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Sustainable snow solution

Posted 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023

From left, Scott Brown, Andrew Ericson and Casey Christ with the new brine equipment.

Student’s brine research ushers in a greener winter on campus

A UW-La Crosse student’s research on brine has led to a more budget-friendly and earth-friendly snow removal solution for campus this winter.

Casey Christ, ’23, learned of the impact of salt contamination on aquatic life during a fall 2022 class project. In this Communication and Civic Engagement class, she also learned about using brine as an alternative to rock salt, one of UWL’s primary method for removing snow and ice in winter months. Switching to brine reduces the amount of salt that is needed on sidewalks, parking lots and roads, saving money and reducing water contamination from salt runoff.   

“All my life I’ve grown up thinking salt was a normal and necessary part of midwestern winters. But the more I learned about the long list of issues its use creates, the more I knew something needed to change in La Crosse, and that I had to take this a step further than a class research project,” says Christ.

Although salt is a natural part of the environment, too much salt comes with an environmental cost. Salt applied to roads and sidewalks hangs around after the snow melts, leaching into lakes, rivers and groundwater. Over the years, these freshwater systems have become saltier, and that’s a problem for wildlife. It takes only one teaspoon of salt to pollute five gallons of water to a level this is toxic to native aquatic organisms.

“The Mississippi River and the marsh are home to hundreds of unique species that are harmed every winter we continue to overuse road salt, not to mention the havoc it wreaks on infrastructure and human health,” says Christ. “La Crosse County and the UWL campus use a lot of it. Through my extensive research I discovered the steps that other universities in Wisconsin had implemented to mitigate salt use, and I knew La Crosse needed to follow suit.”

Christ's research is just one example of research that emerges from the Communication Studies course, CST 211, where students complete a civic engagement project. They are tasked with identifying a community problem, conducting extensive community research on the problem and developing a plan to address it. At the culmination of the semester, students present their plan to community stakeholders.

Campus embraces brine

From left, Andrew Ericson, Casey Christ and Scott Brown. UWL Facilities Management purchased two Hilltip Spray Strikers, which have GPS tracking that controls the rate that brine comes out. 

Christ shared her findings about rock salt contamination with stakeholders on campus including UWL’s Sustainability Manager Andrew Ericson and Director of Facilities Management Scott Brown. The group looked into brine as a less-salty alternative. And, in the spring of 2023, UWL Facilities Management invested in new brine equipment.

“We have very driven students on this campus who are looking for ways to make a difference for their community and for the environment,” says Ericson. “It was so impressive to see how Casey championed this initiative that she cared about.”

Facilities management purchased two Hilltip Spray Strikers, which have GPS tracking that controls the rate that brine comes out, along with a 1,200-gallon storage tank where brine will be stored in bulk. Brine will be purchased from La Crosse County, an early adopter of brine.

“Facilities Management is always trying to improve the sustainability of our operations. Brine was a win both financially and environmentally,” says Brown. “We are looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of this new method of winter maintenance.”  

Ericson says the initiative to bring brine to campus is an example of how sustainability, an important and long-term initiative at UWL, intersects with UWL’s strategic plan to provide transformational education and community engagement.  

“We are always looking to improve sustainability efforts across the campus as UWL aims to be a leader in sustainability in our region,” says Ericson. “When it comes to sustainability, we can think of campus as a living lab to apply what’s taught in our classrooms. But sometimes we need a champion for those efforts, and we are very grateful that Casey stepped up.”

What is brine?

UWL Facilities Management purchased a 1,200-gallon storage tank where brine will be stored in bulk.

Brine is salty water that is used for snow removal. If you have ever seen faint white stripes on driving lanes, then you’ve seen brine in action. A 23.3% NaCl solution, brine works in the same way that rock salt does, but it has many added benefits.

Why brine?

  • Reduces the amount of salt applied, which saves money and prevents water contamination.
  • Sticks to where it is placed and is not subject to being moved around like rock salt
  • Prevents snow/ice from adhering to the pavement surface if applied before a winter storm. This makes removal easier.
  • Works quicker than rock salt. Rock salt needs to become brine on the pavement surface, and then it will start working. Using brine from the start accelerates the process.  

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