Snow Storms, Road Salt and Drinking Water Quality – What’s the Connection?

Most people don’t make a connection between salting their sidewalks, driveways and roads, and their drinking water, but there is a connection.

Believe it or not, road salts were not used in the U.S. until after 1942. Prior to then, abrasives (ash and cinders, sand) were typically used. After World War II, the expansion of the federal highway system helped facilitate the widespread use of road salts in highway safety. Today, 8 to 12 million tons of road salts are applied on highways every year. In 2016 alone, highway deicing consumed about 44 percent of the 42 million tons of total salt produced in the U.S.  


So, what does the salt placed on roads, highways and sidewalks have to do with drinking water? Well, it’s simple. When the snow melts, the road salt eventually runs off into storm drains and ends up in a local stream or river. As a result, sometimes water might taste a little salty immediately after the snow melts. It can also eventually make its way into the groundwater.

Over the past several decades, there has been an increasing trend in the levels of sodium and chloride in fresh water streams and rivers. Salt is very difficult to remove from water without using desalination equipment, which is not a practical technology for most water supplies that are not in desert areas. Salt in streams and other fresh water sources has a major impact on the fish and other aquatic life that cannot tolerate the salt levels. Salt actually sticks around in the streams and rivers and gradually makes them more salty over time.

So, what can we do? We need salt to keep our roads, highways and sidewalks safe. Balancing the need for safety with protecting drinking water supplies has been a challenge water suppliers, environmental organizations, and highway administrators, from the Great Lakes to New England, have been working to solve for some time now. Here are a couple of things you can do because every spoonful of salt counts. 

  • Use salt brine application prior to a snow event. Many highway organizations already do this, which saves money and makes roads safer.
  • Do not dump deicing salts onto storm drains to unblock a frozen drain. If you can’t clear them by hand, use hot water instead.
  • Don’t dump left over rock salt and deicing chemicals onto the ground or down storm drains. Talk to your local municipality about the best way to dispose these leftover chemicals.
  • Consider alternatives, such as beet juice, to salt pavements and driveways when possible. The sugars in beet juice have been used for deicing in areas around the Great Lakes. These are also typically pet-friendly as well, although, you should always check the label to confirm.
  • Try shoveling your sidewalk or driveway first, and let the sun to melt the sidewalk. Use salt on hard-to-melt areas.

The following articles by Steve Corsi from United States Geological Survey provide a more in-depth look at the science of road salt and its impact on streams, rivers and aquatic organisms:

Evaluating chloride trends due to road-salt use and its impacts on water quality and aquatic organisms

River chloride trends in snow-affected urban watersheds: increasing concentrations outpace urban growth rate and are common among all seasons

 

 

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Aqua Cares About Bugs, and You Should Too

Why would a compliance guy at Aqua America care about bugs in the IllinoisKankakee River when most people try to avoid or kill bugs?

 

Kevin M. Culver of Aqua America

First off, I am not an entomologist (aka a bug expert) so why do I care about bugs? This is the first question I ask when conducting a source water presentation or manning our source water display booth at events.

Most of the responses I receive, depending on the age of the participant, are that:

·      Bugs are bad and need to be eliminated

·      Bugs are part of the food chain necessary to sustain life in the river

Both responses are somewhat correct but not exactly why I care. We do not want bugs in our drinking water but they are an important part of the food chain.

I care about the bugs because one can determine the health of a stream by the number and type of bugs living in the stream. Not only can the bugs be used to determine water quality, but fish and fresh water mussels can also be used as biological indicators of water quality.

 

Bugs And Your Water   

So what are macro-invertebrates (macros)? These include aquatic insect such as larvae, worms, leeches and snails that can be found under rocks, attached to plants and in the bottom sediments of rivers and streams.

Not all macros that are found indicate species of water quality. In fact, only 36 different groups of macros make up the specimens used to determine water quality.

 

The 36 Groups: What You Need to Know

As a citizen scientist through the River Watch program, I have been trained on techniques on how to properly collect and identify the water quality indicator of macro-invertebrates. 

I collect bugs at four assigned sites annually within the Kankakee watershed, located in the northeastern part of Illinois. The same sites are used each year to determine water quality at that instant and to trend this result against previous sampling events.

Each of the 36 indicator species is assigned a tolerance value (TV) to pollution between “0” being completely intolerant to pollution and “11” being highly tolerant to pollution.

The weighted average tolerance value of all the bugs collected at a site is the water quality indicator, officially known as the Macro-invertebrate Biological Index (MBI).

If a bug is intolerant to pollution, it means it hasn't acclimated to pollution, which mean the river is clean. If a bug is tolerant to pollution, it means the bug has indeed been exposed to pollution - so much so that its body has changed its reaction to pollution. 

So when Aqua tells everyone that the Kankakee River is one of the “cleanest” rivers in the Midwest, it's the bugs that prove it. The water quality in Rock Creek in the Kankakee State Park is one of the few sites in Illinois that are statistically getting cleaner, according to the bug results.

This year I also collected 849 bugs from my Kankakee River site that had the lowest ever average tolerance value (MBI) at 4.29.

 

Why Should You Care About the Bugs?  

Along with just being cool, they are an integral part of our source water protection plan. You can determine water quality by which bugs are present or absent and they are a great way to educate and demonstrate to young and old about the importance of source water protection.

 

 

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Kankakee River Clean-Up

On September 20th, Aqua Illinois held this year’s second river clean-up event at the Kankakee River. The clean-up was a part of the Adopt-a-River program in which “foster parents” are responsible for a designated section of a river to clean twice a year. Aqua Illinois has been involved with Adopt-a-River program for the past 13 years.

 

This year, the clean-up was led and organized by Joel Mingus. He’s been involved for the past 5 years, this year being his second in organizing the event. In regards to the Kankakee River, which serves as a source for one of Aqua’s water treatment plants, Mingus commented, “Aqua’s support of this event reinforces the importance we place on the environment and our water source.” Aqua employees Kevin Culver, Don Denault, Tori Mury, Sean Culver, Kyle McKay and Sonia Fisher also helped out.

 

This Year’s Team

 

Mingus’ team comprised of Aqua Illinois employees, local residents and a Boy Scout troop scoured their mile of the river for litter. The team rid Kankakee of the usual wrappers, bottles, cans, plastic bags and other litter. What was more interesting, however, was how they came across pieces of a dilapidated dock and a relatively intact aluminum boat in the midst of their venture! This only goes to show the importance of the two clean-ups per year due to the random debris that can pop up at any given time.

These clean-ups are not only important, they’re also super fun! The biannual clean-up appears to be enticing to all ages as Joel’s kids took part in their second year this time around! “Our kids loved helping. They did get sidetracked by the shells and flowers, but they enjoyed spending time around the river,” he said. What’s great about having kids involved is the opportunity to educate them on the importance of clean water and a healthy environment.

 

Another Successful Clean-up

It was a successful day, according to Mingus. The kids had fun, the Kankakee River got a much-needed cleaning and Aqua Illinois was able to continue providing clean water to the area.

An event like Adopt-a-River is what Aqua America strives for in providing clean water and encourages you to get involved in. To find out how you can get involved with the Adopt-a-River program, head over to their site!

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