 ppm that is considered healthy in Maryland, or the 860 ppm that is toxic to aquatic life, the volunteers could see that something alarming was going on in the lake.

High levels of chloride indicate high salt levels in waterways. This is most commonly caused by road salt running off into streams. High chloride levels are dangerous to the health of aquatic life, and the salt pollutes drinking water. This experience, among many others, fuels Karl's passion for chloride monitoring.

Lately, Karl has been devoted to making changes politically. Over the last few years, he has spent many hours writing to elected officials, at both the state and federal levels, and has become a regular at breakfast meetings with delegates. He has even brought delegates out to monitoring sites to get their hands wet! This gives them an in-person look at the effects of pollutants and allows Karl to make important one-on-one connections with legislators.

One bill introduced in 2022 would have required that all for-hire salt applicators in Maryland attend a salt applicator training and maintain a record of their salt use. Although this bill didn’t pass, Karl remains focused on his goals and is continuing to keep salt pollution in the minds of elected officials.

Another project Karl is working on is a proposal for a regulation on oversalting. Under this regulation, companies and individuals would pay a fine if they had too much salt left over on sidewalks and parking lots after a winter storm. Karl is also working to have the largest cities in Montgomery County, MD, report their salt usage – and report it in a consistent way, as pounds per single lane mile. Lastly, Karl would like legislation that would stop cities from salting parks during severe storm events.

Karl is overflowing with great ideas on how to better our ecosystem, and he’s putting in the work to make those ideas a reality.

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Top photo: Volunteers conduct a salt test at the site of a fish kill.

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