The Effects of Road De-icing Salts on Water Quality and Macroinvertebrates in Australian Alpine Areas

Mark D. Shenton, Susan J. Nichols, Jon P. Bray, Benjamin J.G. Moulding, Ben J. Kefford

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


The application of road de-icing salts has the potential to salinize fresh waters and degrade habitat for aquatic organisms. In the Australian Alps, the ecological effects of even small salinity increases from de-icing may be different than in North America and Europe because of (1) differences in the evolutionary history, and (2) areas with de-icing in Australia are not located in urbanized landscapes where de-icing has been largely studied elsewhere. In this study, we tried to determine the salinity increases attributable to de-icing in Australia and the effects of this increase in salinity to stream macroinvertebrates. We observed increased salt concentrations (as measured by continuous measurements of electrical conductivity (EC) and periodic measurements of chloride concentrations) in streams near two Australian ski resorts, during the snow seasons (June to September) of 2016 to 2018. The maximum EC observed in streams in salted sites near Perisher, New South Wales, was 390 µS cm−1 compared with a maximum of 26.5 µS cm−1 at unsalted sites. Lower EC values (i.e., maximum 61.1 µS cm−1) and short durations of salinity increases in streams near Falls Creek, Victoria, were not expected to cause an adverse biological response. Salt storage in the landscape was evident at salted sites near Perisher where EC was above background levels during periods of the year when no salt was applied to roads. Stream macroinvertebrate community composition differed at sites receiving run-off from road salting activities near Perisher. Abundances of Oligochaeta (worms) (up to 11-fold), Dugesiidae (flat worms) (up to fourfold), and Aphroteniinae (chironomids) (up to 14-fold) increased, whereas Leptophlebiidae (mayflies) decreased by up to 100% compared with non-salted sites. The taxa that were less abundant where de-icing salts were present tended to be the same taxa that toxicity testing revealed to be relatively salt sensitive species. This study demonstrates a causal link between de-icing salts, elevated stream salinity, and altered macroinvertebrate community composition in streams that received run-off from road de-icing activity in the Australian Alps.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)266-280
Number of pages15
JournalArchives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


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