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Publications—Water-Resources Investigations Report 99–4077

Estimating Concentrations of Road–Salt Constituents in Highway–Runoff from Measurements of Specific Conductance

By Gregory E. Granato and Kirk P. Smith

U.S. Geological Survey Water–Resources Investigations Report 99–4077

Prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Highway Department

This report is available in Portable Document Format (PDF):

WRIR 99–4077 (556 KB)  – 27 pages


Discrete or composite samples of highway runoff may not adequately represent in–storm water–quality fluctuations because continuous records of water stage, specific conductance, pH, and temperature of the runoff indicate that these properties fluctuate substantially during a storm. Continuous records of water–quality properties can be used to maximize the information obtained about the stormwater runoff system being studied and can provide the context needed to interpret analyses of water samples.

Concentrations of the road–salt constituents calcium, sodium, and chloride in highway runoff were estimated from theoretical and empirical relations between specific conductance and the concentrations of these ions. These relations were examined using the analysis of 233 highwayrunoff samples collected from August 1988 through March 1995 at four highway–drainage monitoring stations along State Route 25 in southeastern Massachusetts.

Theoretically, the specific conductance of a water sample is the sum of the individual conductances attributed to each ionic species in solution—the product of the concentrations of each ion in milliequivalents per liter (meq/L) multiplied by the equivalent ionic conductance at infinite dilution—thereby establishing the principle of superposition. Superposition provides an estimate of actual specific conductance that is within measurement error throughout the conductance range of many natural waters, with errors of less than ±5 percent below 1,000 microsiemens per centimeter (µS/cm) and ±10 percent between 1,000 and 4,000 µS/cm if all major ionic constituents are accounted for.

A semi–empirical method (adjusted superposition) was used to adjust for concentration effects—superposition–method prediction errors at high and low concentrations—and to relate measured specific conductance to that calculated using superposition. The adjusted superposition method, which was developed to interpret the State Route 25 highway–runoff records, accounts for contributions of constituents other than calcium, sodium, and chloride in dilute waters. The adjusted superposition method also accounts for the attenuation of each constituent's contribution to conductance as ionic strength increases. Use of the adjusted superposition method generally reduced predictive error to within measurement error throughout the range of specific conductance (from 37 to 51,500 µS/cm) in the highway runoff samples. The effects of pH, temperature, and organic constituents on the relation between concentrations of dissolved constituents and measured specific conductance were examined but these properties did not substantially affect interpretation of the Route 25 data set.

Predictive abilities of the adjusted superposition method were similar to results obtained by standard regression techniques, but the adjusted superposition method has several advantages. Adjusted superposition can be applied using available published data about the constituents in precipitation, highway runoff, and the deicing chemicals applied to a highway. This semi–empirical method can be used as a predictive and diagnostic tool before a substantial number of samples are collected, but the power of the regression method is based upon a large number of water–quality analyses that may be affected by a bias in the data.




Field and Laboratory Methods

Highway-Runoff Monitoring Records

Theoretical and Empirical Analyses of Specific Conductance Data

Regression Analysis


Concentration Effects

Other Effects

Adjusted Superposition

Estimation of Road-Salt Constituent Concentrations



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Suggested Citation:
Granato, G.E., and Smith, K.P., 1999, Estimating Concentrations of Road–Salt Constituents in Highway–Runoff from Measurements of Specific Conductance: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 99–4077.

For additional information write to:

USGS Massachusetts–Rhode Island Water Science Center
10 Bearfoot Road
Northborough, MA 01532

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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