UniverCity Year helps Marathon County get less salty

During Wisconsin’s winter months, Marathon County’s municipalities field calls from concerned residents driving on icy streets to put down more salt to help clear the roadways.

Andrew Lynch, former transportation planner at the Wausau Metropolitan Planning Organization, thought this method was inefficient and potentially leading to using too much salt that could affect the county’s environmental resources.

“The idea was to bring the different communities together through the Wausau Metropolitan Planning Organization and begin the discussion,” said Lynch, who is now an assistant planner with
the City of Wausau. “We looked at how we can spread best practices and how we can treat the vulnerable areas to avoid any excessive runoff or infiltration into the water supply.”

An intersection showing snow on the sidewalks
Civil and environmental engineering students offered preliminary designs to improve roadways, including the intersection shown above of Forest and North Sixth streets, in downtown Wausau. photo Credit: Gavin Luter

Addressing road salt use was one of several topics that included economic development, evidence based decision making, equity, and emergency medical services that Marathon County partnered with UniverCity Year (UCY) to pursue from 2020–23.

Researching the use of road salt in Marathon County also harnessed the skillsets of University of Wisconsin–Madison students in three academic disciplines: environmental studies, applied leadership in engineering, and geography.

“They asked different questions, and that’s often very helpful in terms of trying to break anyone’s mindset when looking at a problem,” Lynch said. “They were all able to bring a different perspective.”

Environmental studies students created a comprehensive chart of road salt practices throughout the Wausau Metropolitan Area, documented recent efforts to adjust practices, and outlined considerations for collaboration.

Students enrolled in an interdisciplinary engineering course analyzed data on salting practices of each municipality to determine what a consistent policy for each municipality would look like. Finally, geography students mapped Marathon County to find out what sensitive areas are affected by road salt use.

UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said this project illustrates the possibilities for communities working with UCY.

“We had one project: road salt use. But the project was more complicated than answering one simple question,” Luter said. “By listening to what Marathon County needed, we found three different classes who could help them think through different parts of this complex challenge. Now the county has more information that can be used to help build a more informed approach to the issue of road salt use.”

Lynch also recognized the benefits a program like UCY has for students and for the greater community. During his graduate program at the University of Iowa, he participated in the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities. Like UCY, this program is a member of Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC-N), which is a network of institutions with community partnership models that match student learning with real-world challenges.

“The UCY program is a great resource for students and for the state as a whole,” Lynch said. “I found [the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities] absolutely invaluable, and it provided me with the real world experience that you don’t often get as a student.”

This story was featured in the UniverCity Year 2022 report.