Road salting in northern states can put enough chloride in waterways to make them toxic to aquatic organisms. It can also affect the quality of drinking water from groundwater wells. A new initiative at Marquette University seeks solutions.

By Chris Jenkins

When streets and sidewalks are covered with snow and ice, the solution seems fairly simple: salt, salt and more salt.

But what if using too much salt contributes to the contamination of a water supply?

David Strifling is studying the amount of chloride that gets absorbed into surface and groundwater sources in climates such as Wisconsin. He wants to come up with potential solutions tohelp keep salt use below levels that are considered harmful to the environment and local water supplies.

Strifling, Eng ’00, Law ’04, is the new director of Marquette Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative — a perfect application of his professional expertise, which spans time as a civil engineer who helped design wastewater treatment facilities and an attorney specializing in environmental compliance and litigation.

David Strifling, Director of Marquette Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative

As director, he’s overseeing a range of key projects. He’s teaching a seminar on water law and policy that’s open to students in other colleges, such as engineering, as well as law students. He’s helping law students gain access to new environmental-themed internships. And in developing a policy dimension to Milwaukee’s water expertise, Strifling is joining Marquette colleagues from biological sciences, engineering and other disciplines in advancing the region’s aspirations as a world hub of water-oriented solutions.

Amid this work, the study of chlorides and salt use is a prime example of what he hopes will be many projects that engage Law School colleagues and others at Marquette in important water law and policy discussions. “Chlorides in waterways are toxic to aquatic organisms at certain levels, and they can also affect the quality of drinking water where groundwater wells are in play,” Strifling says. “Chlorides are a particular problem because they’re very difficult to degrade. They don’t break down easily. They’re not removed well in wastewater treatment facilities.”

The study is funded by a $45,000 grant from the Water Equipment & Policy Research Center, a partnership among Marquette, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and several Wisconsin businesses and government entities operating under the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center Program.

Strifling’s goal is to create a menu of options to help policymakers reduce the transmission of chlorides to waterways, whether it comes through the use of salt for deicing or through the use of water softeners, another major contributor to the presence of chlorides in water sources.

“The reason that I got interested in this is that there have been a lot of studies showing that this is a problem, especially in Northern cities,” Strifling says. “But there’s been very little progress in coming up with policies to actually do something about it. … There’s a lot of talk about reducing salt usage, but, when the first storm hits, everybody wants it.”

Potential solutions include legal limits, or taxes on salt use, but Strifling acknowledges neither one is likely. More likely solutions include increased public awareness, green infrastructure programs, such as permeable pavement, that slow the rate at which chlorides are absorbed into water; increased coordination among government agencies on watershed management; and training and certification programs for businesses that use salt, allowing them to market themselves as “green” companies and perhaps granting participating companies a liability waiver to shield them from slip-and-fall-style lawsuits. Strifling will study how each of these potential solutions has worked in other regions across the country and connect with government and business leaders to see how they might be applied in Wisconsin.

“Partly because the public isn’t aware of the environmental impacts, but it is aware of the public safety impacts, you’ve got this imbalance between the environmental impacts and the public safety impacts,” he says. “So what can we do about it? That’s where the grant comes in — to take the next step from scientific awareness of the problem to develop policy strategies or legal strategies to combat it.”

Adapted from the 2016 issue of Marquette’s Discover magazine, where you’ll find more great stories on research, scholarship and innovation at Marquette.
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