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Use of road salt contaminating McHenry County water supply

But one man is on a mission to derail a potential resource disaster

Ask people where their water comes from, and they'll point to the tap.

As McHenry County's water resource specialist, it's Scott Kuykendall's job to point out the story is not that simple.

A transplant from the private planning sector, Kuykendall has spent the past year and a half coming up with ways to tell the region's water story – a chapter in history that rapidly is seeing a vital resource many take for granted drying up in other parts of the state.

“We’re not being very good stewards," Kuykendall told the Northwest Herald during a recent interview at the McHenry County Planning and Development Department, where last year he developed the McHenry County Water Forum – an event returning to McHenry County College on Sept. 12, when several planning experts will give presentations about water and how it shapes our lives.

Kuykendall is one of those speakers, and his 30-minute presentation boils down to a reality many Illinois residents might not be aware of: Water is becoming scarce.

Although McHenry County is in a good position when it comes to the ample supply of groundwater gurgling in the aquifers below it, Kuykendall said, it's his duty to offer the community a reminder.

"In McHenry County, we’re very fortunate to have safe, reliable and affordable water supplies – but that’s only true if we protect it," he said.

Drying up in Joliet

Illinois residents don't have to look far to find a spot where the water supply is drying up. In Joliet, groundwater experts forecast that city wells could begin to dry up in 15 to 20 years.

The aquifer from which Joliet draws water is known as St. Peter Sandstone and spreads across a large area of northeastern Illinois, serving as a groundwater source for many cities and municipalities, including Aurora.

Joliet's challenge has become finding another water supply. Possible routes include using Lake Michigan water, building a pipeline to the Kankakee River and even treating Des Plaines River water.

Kuykendall has been watching the Joliet story unfold in McHenry County. He blames Illinois law and reckless consumption as the antecedent of Joliet's water struggle.

Although water is necessary for all living things, it also is necessary for all economic development. Access to a fresh, reliable and affordable water source affects where businesses plant themselves on the map.

“Everybody basically has straws dipping down into that aquifer and is pulling [water] out and drawing it down," Kuykendall said. “You’ve got industries in the Joliet area that drill their own high-capacity wells, and it’s completely unregulated. Between the municipalities and the businesses all pulling water out, that water table has drawn down further and further.”

Although McHenry County is in a part of Illinois where groundwater is ample, there is another kind of problem that could threaten the supply.

A problem closer to home

McHenry County depends on road salt, but it slowly is contaminating the area's water supply.

"Anything we put into the air, onto the ground or into the ground has the potential to contaminate our groundwater," Kuykendall said. "One of the contaminants we're very concerned about right now is salt. We use a lot of road salt, and people seem to think this is a benign material, but it's a chemical, and it's a caustic chemical."

Salt is toxic to fish and wildlife. It kills vegetation. It corrodes metal surfaces. And since the 1960s, when municipalities began using road salt in large supply, it has been infiltrating water supplies all over the state.

Research has shown that chloride levels are increasing in McHenry County's water supply – and road salt is the culprit, Kuykendall said.

A pound-and-a-half container of Morton salt found in most country kitchens can contaminate four years of drinking water for a person. That same amount of salt can contaminate 30 gallons of water and make it unlivable for fish. A county salt truck carries enough to contaminate 65,000 years' worth of drinking water and make 500 gallons of water unlivable for fish forever.

McHenry County uses salt to sprinkle 225 miles of paved roads every winter, but salt isn't limited to roads. Any surface that is put down in the county – sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, to name a few – eventually will be treated with salt.

The McHenry County Planning and Development Department soon will host a "Sensible Salting Workshop" on Oct. 18 and 19 to educate public and private employees responsible for de-icing roads about the environmental effect of reducing the use of salt on roads.

"Once salt becomes soluble in water, it's always in that water; it doesn't leave," Kuykendall said. "We really don't have the mechanism to remove the water before it's released into the environment or before we bring it up in our drinking water.

•••

IF YOU GO

What: McHenry County Water Forum

When: Sept. 12, 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Where: McHenry County College (Luecht Conference Center and Auditorium), 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake.

Cost: Free

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