Melba Lara: You're listening to WBEZ and it's time for our weekly climate conversation. We are entering the road salt season. But that salt meant to treat roads and sidewalks often ends up in our local waterways, where it raises chloride levels and can harm aquatic life. The Illinois Riverwatch is tackling this problem through citizen science, training anyone to monitor those levels. Their program is called Winter Chloride Watchers. Danelle Haake is director of the Illinois Riverwatch and she joins us now. Danelle, thanks for coming in.
Danelle Haake: Thank you for having me.
Melba Lara: Let's start with road salt. How exactly does it impact aquatic ecosystems?
Danelle Haake: The salt that we put on the roads ends up dissolving in the snowmelt and ice melt and then its carried through the stormwater system in two local rivers and streams. There's no treatment process there to remove the salt and so it increases the salinity or the amount of chloride in the water, it doesn't usually get to the point where it's the same as ocean water or seawater, but it does make it more of a salt water system than a fresh water system for what our invertebrates are looking for.
Melba Lara: And what aquatic life is being affected by these high levels?
Danelle Haake: Really all the aquatic life, specifically it tends to cause a problem for the aquatic invertebrates, the insects that live in the water. But if we are damaging our insects, that's the food base for our fish. And the fish and the insects combined are the food base for a lot of waterbirds. And so, this is really something that affects the whole ecosystem.
Melba Lara: You know, municipalities of course use it every winter to make it easier and safer for us to get around. But how does one use road salt responsibly?
Danelle Haake: The use of road salt is better when done in moderation. Just like almost anything else. There's an amount that's kind of prescribed. But if we go over that amount we're really just wasting the resource and we're wasting money and causing damage to so many different things.
Melba Lara: Let's talk about the Winter Chloride Watchers. Tell us what the participants do in that.
Danelle Haake: Participants in Winter Chloride Watch take out a little water sample from a local river or stream and then they put a small test strip into that sample of water. They wait for the water to wake up the little material in the, in the test strip. And then they come up with a number and that number tells us how much salt is in the water.
Melba Lara: We often think of science happening just in an academic setting. So why is empowering every day individuals to collect data around something like this important?
Danelle Haake: There's several reasons to have citizen scientists or community scientists working on this project. It's something that it's very understandable for people, you know, you can see the salt yourself and then we just draw the link of this salt goes into your rivers and streams and changes what can live there. Um, so it's an easy connection to make and its something that people care about. In addition to that, scientists can't be everywhere at once. We can't collect all of the data everywhere. So having these people, volunteers out monitoring can help us pinpoint places where maybe we need to do a little extra work
Melba Lara: And what got you interested in this kind of work?
Danelle Haake: So I actually got into road salt as a volunteer, as a citizen scientist. I was working with another group of volunteers and we noticed high chloride concentrations and I said this is really bad. This is, this is a lot higher than it's supposed to be. The amounts were more than four times what you can, what could be toxic to aquatic life. And so, I contacted some other volunteers and they said, yeah, we're seeing the same thing. And it kind of expanded from there. And I ended up getting a PhD looking at road salt because of this community science project.
Melba Lara: Danielle Haake directs the Illinois River Watch. If you have a question for our weekly climate segment, you can email us at email@example.com. This is WBEZ.
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