Finding ways to cut the salt while keeping drivers safe

t is snowing, the flakes descending in endless, languorous swirls. Seemingly from nowhere, the snowplows emerge—yellow lights flashing and blades grinding. It is winter in the Adirondacks. There would be something reassuring, cozy even, about the scene, except for one thing: the road salt pouring from the trucks. 

For the past 40 years, ever since the 1980 Winter Olympics, salt has been the weapon of choice for keeping roads in the Adirondacks safe. Before that, sand was the main line of defense, but was itself problematic. (More on that later.) Town and state workers have dumped so much salt on roads in the last four decades that the tonnage surpasses that of the Adirondacks’ acreage: 6.9 million. To grasp just how much salt that represents, picture five 50-pound bags of salt for every foot of paved roadway across the entire park.

All that might be just an interesting bit of local trivia, except that salt has frightening health and environmental consequences for the Adirondacks.

Salt seeps into groundwater and, eventually, residents’ wells, with some homeowners no longer able to drink from their own taps. It runs off roads into streams and lakes, killing zooplankton and disrupting the food web for insects and fish. The decrease in zooplankton could yield an increase in harmful algae, which the plankton ordinarily keep in check.

In some water bodies, such as Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, the salt has accumulated to such an extent that it is preventing the natural turnover, or mixing, of water in spring, leading to the depletion of oxygen. And salt sprayed from snowplows along lakes and streams acts as an herbicide when it hits tree branches. When birches and white pines die, the soil that was held together by their roots erodes, further hurting water quality.

These impacts are largely invisible to the casual observer. But they have led to a growing movement among Adirondack environmentalists and scientists to convince state and local officials to reduce the amount of salt they apply.

In October, the Fund for Lake George, a nonprofit environmental organization, held its fifth annual “Salt Summit” in Lake Placid, drawing more than 150 highway superintendents, other elected officials and environmental advocates  from across the park. Some towns and counties, along with the state’s department of transportation, have, in fact, begun to deploy strategies to cut salt, while still keeping roads clear.

“What we would really like to see is a discussion about what we value,” said Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College, who has studied almost 500 drinking wells for salt contamination.

“We certainly value being able to get up in the morning and get in our car and get to work safely,” he said. “We also value the environment. And the folks on private well water value the fact that they can turn their water on and drink it safely. Maybe we will no longer be able to drive 60 miles an hour on an Adirondack road after a snowstorm. The slower the speed limit, the more options you have.”

There is no perfect alternative to salt, or sodium chloride, a compound that’s remarkably effective at melting snow and ice. Sand provides traction but doesn’t actually melt ice. And sand has its own environmental risks, which is one reason its application was scaled back. The sand washed into lakes and streams and filled crevices between rocks, making it difficult for fish to lay eggs and disrupting habitat for aquatic insects.

Lowering speed limits is one approach to cutting the application of salt. In 2015 the village of Lake George and eight surrounding towns signed a memorandum of understanding to measure road salt use and seek ways to reduce it.

Chris Navitsky, the Lake George Waterkeeper (part of the Fund for Lake George), said increased monitoring of wells and water bodies has led to a new sense of ur­­gency. For instance, over the past 35 years, the level of salt in Lake George has more than tripled. “Thousands of people drink the lake water in Lake George,” Navitsky said. “Given the trend we’ve seen in the lake over 40 years, in another 20 years people with sodium-restricted diets will no longer be able to drink the water.”

In addition to posting reduced speeds, highway departments around Lake George have purchased so-called live-edge plows, which have moveable blades that closely hug the pavement and clear more snow from roads—sort of like a closer shave. They have used a technique called “brining,” in which saltwater is sprayed on roads in advance of storms, preventing snow from forming a bond with the pavement.

Superintendents have also used a tactic called “pre-wetting,” in which a plow truck adds liquid brine to the salt before it lands on roads. That reduces the “bounce and scatter” waste of typical salt spreading, while also activating the salt more quickly. Some highway departments have even mounted roadside cameras to see how quickly their roads return to bare pavement with varying amounts of salt. And all are recalibrating their plows throughout the winter to ensure they are releasing the right amount of salt.

