We’re entering road-salt season. But that salt — used to treat roads and sidewalks — often ends up in waterways, where it can harm aquatic life.

Illinois Riverwatch The network is tackling this problem with citizen science, training anyone interested in monitoring those levels. their program is called Winter Chloride Watchers.

Daniel Haake, director of Illinois Riverwatch, spoke to WBEZ’s Melba Lara about what is being done.

melba laraLet’s start with rock salt. How exactly does it affect the aquatic ecosystem?

Daniel Hawke: The salt that we put on the roads ends up dissolving in the melting of snow and ice. And then it is carried through the storm water system to local rivers and streams.

There is no treatment process to remove the salt. So it increases salinity – the amount of chloride in the water. It usually doesn’t get to the point where it’s similar to ocean water or seawater, but that makes it more of a brackish water system than a freshwater system that our invertebrates are exploring.

lara: Is aquatic life affected?

Hake: Actually, all aquatic life. In particular, it poses a problem for aquatic invertebrates – insects that live in water. But if we are harming our insects, it is the food base for our fish. And fish and insects combined form the basis of food for many waterfowl. And so it’s really something that affects the entire ecosystem.

Daniel Haake, director of the Illinois Riverwatch Network.


Danelle Haake collects invertebrates to study the effects of salt on stream health.

Danelle Haake collects invertebrates to study the effects of salt on stream health.


lara: The municipality uses it every winter to make it easier and safer for us. How can road salt be used responsibly?

Hake: Road salt is better when used in moderation. is an amount that is determined in a way. If we exceed that amount, we’re really just wasting resources, and we’re wasting money and damaging a lot of different things.

lara: Tell us what the Winter Chloride Watchers do.

Hake: Winter Chloride Watch participants take a small sample of water from a river or stream, and then they dip a small test strip into that sample. They wait for the water to wake up the tiny material in the test strip. And then they come up with a number, and that number tells us how much salt is in the water.

lara: We often think that science is happening only in an academic environment. Why is it so important to empower everyday people to collect data about things like this?

HakeThere are many reasons to work on this project as citizen scientists or community scientists. It’s something like—it makes a lot of sense to people. You know, you can see the salt itself. And then we just link it: This salt goes into your rivers and streams and changes what can live there. So it’s an easy connection, and it’s something that people care about.

Besides, scientists cannot be everywhere at once. We cannot collect all the data everywhere. So having these people – volunteer monitors – can help us pinpoint places where maybe we need to do a little extra work.

laraWhat interested you in this job?

Hake: I actually got involved in road salt as a volunteer, as a citizen scientist. I was working with another group of volunteers, and we saw high chloride concentrations, and I said: This is really bad. It is more than it should be. This amount was more than four times the amount that can be toxic to aquatic life. And so I contacted some other volunteers, and they said, yeah, we’re seeing the same thing. And it expanded from there.

And I have a Ph.D. Looking at road salt because of this community science project.

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