GreenCorps members prescribe a low-salt diet for Minnesota waters

Water softeners are a surprising part of the problem

In 1961, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy launched a program to help mitigate poverty around the world and spread American ideas and goodwill. The Peace Corps program immediately captured the attention of young people around the country, and thousands of applications poured in for the inaugural cohort of volunteers. “The wisdom of this idea is that someday we’ll bring it home to America,” Kennedy proclaimed.

More than fifty years later, the Peace Corps program still remains popular, and several domestic AmeriCorps programs have been created as well. Every year, thousands of Americans volunteer their service in communities near and far, helping people to recover from natural disasters, teaching school children, supporting non-profit organizations, and organizing community volunteers.

In 2009, Minnesota created the GreenCorps program as a state level AmeriCorps initiative, training the next generation of professionals to tackle environmental problems such as water pollution, climate change, and solid waste. GreenCorps is coordinated through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and funds 20-25 positions per year.

ben lehman, kate johnson, and jaron cook - greencorps members
Ben lLhman, Kate Johnson, and Jaron Cook are Minnesota GreenCorps members helping to educate communities about chloride water pollution (Photo from CleanWaterMN).

Chloride pollution is a growing concern in Minnesota, and four of this year’s GreenCorps members –  Kate Johnson, Jaron Cook, Ben Erickson, and Ben Lehman – are working on ways to stem the flow of salt into our groundwater, lakes, and streams.

To date, 40 lakes and streams in the state are already impaired by chlorides, 40 are at high-risk, and 30% of shallow private wells in the metro area have elevated chloride levels. Most people know that road salt pollutes our water, but the MPCA has found that water softeners are a surprising culprit as well.

“People are shocked when they learn that water softening is affecting lakes and rivers,” says Kate Johnson, who is doing her GreenCorps service in the City of Rogers. “Most people don’t know that there is no simple or affordable way for wastewater plants to remove the chloride.”

Valley Creek S. Branch 12-7-17
Streams are especially susceptible to chloride pollution. Elevated levels kill fish and other aquatic animals. One teaspoon of salt is enough to pollute 50-gallons of freshwater.

“This is a public education issue,” says Jaron Cook, a GreenCorps member working at the Anoka Conservation District. “Salt from home water softeners is seeping through septic systems and into groundwater aquifers.” Jaron is encouraging Anoka homeowners to update their water softeners to more efficient models or to calibrate their systems to use less salt.

Water softeners help to extend the life and improve the efficiency of water heaters, dishwashers, and other appliances. Unfortunately, because systems use salt to “soften” the water in our homes, they can also contribute to chloride pollution in groundwater and streams – especially in rural areas with septic systems. Wastewater treatment plants also struggle to remove salt before discharging water to nearby lakes and rivers.

WLSSD wastewater treatment plant aerial photo
Wastewater treatment plants kill bacteria and remove phosphorus and pollutants before releasing water to lakes and rivers. Upgrading technology to remove chlorides can be very expensive. (Photo of Western Lake Superior Sanitary District treatment facility in Duluth, MN)

Further west, in the City of Morris, GreenCorps member Ben Erickson is helping to conduct community outreach prior to the city installing a new water treatment plant. The central treatment system will soften all of the city’s water, eliminating the need for home softening and reducing the amount of chloride seeping into groundwater resources.

Regardless of where they live, Erickson encourages homeowners to have their water softeners calibrated annually. “Home water softening is one of the biggest issues when it comes to our chloride problem, and it is the easiest thing to fix,” he says. Recommendations from the MPCA include: 1) Testing your water for hardness before installing a water softener; 2) Only softening indoor plumping – not outside spigots; 3) Adjusting the timer on your softener; and 4) Upgrading to a high-efficiency water softener that uses less salt.

Johnson, Cook, Erickson, and Lehman hope that their year of service with Minnesota GreenCorps will lead to future careers in the environmental sector. Previous GreenCorps members have gone on to work in a variety of public, private and non-profit jobs, including managing the Sustainability Program at Fairview Health Services, working at Hennepin County’s Department of Environmental Services, and helping communities to implement energy efficiency through work with the Great Plains Institute. For now, they are focused on clean water, and helping Minnesota to stick to a new low-salt diet.

Learn more about chloride water pollution, professional training for road salt applicators, and how to reduce salt use at home:

This article was adapted from an article originally published at