Winter Salt Watch Volunteers Help Monitor Water Quality

Photo credit Zach Moss, Save Our Streams coordinator Volunteers monitor rivers and streams across the country, looking or changes in chloride levels after road salt use.

OnFocus – The mission of the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) is to “conserve, restore and promote sustainable use and enjoyment of our natural resources, including soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife.”

IWLA is one of the oldest conservation organization in the country, and also one of the only organizations that work country-wide in the capacity to which they are dedicated.

Izaak Walton himself lived from 1593 to 1683. He wrote what is still touted as one of the most important environmental books in history, “The Compleat Angler (sic).” The Izaak Walton League of America looks to continue his conservation-minded approach through a variety of programs across the country.

One of the programs IWLA has created is called Salt Watch. In recent years, researchers have taken a closer look at road salt usage and how that usage may affect lakes, rivers and streams. The goals of this program include raising awareness about the connection between salt and stream health, and to advocate for smaller applications of road salt by sharing the results gathered with private land owners as well as local and state agencies. While lakes and flowages get more attention when it comes to water quality, streams and rivers, too, are important parts of every watershed.

At this year’s Lakes and Rivers Convention, which was held virtually, Zach Moss, the Save Our Streams coordinator for IWLA presented the specifics of the program as well as put out a call for volunteers. While the program ramps up in October, he said, monitoring streams and rivers in the summer is important as well, especially for baseline data as well as to see the longer-ranging effects.

“We don’t necessarily think about water quality in the wintertime,” he said. However, the chloride and road salt used on roads, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots. This salt can run off directly into storm drains, then into our waterways, he said. The effects from there can be far-reaching.

Wildlife impacts include not only fish, but also the macroinvertebrates, plankton and microbes in the water, which are often more sensitive to increased chloride levels than the larger organisms. Moss said vernal pools may be affected even more intensely, as are the organisms that spawn in those pools. The farthest-reaching impacts, he said, involve the mammals that are potentially drinking from high chloride streams.

This program is aided by volunteers who come from a variety of backgrounds. No formal training is needed to participate, making it a great citizen science project for anyone, including kids’ groups or as a homeschool project. Some volunteers come from existing water quality monitoring groups or watershed groups as well.

Volunteers simply go to the Winter Salt Watch page of the Izaak Walton League of America website where they can request a salt watch kit. That kit will include four test strips which measure chloride from 30-600 parts per million (ppm) in the water. There are also sample testing instructions, data uploading instructions and a conversion chart. This will be everything a volunteer needs to get started.

Volunteers are asked to monitor the same stream or river, which can be done at a road crossing, four times per year at least. If a volunteer is monitoring only those four times per year, the first one should be done before the first winter storm. This gives a good baseline number. Another sample should be taken after the storm, when salt has been applied to the roadways. The next sample should be taken on the first warm day or rainstorm following a snow or freeze event for which salt has been applied. The next sample should be taken after the next rain event, which would be an event that is most likely to wash any salt used into a nearby waterway.

The tests take approximately 5-7 minutes, and involve submerging a test strip into a water sample taken from the river or stream. The volunteer then compare the test strip to the chart provided to find the ppm of chloride in the water.

Volunteers then take a picture of the test strip and conversion chart and upload their information. This is done using a simple app called Water Reporter. It can be found on the Android or iPhone app store. Volunteers set up an account and are ready to start reporting.
New reports are uploaded by clicking the “start new post” button. Volunteers upload their photograph, ensuring the entire card and test strip are visible. They add the location where they are sampling and use the hashtag #saltwatch. This flags the researchers, who can then go into the app and grab all of the data provided.

Salt Watch is dedicated to education and outreach. Volunteers are encouraged to contact local watershed entities with any high readings they may find, or readings that change drastically after a salt application. They are also encouraged to report excessive salt found on roadways or other surfaces. These can often be picked up before they run off into any local waterway. This can include calling county or city land and water conservation or environmental departments. Some volunteers also share best practices with property owners, community managers and state agencies.

Volunteers are always welcome, and over 1,000 test kits will be sent out this year, the second year to the Watch. Those looking to volunteer can find more information on the Izaack Walton League of America website at

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Beckie Gaskill
Author: Beckie Gaskill