Research provides foundation for chloride mitigation efforts

Salt TruckPhoto: David Gonzalez, MnDOT The accumulation of chloride in our waters has become a widespread concern. In a recent U of M study, researchers measured the transport and accumulation of chloride from road deicers in a metro-area watershed. The findings revealed a greater infiltration of chlorides into soil and subsurface waters than was previously assumed.

“The results of this foundational research provide us with knowledge we did not have before,” says William Herb, a research associate with the U of M’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and the study’s principal investigator. “It will help investigators and policymakers explore ways to capture chlorides and mitigate their damaging environmental effects.”

Road salt (sodium chloride) is used in most states that experience snow and ice, with growing impact. For example, chloride levels in some lakes and streams in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metro area exceed state and federal water quality standards, and a recent study showed that levels in more than one-quarter of shallow groundwater wells in the metro were above drinking-water taste standards.

“This is a real concern because even in low concentrations, chloride can be lethal to sensitive plants and some aquatic species, and many of our lakes, wetlands, and streams show acute or chronic levels of chloride,” Herb says.

To learn how chlorides from road salt deicers are transported in urban watersheds, researchers installed field instruments at eight sites in a Roseville watershed. They monitored water and chloride levels nearly continuously over three winter seasons; this included runoff directly from sources (roads and parking lots), transport in ditches and sewer networks, and retention in and release from detention ponds and wetlands. Computer modeling was used to generalize results.

surface runoff illustrationOverall, the team observed substantial chloride retention via infiltration to soils and groundwater. For example, monitoring the runoff from a vegetated highway ditch showed that more than 95 percent of the chloride applied to the highway infiltrated from the ditch into the soil, and less than 5 percent was exported from the site in surface runoff. “Interestingly, substantial chloride export from the ditch was observed in November rainfall runoff prior to application of any new road salt for the upcoming winter, suggesting long-term storage in soils and groundwater in and near the ditch,” Herb says.

Researchers also found that winter rain-on-snow events and the first major prolonged thaw each season moved surface chlorides most effectively into the watershed.

The research team then used the data and modeling to examine potential strategies for reducing or mitigating the spread of chloride, including capturing low flows, seasonal runoff capture, and capture based on salinity.

Wayne Sandberg, deputy director of the Washington County Department of Public Works, chaired the study’s technical advisory panel. “Based on this research, we now know that deicer chemicals are staying in the soil and moving in the watersheds, and this should change how we manage ice and snow control,” he says. “The next questions are what can we do with that knowledge and what changes can we make.”

The research was funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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