/ Opinions / Checking in on our streams

Checking in on our streams

August 28, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill

I have long thought citizen science is a great way to get involved in the world around us. With everything happening in the world today, and more kids doing virtual learning or homeschooling, I also think citizen science is a great learning tool in which kids have the opportunity to get involved.

One of the things I am excited to be a part of is the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) Salt Watch program. I have talked before about the effects of road salt on our waterways and how our salt use makes a difference. Of course, we all want to be safe in the winter and have good driving conditions and not slip on ice on sidewalks. So, I do agree there is a safety factor. At the same time, with a number of studies looking at the effects of road salt on nearby waterways, I think it is something that bares thinking about.

Although we are still thinking about summer fun as August comes to a close, we also know what is coming. Winters in the Northwoods are long, cold and snowy. I think a great time to look at subjects such as salt use, is before the season gets into full swing. The move to the salt brine mixtures has (or should have) reduced salt use, and is a great step in the right direction. The brine put on roads now, while it contains less salt, also acts much like a nonstick spray in a skillet. It’s mission is to keep the snow and ice from building up on the road completely. Still, salt does affect water and plants near roadways.

While it is more evident in large cities, with studies showing higher chloride levels in urban lakes near more impervious surfaces, which are, in some cases, still rising, that is not to say it could not affect lakes, rivers and streams in the Northwoods. 

For that reason, I decided to get involved in stream monitoring. The program is easy to get into and does not require a huge amount of knowledge or training. That is one of the reasons I think it is a great project for kids and families to get involved in together. Volunteers can choose any stream or river they would like to monitor. The monitoring survey takes only a few minutes, and the commitment is to test four specific times, although testing can even be done in the summer months.

The idea of the Salt Watch program is to check chloride levels in a waterbody, and then to see if those levels change after salt has been applied to roads, and after it has had an opportunity to run off. The hope is salt would soak into the soil and be filtered out before heading into the water. Of course, that is not always the case, as we know from these recent studies.

I recently rewatched the Lakes and Rivers Convention presentation done by Zach Moss, the coordinator for Save Our Streams for the Izaak Walton League of America, which is what made me want to get involved.

We normally think of effects on fish when we think about changes that can happen in a waterbody, and that is a real worry. But there is more to it than that. Impacts on wildlife, Moss said, can also include macro-invertebrates, plankton and microbes, which are often more susceptible to increased chloride levels. Vernal pools, too, may be more intensely effected, as are the species that spawn there. Even mammals that may drink water with high colored levels could experience ill effects of that increase.

Here is what I am charged with doing as a volunteer: I went onto the IWLA.org website and looked for the Salt Watch Program. I input my name and address and asked for a test kit to be sent to me. The kit includes four chloride test strips, instructions and a chart that should the parts per million (ppm) of chloride the test strip has found in my stream. 

I am asked to get a baseline test before the first winter storm. This will give an idea of where the chloride level is in the stream, taking this year’s road salt out of the equation. After a winter storm where road salt has been applied, I will take my second sample. The third will be taken on the first warm day after salt application. This will be when there is runoff and there is a bigger chance for the salt to make its way to the stream. The next test will be after a rain event. At this point, I would think, any salt that was going to runoff into the stream would be taken into account. 

From there, I upload my information (yes, there is an app for that!) to Water Reporter. It is basically much like every other social media app with which we are familiar. I joined the Izaak Walton League of America group, and that is where I make my reports. When reporting, volunteers hold their test strip up to the conversion chart and take a photograph, making sure the test strip and chart are both clear and in the photo. Then the photo is uploaded, with the location and the hashtag #saltwatch. Those in the group can also scroll through other volunteers’ results in the app. We are also encouraged to not only report any high chloride concentrations we find to local “watershed officials,” (I will start with the local land and water conservation department and see where I am directed from there) but also to photograph any large salt deposits and report those so they may be picked up before running off onto the landscape.

When I go out to monitor, the test takes about 5-7 minutes. I will do my testing slightly downstream from a road crossing, because this is the easiest place for me to get to, but I also did not want to test directly at the crossing, so I walk down a bit and will do my testing there. I take a sample of the water and put the test strip in it. After 5-7 minutes, the strip will show the parts per million of chloride. That is when I will take the photograph I mentioned above. Really, that is all there is to it.

While I am interested to see if there are changes in the stream I have chosen over the year, I will also be interested to see any changes from year to year. My hope, of course, is to see responsible salt use is protecting our waterways, or at the very least, the stream I have chosen to monitor.

As with most citizen science projects, volunteers are always welcome. This particular project is a nationwide undertaking, but with many volunteers located right here in Wisconsin. Those looking to get involved can go to the iwla.org website for more information, and head out to monitor a stream or river of their choice.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]


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