Stormwater-driven road salt is a chronic and acute issue for streams in cold, urban environments. One promising approach for reducing the impact of road salt contamination in streams and adjacent aquifers is to allow “accidental wetlands” to flourish in urban areas. These wetlands form naturally as a byproduct of human activities. In this study, we quantified the ability of an accidental wetland in northwestern North Carolina, USA, to reduce the timing and peak concentration of road salt in a stream. Monitoring suggests that flow and transport processes through the wetland reduce peak concentrations and delay their arrival at the adjacent stream. We expand these findings with numerical simulations that model multiple meltwater and summer storm event scenarios. The model output demonstrates that small accidental wetland systems can reduce peak salinities by 94% and delay the arrival of saltwater pulses by 45 days. Our findings indicate that accidental wetlands improve stream water quality and they may also reduce peak temperatures during temperature surges in urban streams. Furthermore, because they find their own niche, accidental wetlands may be more effective than some intentionally constructed wetlands, and provide opportunities to explore managing stormwater by letting nature take its course.
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