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GreenCorps members prescribe a low-salt diet for Minnesota waters

From left to right are GreenCorps members Ben Lehman, Kate Johnson and Jaron Cook. Submitted photo

In 1961, 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 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 50 years later, the program remains popular, and several AmeriCorps programs have been created as well. Every year, thousands of Americans volunteer to help people recover from natural disasters, teaching school children, support nonprofit organizations, and organize 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 and funds 20-25 positions per year.

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 percent 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," said Kate Johnson, who is doing her GreenCorps service in Rogers. "Most people don't know that there is no simple or affordable way for wastewater plants to remove the chloride."

"This is a public education issue," said 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." Cook is encouraging Anoka homeowners to update their water softeners to more efficient models or to calibrate systems to use less salt.

Water softeners help to extend the life and improve the efficiency of water heaters, dishwashers and other appliances. Because systems use salt to "soften" the water in 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 rivers.

In 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 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 said.

Recommendations from the MPCA include:

• Testing your water for hardness before installing a water softener

• Only softening indoor plumbing, not outside spigots

• Adjusting the timer on your softener

• Upgrading to a high-efficiency water softener that uses less salt