Road salt gets rid of ice, snow…and ecosystems? New student research addresses community-based solutions.

Road salt is touted as a lifesaver in the fight against icy roads. However, there is a dark side to using this snow-melting mineral once it enters bodies of water. Maggie Walker, who graduated from the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC), collects data on local rivers to influence change.

“When excessive amounts of road salt enter streams, they can have devastating effects on stream ecosystems,” said Julia Sargent, program director at Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. “The salts affect vegetation and life in very small rivers, and that in turn can affect larger creatures like fish, and in high concentrations these salts may not be filtered out by our water treatment plants.”

Student Maggie Walker sits next to a jet of water and smiles at the camera.  Wearing an SMSC shirt, she holds a QuanTab strip to measure chloride levels in the stream.
Maggie Walker, a student at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, collects water samples in Strasburg, Virginia to measure water pollution on streets. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

The effect of road salt

Chloride pollution, which comes primarily from road salt, can also lead to corrosion, altered soil composition, fish kills, algal blooms and more, said Walker, who works with Sargent’s organization for her SMSC internship. “People on a low-salt diet can exceed their daily salt requirements from drinking water alone, which can become a health problem.”

Walker’s research assesses the extent and impact of on-site road salts.

Walker, an Honors College student studying biology, selected four creeks near urban land cover, including sidewalks, parking lots and cities, that are likely to be vulnerable to chloride pollution. For five weeks this semester, she has been driving to these streams to record water temperature and collect samples of the stream water to measure chloride levels.

“It’s important that we get baseline chloride levels in our waters,” Walker said. “That way we can test it over the years and seasons, see when levels fluctuate, when they’re at their highest, how road salt events affect water quality.”

A closeup of Maggie Walker's hand holding a QuanTab strip to see the level of chloride in the water.
Walker measures chloride levels with a QuanTab strip. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Community Involvement

The project also has a community aspect, which Sargent says Walker inspired.

“I’m creating a survey of people’s attitudes and behaviors about road salt and road salt consumption,” said Walker, who aligns with her interest in the intersection of conservation, human well-being and community engagement. “We’re hoping to take it to people who live in the North Fork… and then ultimately use the data to determine behavior to change.”

Although behavior changes and reducing road salt consumption are outside the scope of this semester, Walker said the research is an important first step.

Walker, who is originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she chose George Mason University because she wanted to attend a school with excellent research opportunities like SMSC.

“This program is helping me to develop many skills in a variety of conservation areas that I would not have had otherwise,” Walker said. “My experience at SMSC was really great.”

“It’s really inspiring to hear from and work with so many different conservation professionals,” Walker said, adding that they actively engage with students.

It is also worthwhile for mentors.

“It has been inspiring to meet and work with these young people who are just beginning their careers in conservation,” said Sargent. “To see their passions and to be part of this process is a great honor.”

SMSC is not an opportunity to pass up.

“If you’re even remotely interested in conservation, you should definitely make every effort to get out and enjoy SMSC,” Walker said. “It really prepares you for success in conservation [by] It introduces you to all the possibilities and allows you to explore things while you’re still in college.

“If you are an environmentally conscious person this is definitely the place.”

Julia Sargent and Maggie Walker walk side by side on the grass near a creek near a city street.
Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation student Maggie Walker (pictured right) with her mentor Julia Sargent in Strasburg, Virginia, collecting water samples to measure road salt pollution. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

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