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Effects of Highway Road Salting on the Water Quality of Selected Streams in Chittenden County, Vermont, November 2005-2007

March 20, 2010

A study of road-deicing chloride (Cl) concentrations and loads was conducted at three streams in Chittenden County, VT, from November 2005 to 2007. This study was done by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The streams, Alder Brook, Allen Brook, and Mill Brook, were selected to represent different land uses in the upstream watershed, different road types and densities, and different geometric patterns of the roadway draining to the receiving stream to assess the relative contribution of and differences in state road-salt applications to stream Cl concentrations and loads. Water-quality samples were collected and specific conductance was measured continuously at paired stations upstream and downstream from State highways and related to Cl concentrations to assist in determining the effects of road-salting operations during winter maintenance on the levels of Cl in the streams.

Mean concentrations of Cl ranged from 8.2 to 72 mg/L (milligrams per liter) in the water-quality samples collected at sampling stations upstream from State highway bridges and from 7.9 to 80 mg/L in those collected at sampling stations downstream of highway bridges. Mean Cl loads ranged from 1,100 to 4,090 lb/d (pounds per day) at upstream stations and from 1,110 to 4,200 lb/d at downstream stations. Estimated mean annual Cl loads ranged from 402,000 to 1,490,000 lb/yr (pounds per year) at upstream stations and from 405,000 to 1,530,000 lb/yr at downstream stations.

Mean Cl concentrations in samples collected at the three paired stations were lowest at Mill Brook at VT 117 near Essex Junction, VT (7.9 mg/L) and highest at Allen Brook at VT 2A near Essex Junction, VT (80.7 mg/L). None of the monitored Cl concentrations in the water-quality samples collected at the three paired sampling stations exceeded either of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) recommended chronic and acute Cl toxicity criteria of 230 and 860 mg/L, respectively.

A fourth stream site, a small tributary draining to Alder Brook between the upstream and downstream stations, was monitored from December 2006 to November 2007. This tributary collected runoff from a state highway and an interchange before flowing through a wetlands retention basin. The mean Cl concentration in water-quality samples collected at the tributary was 449 mg/L. The USEPA recommended chronic toxicity criterion of 230 mg/L was exceeded about 65 percent of the monitoring period. The USEPA recommended acute toxicity criterion of 860 mg/L was not exceeded.

Estimated Cl loads below the State highway bridges exceeded loads above the bridges at all three paired stations during both years of the study. The differences in the annual loads between the upstream and downstream stations were 0.7, 3.0 and 14 percent at Mill, Allen, and Alder Brooks, respectively. Almost all of the difference (92 percent) at Alder Brook was due to the tributary. Cl applied by the State of Vermont for deicing purposes represented less than 20 percent of the annual estimated Cl load in all 3 streams below the state highways.

The highest monthly Cl loads during the first year of the study were observed in January 2006 at all three stream stations because of an early snowmelt event. The highest monthly Cl loads during the second year of the study were observed in April 2007 at all three streams during spring snowmelt and were followed by decrease in Cl loading through the summer. Generally, the relation of Cl loads to runoff was similar at all three streams. In July and October 2007, loads increased slightly with an increase in runoff, indicating that Cl in the soils and groundwater may be contributing to the Cl levels during the summer and fall, well after the road-salting season. Cl loads in all three streams appear to be due primarily to sources in the watersheds upstream of the state highway bridge where road salt was applied and (or) Cl retained in soils and streambed