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Clean Water Corner: Giving volunteers tools to test salt levels in local streams and share the results with their communities

Outdoor America 2018 Issue 4

Across the country, communities are preparing for another long winter of ice, snow — and road salt.

For decades, road salt (sodium chloride) has provided a quick, inexpensive way to reduce traffic accidents and pedestrian falls. However, salt does not “disappear” after a storm event. When snow and ice melt, road salt washes into local streams or is absorbed into the ground on the side of the road, where it can end up in groundwater supplies or be washed into streams with every rain storm. Excess salt can cause serious problems, including:

  • Toxic conditions in streams for fish and aquatic life, which has a ripple effect down the food chain.
  • Corroded pipes in drinking water systems, which can leach lead and other dangerous metals into the water running to your tap.
  • Increased salt levels in drinking water — a danger for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions that require a low-sodium diet — that treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove.

We all need to travel safely during the winter months. However, public works departments and property managers need to move away from the “more is better” approach to road salts. Salt lowers the freezing temperature of water so snow and ice can be more easily removed, but putting more salt on a surface does not make snow and ice melt faster or eliminate the need for plowing or shoveling. Alternatives to traditional road salt, like beet juice or cheese waste, are not salt-free — they simply offer other ways to get salt to stick to the road so less salt is needed.

Best practices are available to help communities and departments of transportation minimize salt use while maximizing safety. The first step is identifying where there are problems.

The League launched our Winter Salt Watch after staff saw first-hand the impact of excess salt on the stream near the League headquarters in Maryland. Chloride levels in the stream reached almost 1,000 parts per million (ppm) — more than 4 times the level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency! Knowing that the same problem was likely occurring nationwide, the League sprang into action. Last winter, we distributed more than 275 chloride test kits to volunteers across the country, and these citizen scientists posted more than 75 results to our national map on Water Reporter.

Gearing up for this winter, the League has already sent 100 chloride test kits to new stream monitoring volunteers. And for a limited time, FREE test kits are available to interested volunteers! Order yours today at iwla.org/saltwatch. It’s quick and easy to test chloride levels with a small cup and a test strip. Post your results to our Winter Salt Watch map using the Water Reporter app to help identify hot spots in your community. The Winter Salt Watch web page also provides outreach tools and tips to help citizens advocate for better road salting practices.

Every American has the right to clean water. Monitoring local streams is critical to finding — and fixing — water quality problems. To learn more, visit iwla.org/saltwatch.

Danielle Donkersloot, Clean Water Program Director, and Emily Bialowas, Chesapeake Monitoring Outreach Coordinator