High levels of salt discovered in Ottawa waterways, River Keeper says

03 Feb 2020 9:35 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)


The Ottawa River Keeper is raising an alarm about high concentrations of salt found in early testing of Ottawa area rivers and creeks.

The River Keeper, Elizabeth Logue, said the non-profit organization has begun a winter road salt monitoring program aimed at establishing whether city road salt operations and other de-icing efforts by residents are having a detrimental impact on local waterways.

The early results are already causing concern.

"There are regulations that are made to determine the levels that are a problem for the environment," Logue said. "We can see concentrations higher than acceptable."


This week, on the shore of a creek near Highway 417 off Pinecrest Road, Logue and biologist Katy Alambo scooped up buckets of water and used a device the size of a television remote control to test for "electrical conductivity," or EC. The more salt in the water, the stronger the EC.

It's a preliminary test to see whether the water should be further analyzed by a lab.

On this day, the EC levels were 50 per cent higher than the upper limit for acceptable.

"It's concerning," said Logue, who says other samples in several locations around the city are showing similar findings, "It's an indicator we may be using too much salt."

"High levels of salt concentrations can have affects on organisms," said Alambo. "Chloride is toxic to organisms when exposed to high concentrations."


The high levels match some of the findings from a "Surface Water Quality Report" produced for the city's Environment and Climate Protection Committee in the spring of 2017.

Ryan Polkinghorne, the city's program manager of stormwater management and environmental monitoring, said in a statement to CBC the report suggests "overall, median chloride concentrations in the Ottawa River remain well within water quality objectives."

The report does note an overall trend between 2010 and 2014 of improving water quality on most criteria like phosphorous and copper, but there were two exceptions: E. coli and chloride.

"Although chloride may be naturally occurring, there is evidence that the most likely source of the upward trend for chlorides is an increasing release of road salt," the report noted.

The report noted several waterways where water samples showing high levels of chloride above Canadian guidelines for safe levels: samples taken from 2010-14 from Shirley's Brook near Hines Road showed 63 per cent of samples exceeded standards. At Still Water Creek, 92 per cent of samples exceeded standards. Pinecrest Creek and Nepean Creek also exceeded acceptable chloride levels in more than 80 per cent of samples.

Among all the Ottawa River East tributaries as well as Ottawa River West tributaries sampled, half exceeded safe levels, and a quarter of Rideau River North Tributaries.

Among its recommendations is a call to "continue with existing efforts to reduce salt use on city infrastructure/facilities as well as, on commercial private property."


However, a statement from the city program responsible for salt management suggests its current practice hits the right balance between the need for public safety, and protecting the environment.

"A de-icer is required to maintain roads to a bare condition, and the industry's primary deicing method is road salt," wrote Kevin Monette, the city's manager of operational research and projects.

The city's goal is to minimize environmental impacts, while still maintaining the city standard, he wrote. At the same time, Monette said Ottawa is an early adopter of salt management best practices.


The Ottawa River Keeper said its own testing comes in lieu of city testing in winter months.

Logue said winter testing is critical as it captures the impact on water during peak periods when road salt is being used on Ottawa roads.

Polkinghorne said the city is committed to water testing on "a suite of parameters on a monthly basis during ice-free conditions, as the ice conditions can present safety issues for staff."

Since 2018, the city has partnered with the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority to monitor 170 waterways in the Ottawa areas. The RVCA said it is due to produce its first report, likely in 2021.

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