Extension educator creates programs and initiatives to protect water resources

Michael Dietz standing in front of a river.
Michael Dietz

As an educator in UConn Extension and an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE), Michael Dietz has been working for over a decade to strengthen Connecticut communities by studying ways to protect surface and groundwaters and by promoting the use of green infrastructure techniques throughout the state. In 2018, he became director of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources (CTIWR). In that role (split between Extension and NRE), he collaborates with colleges and universities throughout the state to build connections between the academic community and water resource managers. These relationships serve to understand and resolve important water-related problems in the state and regionally, while also sharing research on water resources and general information with the public.

One of Dietz’s top water quality concerns for the state is the application of road salt during the winter months. Deicing salts, consisting of sodium chloride and other chemicals, are heavily used on roads, walkways, parking lots and driveways to prevent slips and falls, but their use carries environmental costs. Salt runs off these surfaces, or slowly permeates them, when warm weather and rain arrives in spring and makes its way into the soil and water, affecting vegetation and aquatic life, as well as human health when it reaches drinking water wells.

For the last several years, Dietz and fellow UConn researchers have closely studied the problem on the UConn Storrs campus. Now, their research is helping inform new programs and initiatives designed to reduce the use of road salt around the state.

Working with the Connecticut Training and Technical Assistance Center (T2 Center) and the Center for Land Use Education and Research at UConn, Dietz was part of a committee with several state agencies, including the Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health (DPH), and public works officials in South Windsor. The group tasked themselves with adapting a program to cut down on road salt use in order to lessen environmental impacts without creating unsafe conditions for pedestrians and drivers.

“From research, we know that the overapplication of salt has no safety benefit, but there’s a huge environmental cost,” says Dietz. “The only documented way we can reduce the amount of salt that’s going into the environment is to reduce what’s being put down on the streets. There’s no other proven way to do it.”

Dietz and his partners looked to the Green SnowPro Certification program in New Hampshire as a model. The program provides training for municipal public works staff and private contractors on ways to more efficiently apply road salt without compromising travel safety. Participants learn about salt and how it affects the environment while also studying strategies for spreading salt in different weather conditions and ensuring equipment is properly calibrated to meet those circumstances.

The success of the practices outlined in the program were reflected in a pilot program Dietz organized with UConn’s Facilities Operations. Since 2011, he has been using a monitoring station at Eagleville Brook to track water discharge, temperature, turbidity and conductivity from the Storrs campus to the small stream nearby. Turbidity refers to the transparency of the water, its level of clarity or cloudiness, a sign of particulates. Conductivity is how the salinity of the water is measured. Using these data combined with training the T2 Center provided for crews, calibrating salt spreaders on plow trucks and documenting salt application, Dietz was able to present a clear picture of how these steps can reduce salt application, improve water quality and save money, with the University using less salt over the course of the winter. The T2 Center has since offered a handful of training sessions to municipal public works employees.

“Our ultimate goal was to take our program statewide and that’s what the T2 Center is doing,” says Dietz. “Municipal workers can come and learn what they can do to reduce the salt going into the soil and water in their communities.”

“The next step is to offer the training to private contractors. New Hampshire found that 50 percent of the salt applied in their state was put down by private contractors, so they knew reducing impacts meant them participating in the training as well.”

The push to include everyone that uses road salt in the training has led to the introduction of legislation by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Environment Committee. A bill, S.B. 97: An Act Concerning Training Standards for Road Salt Applicators, was raised in 2020 with the goal of mitigating the effects of sodium chloride contamination of private wells and public drinking water supplies.

“The Environment Committee held a roundtable meeting and they invited several of us who were involved in the T2 project. They recognized road salt was a big problem and they wanted to know what we could do about it. I said that this was the only way, and we had documentation at UConn showing that. There’s no other great alternative that’s a silver bullet. They heard it and put this legislation together,” says Dietz.

Private wells and drinking water is one area Dietz is taking additional steps to ensure remain safe for Connecticut residents. Recently, as director of CTIWR, he appropriated $25,000 in funding to initiate a free well water testing program to residents. Connecticut wells are only required to be tested upon their construction. There are over 300,000 private wells in the state and Dietz is concerned that in addition to road salt, there may be other contaminants polluting wells, including nitrate and bacteria, which are going unnoticed and unaddressed.

“I know from my own research and through speaking with the folks at DPH that this was a serious concern. I knew this would be a good thing to do for citizens of the state. The cost of the test is about $150 and I was maxed out almost immediately as soon as we got the announcement out. It showed me there’s obviously a need for it,” says Dietz.

The well water testing initiative is one action Dietz has taken to increase the visibility of the CTIWR for state residents. Since taking over as director, he is publishing yearly newsletters and other resources geared towards state residents to inform them about the state’s most pressing water problems. The CTIWR also helps fund students working to address important water issues in the state, helping to train the next generation of water scientists.

By Jason M. Sheldon