More Salt in Our Water Is Creating Scary New ‘Chemical Cocktails’
By Tara Lohan
Gene Likens has been studying forest and aquatic ecosystems for more than half a century. In that time he's seen a change in the chemistry of our surface waters—including an increase in the alkalinity and salinity of waterways—something he and his colleagues have dubbed "freshwater salinization syndrome."
Likens coauthored a report published last month that found that not only is salinity increasing in many surface waters, but when you add salt to the environment it can mobilize heavy metals, nutrient pollution and other contaminants that are combining to create new "chemical cocktails" in rivers, streams and reservoirs.
These cocktails can be a danger to our drinking water, wildlife and riverine ecology. And they've already contributed to a public health crisis in at least one U.S. city.
"I didn't expect the massive scale of change across the lower 48 that we found—or the magnitude of change," said Likens, who is president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a distinguished research professor at the University of Connecticut.
Lead poisoning was the top headline from the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but salt played a key role in the tragedy.
When the city switched sources of water to the highly polluted Flint River, the water had a much higher salinity because of runoff from road salts, which, without proper treatment, increased the corrosivity of the water. "That change in the chemistry of the water flowing through the pipes liberated lead from the pipes or lead-soldered connections," explained Likens. Lead was the villain, but salt was its enabler.
Salt was part of the catalyst for Flint, Michigan's water crisis.George Thomas / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Flint isn't the only metropolitan area at risk from salinity-induced water concerns. The researchers also studied public water supplies in the Washington, DC-Baltimore area and found "some of those areas are increasing in salt content rather seriously," said Likens. "It's not just some little stream in your backyard along the interstate highway. It can be very widespread."
Sujay Kaushal found this out firsthand. Kaushal, a professor of geology at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, turned on his tap at his Maryland home in 2015 to find a blackish-colored water coming out. He realized that increased salinity in the water was causing manganese, a neurotoxin, to leach from the pipes in neighborhood homes.
The problem isn't isolated to a few cities either.
An earlier study by Kaushal, Likens and colleagues, published in January 2018, analyzed data dating back a century in different localities and found freshwater salinization syndrome had become widespread. The researchers found that 37 percent of the watersheds in the lower 48 had a significant increase in salinity, and 90 percent for alkalinity. Their most recent study, from December 2018, took the research even farther, looking at rivers across North America and Europe, but also a few sites around the world, including in Iran, Russia and China.
"What was surprising was that in all of these different world regions there's well-known waterways that show this freshwater salinization syndrome occurring," said Kaushal. "Even our Great Lakes show these patterns of increasing salts and the Great Lakes contain about 20 percent of the world's fresh water."
Salt on its own has been shown to be problematic. Too much of it in the water can be a health risk for someone with hypertension, says Likens. And salts washing off roadways have been shown to damage or kill vegetation. It can also seep into drinking water wells. High enough levels of salinity can be toxic to some aquatic life, too, said Likens.
Other new research has honed in on this threat from salt. "Increased salinity in freshwater systems is expected to cause extensive changes in biota and potentially in ecological function, and some losses of freshwater resources," freshwater scientist John R. Olson from California State University Monterey Bay wrote in a recent study. His work found that by the end of the century, half the country's streams could have an increase in salinity of 50 percent.
But that's not the only concern.
Salts, Kaushal and his colleagues found, can liberate heavy metals and other elements in soils and concrete surfaces, which can be more dangerous when mixed together than any one of them singly. Salts can also mobilize nitrates, stimulating harmful algal blooms that threaten the health of fish and other marine organisms.
Kaushal and his colleagues analyzed streams near the University of Maryland after a snowstorm and found spikes in the concentration of metals like copper, zinc, manganese and cadmium.
And after a storm salt concentrations can stay elevated for months, increasing the amount of time that the salts can draw these chemical cocktails out of the soil and into waterways.
Sources of the Problem
Where Likens lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the roads in winter are often busy with visiting skiers traveling up from nearby Boston, Hartford or New York. To keep the traffic safely moving in wintry conditions the roads are often doused with salt—a lot of it. He's found that at times local municipalities have used up to a ton of salt per road mile per day.
Generous servings of road salt are common across the Northeast and upper Midwest and are one of the biggest contributors to salinization of waterways in those parts of the country, but the researchers found other kinds of salts, not just the commonly used sodium chloride, also contribute to the increase of salinity in waterways—things like fertilizer runoff, water softeners, fracking brine and sewage discharges.
Untreated water goes directly into a stream. MN Pollution Control Agency / CC BY-NC 2.0
"There're just a variety of things that we humans add to the surface that eventually find their way to streams and lakes and reservoirs and increase their salinity," said Likens.
The weathering of concrete infrastructure like our bridges and roads from acidic rain (which has been reduced but not eliminated) also contributes to increases in salinity and alkalinity.
So too does building impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots.
The researchers found that in the Baltimore area an increase of one percent in the amount of impervious surfaces caused a 10 percent increase in salinity. Chemicals and salts that would have been absorbed by soils instead ran off those hard surfaces and into waterways.
All indicators are that the salinity problem is getting worse over time. "The graphs consistently are increasing," said Likens. "Not every stream shows the effect, but the vast majority do."
The new research raises more questions than it answers, including what the impacts of these chemical cocktails may be and how we can manage them to ensure safe drinking water and a healthy environment.
The study recommends that we manage the problem by "considering chemical mixtures and potential interactive effects as a syndrome of multiple stressors instead of single contaminants."
