SCIENCE & TECH

Winter road salt, fertilizers turning North American waterways increasingly saltier

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Across North America, streams and rivers are becoming saltier, thanks to road deicers, fertilizers and other salty compounds that humans indirectly release into waterways. At the same time, freshwater supplies are becoming more alkaline or basic, the “opposite” of acidic. Salty, alkaline freshwater can create big problems for drinking water supplies, urban infrastructure and natural ecosystems. For example, the well-documented water crisis in Flint, Michigan, occurred when the city switched its primary water source to the Flint River in 2014; the river’s high salt load combined with chemical treatments made the water corrosive and caused lead to leach from water pipes. A new study led by National Science Foundation-funded researchers is the first to assess long-term changes in freshwater salinity and pH — a measure of how acidic or alkaline something is — at the continental scale.

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