The road salt that makes it safer to drive in winter is causing the Muddy Branch Stream in Gaithersburg to register chloride levels above levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a Wootton High School senior who is spending this school year testing various chemical levels in that stream.
Benjamin Bowman has been interning 10 hours each week with the Izaak Walton League of America, a nonprofit environmental organization located along the banks of that stream.
The 17-year-old, who is a pitcher for the Wootton Patriots varsity baseball team, regularly gathers a water sample from the stream. For the first few months of his internship, the chloride level never rose above the recommended 230 parts per million levels for chloride, he said. The average readings he found between October and early December averaged around 145 parts per million.
However, the readings spiked drastically a few days after snow or sleet fell in the area, and nearby roads were treated with road salt, he said. Readings between Dec. 11 and Jan. 23 averaged 436 parts per million, almost double the recommended level. One day, the level rose as high as 970, he said, noting that with chloride levels that high, “aquatic life will die,” according to the EPA.
“It surprised me a little bit how much gets into our stream,” he said of Muddy Branch Stream, which flows into the Potomac River.
Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission spokesperson Jerry Irvine said WSSC has monitored the changes in chloride level in the source, and says they have ways to filter it properly.
“WSSC fully understands that State and local departments of transportation must keep the roadways safe for motorists and pedestrians during winter weather emergencies, which includes the use of salt,” Irvine said.”Because WSSC is constantly monitoring and testing our source water, the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers, we can quickly alter the treatment process at our two water filtration plants to account for any variations in source water conditions, including fluctuations in the amount of chloride and sodium.”
Bowman has a strong interest in the environment and hopes to major in that discipline when he goes to college next year, although he’s not yet sure where he is headed.
As a mountain biker, Bowman enjoys riding around the area. These rides fueled his passion for nature, and helped him connect with the Izaak Walton League, he said.
He was greeted with welcoming arms. The nonprofit is national, and it’s important to have someone able to focus strictly on what is happening in Montgomery County said Sam Briggs, the league’s Save Our Streams coordinator.
“It’s great that Ben really has taken an eye to the ground,” she said, “He is a self-starter, and he’s really taken ownership” of the nearby stream. “He’s a great asset.”
Bowman enjoys taking the water samples. “It’s fun to get out there, be outside and see how we are doing as a community,” he said.
When road salt washes into the streams “it wreaks havoc upon aquatic ecosystems and degrades overall water quality,” he wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “This is bad for everyone,” he wrote. “Salty water also corrodes pipes and can potentially cause lead to be present in drinking water.”
A Gaithersburg resident, who also enjoys photography, Bowman is doing much more than collecting samples. He has created a chart to show the chloride levels every two days, and also writes a weekly report about his efforts for his high school internship class.
At the end of the school year, Bowman will make a presentation of his work, which will include a time-lapse slide show, he said.
He also has been reading up on ways to make the roads safe to travel on during bad weather besides spreading road salt.
Plowing is better, he said, but there are other items that can be poured onto the roads that would not harm the water it eventually ends up on, including beet juice, pickle juice and cheese brine.
Using those items would also help the food industry, Bowman said, as it would enable them to have a use for their waste products.
The environment is “just such an important part of our lives. People take it for granted,” he said.