Did you all get caught in the snow squall yesterday? Leaving Rutgers campus at 3:15 PM I traveled a good half mile in near white out conditions on Route 1 North. Skies cleared at about 3:40 PM, just as I started on the Goodkind Bridge across the Raritan River. There was no precipitation at all as I traced the path of a salt spreader for the length of the span. In fact, the squall was the result of a very narrow band of precipitation and lasted a mere 25 minutes. It left just .02 of melted snow in our gauge.
Salt trucks are loaded with 12-15 tons of salt, and spread rates are about 400 pounds per lane mile of roadway. In the time I was behind that truck – the quarter mile or so across the bridge – approximately 100 pounds of salt was spread on one roadway lane. This was after the snow had stopped.
A new study released January 23, 2018 by University of Maryland researchers is the first to assess long-term changes in freshwater salinity and pH at the continental scale. Drawn from data recorded at 232 U.S. Geological Survey monitoring sites across the country over the past 50 years, the analysis shows significant increases in both salinization and alkalinization. The study results also suggest a close link between the two properties, with different salt compounds combining to do more damage than any one salt on its own.
The results of this “freshwater salinization syndrome”? Infrastructure corrosion, contaminant mobilization, variations in coastal ocean acidification caused by increasingly alkaline river inputs, and significant impacts on ecosystem services such as safe drinking water, contaminant retention, and biodiversity.
Simply put, fish and bugs that live in the Raritan River and our freshwater streams can’t survive in extra salty water. And while almost all of us in the Lower Raritan depend on local streams for drinking water, water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the extra salt, so it ends up in tap water and corrodes pipes.
Road salt is everywhere during winter months. It keeps us safe on roads and sidewalks, but it can also pose a threat to fish and wildlife as well as human health. Of course we want to keep our roadways safe. We also must ensure that any salt spreading be conducted utilizing best practices for sustainable use, which includes calibrating salt spreading in accordance with weather forecasts and minimizing the amount of salt spread over sensitive habitats.
There are things you can do to help us better understand the impacts of road salt on our local environments. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies presents several best management practices in their new report: “Road Salt: The Problem, The Solution, and How to Get There.” One key recommendation is identifying areas for low or no salt application. That is, basically creating a buffer of “no salt zones” around any water body. This report also identifies substitutes for road salt, and their relative impact on our waterways.
And the Izaak Walton League is recruiting volunteers to help measure salt levels in area streams to gauge the extent of salt spreading impact. With the information they gather they will be able to develop a targeted and prioritized approach to reduction of salts in local and national waters. The Izaak Walton League requires a simple registration process, after which participants receive a free chloride test kit. The kit includes test strips and instructions to measure the chloride level in local streams, then report out findings in a national database.
Dedicated Lower Raritan Watershed volunteer Raymond Croot is the first to submit “winter salt watch” data for a Lower Raritan stream.