That's easier said than done.
"We have regulations and management strategies which are focused on a single contaminant and it's almost like our brain is just able to handle one thing at a time," said Kaushal. "In reality these mixtures have interactive effects, sometimes synergistic effects, which contribute to toxicity where the overall effect of the mixture or the interaction is greater than the sum of the parts."
But recognizing the dangers of these elements in combination is one thing. Testing for them is quite another.
Thankfully there are also other tactics that could help, including better buffers around rivers, streams and wetlands to reduce runoff. Smarter use of road salts would also be an improvement. Already some municipalities are using brines applied before winter storms to help reduce the volume of salt needed later.
"I think another approach would be to reduce impervious surfaces because we're constantly developing new lands and putting down more roads which eventually break down and contribute to these salts," said Kaushal. "So, I think being more judicious about creating new roads, parking lots, pavement and other development, as well as putting in regulations in place for the salts themselves."
With a long lens on the health of our waterways, Likens sees cause for concern as scientists learn more about the impacts of salinization—and as the Trump administration attempts to roll back protections for clean water.
"At the end of November President Trump announced that our water was at 'record clean,'" said Likens. But scientific research proves otherwise. "This idea that we can do whatever we want to the environment, to the water we all depend on, and everything's going to be okay—that's just not correct."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Bill McKibben
To understand the planetary importance of this autumn's presidential election, check the calendar. Voting ends on November 3—and by a fluke of timing, on the morning of November 4 the United States is scheduled to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
President Trump announced that we would abrogate our Paris commitments during a Rose Garden speech in 2017. But under the terms of the accords, it takes three years to formalize the withdrawal. So on Election Day it won't be just Americans watching: The people of the world will see whether the country that has poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other over the course of history will become the only country that refuses to cooperate in the one international effort to do something about the climate crisis.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Oliver Milman
The climate crisis is set to be a significant factor in a U.S. presidential election for the first time, with new polling showing a clear majority of American voters want decisive action to deal with the threats posed by global heating.
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America's largest national forest, Tongass National Forest in Alaska, will be opened up to logging and road construction after the Trump administration finalizes its plans to open up the forest on Friday, according to The New York Times.
Aerial view of the Tongass National Forest. Alan Wu / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
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By Ruby Russell and Ajit Niranjan
Hamstrung by coronavirus lockdowns, frustrated school strikers have spent months staging digital protests against world leaders failing to act urgently on climate change.
Pandemic Stalls Protests<p>Last November, the head of the UN Environment Program was among the public and scientific figures to warn that 2020 offered a last chance to cut emissions. Then, few could have suspected this deadline would coincide with an unprecedented public health emergency.</p><p>The pandemic has <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/tough-times-ahead-for-climate-protesters-during-corona-pandemic/a-52978469" target="_blank">dealt climate activism a blow</a>. Niedeggen says that as a movement demanding that the world act on scientific advice, the school strikers took lockdown restrictions extremely seriously, halted public protests immediately and took their activism online.</p><p>On April 24, Fridays for Future organized a "digital strike," with Niedeggen hosting a that racked up close to a quarter of a million views. "We were not physically standing together, but we were all fighting together," she says.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-strikers-get-inventive-during-the-covid-19-crisis-fridays-for-future/a-53229262" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Activists also gathered thousands of placards</a> from across Germany to lay out in front of the German Bundestag around the central slogan: "Fight every crisis."</p>
Opportunity for a New Normal<p>Last September's Global Climate Strike drew young and old protestors around the world, with organizers estimating a global turnout of 7.6 million, including an estimated 270,000 people in Berlin. Activists have adjusted this year's event to account for social distancing and different levels of coronavirus restrictions in cities taking part.</p><p>They say COVID-19 also presents opportunities.</p><p>"The pandemic shows that we can change our normal daily life, and we are very able to adjust to a situation of crisis," she says. The key question is how economies get back on their feet: "We have the possibility to build a new normal, to build a renewable world order, and an environmentally just, climate-just normal for everybody."</p><p>In July, Jeng was among 20 female Fridays for Future activists from the Global South to sign an open letter to G20 finance ministers warning that their decisions in "exclusive backrooms" over stimulus packages and corporate bailouts would "lock in development pathways for decades."</p><p>"The system is not broken, it was built to be unjust. We don't need recovery, we need a reboot," the letter reads, stressing that "black people, indigenous peoples and people of color," have been disproportionately hit by the economic, climate and coronavirus crises. </p>
Policy 'Not Quite There Yet'<p>Figures on stimulus spending do not suggest their words had much impact. The ministers were criticized for failing to relieve the debt of poorer countries, and according to <a href="https://www.energypolicytracker.org/region/g20/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Policy Tracker</a>, G20 countries by August had pledged $169 billion (142 billion euros) to fossil fuels since the beginning of the pandemic.</p><p>Katrin Uba, associate professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, is researching Fridays for Future. She says that despite the movement raising awareness and gaining access to policymakers, real policy change "is not there yet."</p><p>Still, she stresses that social movements go through waves of mobilization as public attention on their core issues ebbs and flows. And perhaps one of Fridays for Future's biggest achievements is birthing a politically active generation that will keep the fight up long after corona becomes a memory. </p><p>"We know clearly from our research that many of the people who came to the streets hadn't done any protesting before in their lives," she told DW. "And we also know that if you do one protest, you are likely to do more."</p>
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25</strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."<br><br>It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube at 2 p.m. EDT Friday in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.<br></p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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