Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2021-09-07 13:14:25 –
By MOLLY DeVORE
Madison, Wisconsin (AP) —As CEO of Madison Boats, Tyler Reaper has made a “significant investment” in maintaining the health of many of the waters that define Madison.
Decades of rising chloride levels threaten more than reapers’ earnings.
“We come here for dinner, here for reenactment, here for exercise,” said Reaper, who is also the general manager of Wingla Boat. “Our lake is the center of our community.”
Since the 1960s, the lakes and streams that shape Madison’s landscape have become increasingly salty, with Lake Wingla, a clear and leading candidate. Most of Madison’s West Side basin has a chloride concentration of over 100 milligrams per liter.
Chloride levels in Lake Wingla are just over a quarter of the state’s surface water standards, but their levels continue to rise, up 200% since the 1980s.
Most of the chloride that flows into Lake Madison comes from road salt. This is a problem that the city has been trying to tackle since the late 1970s through reduced salt usage and alternatives to de-icing. The Wisconsin Journal reported.
The lesser-known criminal of salting the Wisconsin canal is a common water softener. Alison Madison, coordinator of Wisconsin Saltwise, said the salt in the water softener would be sent straight through the drain to the sewage treatment plant. Most people may think that sodium and chloride ions have been filtered, but Madison said the ions are too small. The only way to remove the ions is by reverse osmosis. This is an economically and energy-intensive process. In Dane County, wastewater treatment plants are drained into the Sugar Creek and eventually the Bad Fish Creek and Badger Milk Creek, which lead to the Mississippi River.
“It all goes to our water. Because it is a permanent pollutant, there is no biodegradation and the concentration is rising,” says Madison. “You need to use salt only when you really need it, rather than just putting it down and thinking more.”
The use of salt as needed means upgrading and optimizing the water softener. In southern Wisconsin, many rely on water softeners because groundwater hardens after sitting on limestone. The soft limestone layer dissolves in the aquifer and fills the water with minerals that calcify and deposit on the pipes.
According to Madison, households that want to maintain soft water while reducing salt usage will need to replace their water softeners if they are over 15 years old. Older water softeners are often timer-based and will regenerate and empty the tank after a few days, regardless of the amount of water used. According to Madison, the timer model is very inefficient and uses more salt and water than necessary.
“It’s like emptying a gas tank every Sunday, regardless of how much gas you use. You just throw away the gas and refill it,” Madison says.
The new water softener will regenerate based on use. According to Madison, the water softener can also be tailored to the hardness of the water in a particular area, allowing less salt to be used in areas with softer water.
There is also a salt-free alternative called a water conditioner. Conditioners use electric pulses to prevent mineral calcification and prevent the buildup of whitish deposits on pipes and glasses.
The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is currently piloting a water softener efficiency program in the sanitary districts of Dan, McFarland and Pleasant Springs. The program evaluates residents’ water softeners and offers discounts on upgrades as needed. If the program is successful, Madison said it could be extended to other local sanitation areas.
Casey Hanson, executive director of Friends of Lake Wingla, says the issue is still “invisible” to many, despite recent efforts to raise awareness about the effects of water softeners. ..
“We don’t experience the direct consequences of what’s happening,” Hanson said. “Chloride is on the rise, but I can’t see it, I can’t taste it, I don’t see all of these dead fish coming to the shore.”
Residents of Madison may not yet feel the direct impact of elevated chloride levels, but groundwater infiltration could cause tap water to taste salty in the not too distant future.
The movement of aquatic pollutants is often associated with stormwater runoff and sewer systems, but in Lake Wingla, much of the chloride comes from below. Salt penetrates the soil and enters the groundwater, eventually contaminating many natural hot springs that water the lake.
Salty soil also means higher chloride levels in Madison’s wells, and ultimately in household drinking water. Salt penetration has been observed in 5 of Madison’s 22 drinking water wells. When chloride levels reach about 250 milligrams per liter, water begins to taste salty to most people. Madison Water Utilities states that Well 14, which serves the western part of Madison, could reach in the next 15 years.
Chloride does not affect human health, but it can completely alter aquatic life. Chloride can kill zooplankton, an algae-eating organism, Madison said. This includes toxic blue-green algae that frequently stop activity in local lakes.
Chloride can also interfere with essential lake processes, Madison said. Several times a year, the top and bottom layers of the lake mix, sending oxygen-rich water down the surface. Chloride weighs water and creates a dense lowland layer that refuses to mix. Seasonal mixing interruptions can create “dead zones” at the bottom of lakes that are oxygen-free and have few aquatic organisms.
Even the built environment of the city is not safe from the effects of salt. Chloride makes water more corrosive and damages the interior of bridges, roads and buildings when tracked with shoes.
In Dane County, there is an increase in blue-green algae and damage to infrastructure, but the more pronounced effects of salt have not yet occurred.
“It may be a problem to realize what a particular canary in the mine is for Lake Wingla, but it may be too late at that point,” Hanson said. “It’s like trying to steer a cruise liner. You can’t switch quickly.”
Wisconsin Saltwise is trying to bring salt problems to the most influential places, the waters.
Last year, Madison asked local artist Hannah Sandbold to decorate an old water softener in the idyllic scene of people boating across Lake Wingra. The works of art currently found at the Wingla Boathouse contained information about elevated chloride levels.
Based on this project, Madison collected three used water softeners, emptied the brine tank and filled the bottom with an appropriate amount of concrete. Next, Wingra Boats employees painted the recycled softener at the Wisconsin Saltwise URL and placed it on Lake Wingra. The softener is similar to a buoy, with the Saltwise website just above the waterline.
“The hope is that it catches someone’s attention and they are intrigued,” Madison said. “If you want to start seeing change, you need to talk about salt.”
Changes may need to be made quickly. According to Hanson, Friends of Lake Wingla wants the lake’s chloride concentration to drop to 40 milligrams per liter, less than half its current concentration. Reducing the chloride concentration can be difficult because it does not biodegrade. The only hope is to dilute the level with rain or lake spills.
Chloride efforts will gain community-wide support across individual basins, as pollutant flows do not stop even at county or state boundaries, according to Hanson.
“It requires a new way of thinking about water,” Hanson said. “I think there are general changes that are happening in the water community where people are trying to destroy these silos in which they are active … they all find themselves connected.”