A Chicago Streets and Sanitation snowplow drives through Bronzeville on Dec. 28, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Chicagoans can sign up to help scientists figure out how much road salt is going into local waterways and damaging the environment during winter.

Illinois RiverWatch, a program from the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, is recruiting “winter chloride watchers” to study how much road salt goes into local rivers and streams. While road salt helps keep streets clear of ice and traffic moving in winter, some of it ends up washing into lakes and streams, threatening freshwater animals and contaminating drinking water supplies, said Danelle Haake, RiverWatch director and stream ecologist.

The project aims to examine whether cities’ efforts in lessening the environmental damage of road salt are effective, as well as to educate the community and empower them to address the issue, Haake said.

Volunteers across Illinois will have the opportunity to use test strips to measure chloride concentrations in their local rivers and streams. Credit: Illinois RiverWatch

RiverWatch will offer training workshops to explain the problem of road salt, discuss alternatives and guide volunteers in the site selection and monitoring process, Haake said. The next workshop is 7-8 p.m. Dec. 7 on Zoom. Interested volunteers can register online.

Collecting samples and testing for chloride takes less than 15 minutes, Haake said. Test strips will be mailed to volunteers after they select their testing sites.

During the 2021 winter season, the Illinois Department of Transportation reported using more than 522,000 tons of salt on roadways, according to RiverWatch. Once dissolved in meltwater, most of the road salt will enter nearby water systems, Haake said.

Spikes in the concentration of chloride in the stream can harm freshwater animals that live there, Haake said. Some of the more sensitive invertebrate species — such as damselflies, snails and mussels — might die in salty water and disrupt the food chain, Haake said.

Volunteers across Illinois will have the opportunity to use test strips to measure chloride concentrations in their local rivers and streams. Credit: Illinois RiverWatch

Illinois water quality standards consider chloride concentrations higher than 500 milligrams per liter detrimental to aquatic life, according to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. RiverWatch’s 2021 report shows chloride concentrations in multiple samples in Illinois topped that threshold.

If the road salt seeps into groundwater used for drinking water supply, it can cause taste issues and pose risks for people on a low-salt diet, Haake said.

Although scientists have conducted small-scale research on chloride concentration in a few Illinois watersheds, there has been no region-wide research, Haake said.

“It is hard to come up with a solution to a problem you don’t know about,” Haake said.

Haake said Chicago overall does a good job of applying an appropriate amount of salt depending on the temperature, traffic and the type of precipitation But many people are still unaware of the harm of road salt and overuse it, Haake said.

Haake said she always sees piles of salt in front of shopping malls where people just oversupply it.

“We want to get the word out that you don’t really need to use so much salt,” Haake said.


Help Block Club Get
500 More Subscribers!

Subscribe to Block Club now and you’ll get a free 16-by-20-inch Chicago neighborhood print of your choice, helping us reach our goal of getting 500 more subscribers before 2024. Click here to subscribe or click here to gift a subscription.

Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: