PLYMOUTH- Reducing the use of road salt through research, citizen science, and innovative technologies may soon protect public health and water resources while saving municipalities money.
After a long winter, summer is especially sweet and thinking about winter road salt is not appealing. But increasingly, the use of road salt as a deicer is jeopardizing both public and aquatic health in New Hampshire and across the nation.
It’s estimated that 18 million tons of salt are spread on U.S. roadways each year, causing serious and permanent water contamination. A sizeable portion of that salt is probably applied redundantly.
In the early 1940s, New Hampshire was the first state to adopt a general policy to use road salt as a deicer. In 2008, according to the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (DES), the state listed 19 chloride-impaired water bodies as defined by the Clean Water Act. In 2010, DES provided training for snow removal contractors on how to use salt efficiently through its NH Road Salt Reduction program. Nonetheless, by 2012, the number of chloride-impaired water bodies had increased to 46.
“This impairment primarily impacts aquatic organisms,” says Mark Green, associate professor of hydrology at Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment. “High chloride concentrations create an unhealthy environment for them.”
Volunteer Scientists make wide-scale measurement possible
There’s an old adage, “What you can measure, you can manage.” Since 2012, throughout New Hampshire and to some extent in Massachusetts and Maine, 42 citizen scientists have been collecting data from 110 sensors placed in streams and rivers. The sensors measure the ability of water to conduct electricity. The more salt, the greater the conductivity.
These citizen scientists are part of the LoVoTECS network or more precisely the Lotic Volunteer Temperature, Electrical Conductance, and Stage Sensing Network. (It helps to know that in Latin, lotic refers to “flowing water.”) This work is part of NH EPSCoR’s Ecosystems and Society project, funded by the National Science Foundation, and Plymouth State is a research partner in the project.
Data is uploaded to the project’s Data Discovery Center, an online digital library, which includes a broad suite of environmental information, tools and resources.
No surprise that water near roadways has high conductivity. In fact, says Green, who started the LoVoTECS network, “I didn’t fully appreciate how broad of an issue road salt contamination has been in New Hampshire. The salt is percolating vertically down into the ground water. It will probably take decades to flush out.”
Innovative technology can help
Recently Green was contacted by Andrew Jaccoma of Sensible Spreaders Technologies. “Andrew is interested in learning where road salt is most problematic,” says Green. “He’d like to incorporate our findings in their ‘Coverage Indication System’ for road maintenance trucks. When trucks come to sensitive areas, the salt spreader would indicate such areas to the operator or automatically adjust and protect those areas. We’ve got the data now and we’re really excited about this collaboration.”
For Jaccoma, an entrepreneur who has a deep interest in natural research, collaboration with LoVoTECS and Sensible Spreader Technologies means more protection for the state’s water resources.
In 2012 while earning his MBA at UNH’s Paul College of Business and Economics, Jaccoma learned about the effects of chlorides on the environment and drinking water. He had been looking for a big problem worth solving and knew he’d found one.
“I hit upon the idea of coverage indication software for fleets of road maintenance trucks because of my experience working with radar,” says Jaccoma, who has an undergraduate degree in marine transportation. He points out that there are many similarities between trucks salting roads in blizzards and ships navigating at night in busy harbors. He was able to convince a few highly skilled engineers from around the state to work with him and the award-winning project was launched.
Sensible Spreaders Technologies aims to increase road safety, reduce wasteful dissemination of deicers, and lessen impact on the environment by integrating the latest technology into road maintenance equipment.
During the winter of 2013–14, Sensible Spreader Technologies conducted a pilot project in Manchester and Laconia. After collecting 2 GB of data the results indicated that an overlap problem was occurring 10–30 percent of the time, especially in and around grid-type infrastructures. “It’s very difficult for plow truck operators to know when material was last applied to a particular road,” says Jaccoma. “When in doubt, they apply more material.”
Consequently, the engineering team at Sensible Spreader Technologies created the “Coverage Indication System” for winter road maintenance, which shows operators where material has been applied and where it was needed over time durations. In most cases by eliminating material-based overlap, it is estimated that municipalities could save from $2,000 to $6,000 per truck, per year.
The impact of good stewardship
Meanwhile since 2012, LoVoTECS volunteers have logged in thousands of hours and miles. It’s clear why Green and his PSU research team of students and staff refer to this dedicated team of 42 volunteer scientists as his partners.
Marshall Davenson, a science teacher at Keene High School, engages his students in his volunteer work for LoVoTECS. “I thought it would be a great way to incorporate real science into the curriculum,” says Davenson. He and his students have been monitoring two sensors in a local, urbanized brook for the past three years. One sensor is placed before the brook enters the city and the other as the brook exits the city.
“We get to see the impact that the city has on Beaver Brook,” says Davenson. “The information that we get from the sensors allows my students to use primary sources to analyze data and to propose new scientific questions as well.”
Jim Holmes, a citizen scientist from Jefferson, collects data for LoVoTECS from a couple of sites along the pristine Israel River, which runs along U.S. Highway 2.
“Even with a schedule like mine,” says Holmes who works full time and has a part-time photography business, “it’s possible to make this volunteer commitment.” Why does he do it? Holmes, who also serves on Jefferson’s Conservation Commission, says simply, “I think data from this program can help us to be better stewards of our natural resources.”
In the near future and hopefully before the next winter storm, when LoVoTECS data can inform the work of Sensible Spreaders Technologies, the result of this collaboration will be less salt on roadways where salt is of critical concern. “We believe that better data about road salt in our streams and rivers will lead to better water quality,” says Green, “Our high quality of life in New Hampshire depends on good water.”
Since this water sensor data collection has proven to be so useful, it’s being adapted to other kinds of environments. Recently, LoVoTECS expanded into coastal Maine as part of another NH EPSCoR project investigating beach and shellfish harvesting closures.
For more information about the LoVoTECS volunteer network, visit: https://www.plymouth.edu/center-for-the-environment/projects/ecosystems-and-society-nh-epscor/nh-lovotecs-network/ or http://ddc.sr.unh.edu/projects
For more information about NH EPSCoR’s Ecosystems and Society project, visit: http://www.nhepscor.org