“It used to be that you’d ‘set it and forget it,’” explained Steven Johnson, Warren County’s highway manager. “You would calibrate the plow one time, but now we are calibrating every couple of weeks. As things get knocked around during the winter and ice builds up, you don’t know if you are accurately counting.”

Johnson oversees 110 miles of county roads, with a dozen snowplow routes and nearly 50 plow operators. The trucks dump about 5,000 tons of salt on roads each winter, and Johnson would like to see that lowered by 30 percent. “There’s still some skepticism, but we are working to get everybody on board,” he said.

Some towns report major cost savings from salt reduction. For example, in Hague, the highway department cut its salt use by 800 tons over the last two winters, saving tens of thousands of dollars.

After years of pressure, New York State has followed suit. It now has two pilot programs, one along a 17-mile segment of Route 9N on the west side of Lake George and the other on a 16-mile stretch of Route 86 through Lake Placid. The state also has a strategic working group for the pilot projects, with representation from local municipalities and organizations.

Sam Zhou, assistant commissioner for operations and asset management for the state’s department of transportation, said the state was using all of the techniques at its disposal, from brining to live-edge plows. But he declined to say just how much less salt the state was using on the roadways. “Once we have the result of the pilot program,” Zhou said at the salt summit, “the goal is to apply this across the board, not just in the Adirondacks, but statewide.”

Assemblyman Billy Jones and State Senator Betty Little have introduced a bill that, if enacted into law, would create a task force to study the problem and, starting in 2021, expand the existing pilot programs to all state roads in the Adirondacks. “If any of you have ever been in the home of someone whose well is affected by salt, you can see what they are going through and the effect it has on their lives,” Jones said at the summit.

While environmental activists have set their sights on local highway departments, the state actually spreads far more salt on roads—despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of the 10,555 miles of paved roads are local, not state. To be fair, the state plows and salts 24 hours a day during snowstorms to keep roads clear for commerce and emergency vehicles.

As one might expect from an academic, Dan Kelting, of Paul Smith’s College, buttresses his case about the risks of road salt with a PowerPoint presentation, numbers and more numbers. Some are eye-popping. About 192,000 tons of salt are applied to Adirondack roads every year, with the state responsible for 108,000 tons and local governments 84,700 tons.

The toll on the region’s waters is striking. According to Kelting’s calculations, 6,000 miles of streams—a little over half of the stream network—and 195,000 acres of lakes, or 75 percent of the total, receive salt-tainted runoff from paved roads.

The impact on drinking wells is murkier, for the simple reason that some wells are situated above roadways and thus receive no runoff. Still, of the 489 wells Kelting has studied, more than half—or 283—receive runoff from either state or local roads. The ones inundated with runoff from state roads suffer a higher rate of sodium chloride contamination than those downslope of local roads.

Over coffee last fall in Saranac Lake, Kelting, a soft-spoken man with wire-rimmed glasses, broke it down. In his well study, he teased out sodium and chloride, pointing out that the state’s department of health sets the drinking water standard at 20 parts per million for sodium and 250 parts per million for chloride. Anything higher is considered unhealthy. 

The drinking wells that receive no runoff have three parts per million of sodium, or normal background levels. But the wells with runoff from local roads have a median sodium concentration of six parts per million, double that of the clean wells, while the wells with state runoff showed median concentrations of 33 parts per million—considerably higher than what is deemed safe. There were some disturbing outliers: one well had a sodium concentration of 1,917 parts per million. And the picture for chloride was almost as bleak.

What do all of these statistics mean for affected homeowners? For one thing, too much salt has the same impact on pipes and appliances as it does on cars. It corrodes them, forcing residents to undertake expensive repairs and replacements. There are health concerns as well. Some residents have had to install costly water filters—$5,000 is not unusual—to remove sodium chloride. Those on a low-sodium diet may not realize their tap water is dangerous.

“For the average person, it’s not unhealthy,” Kelting said. “Let’s say your water has 100 parts per million of sodium. That’s five times the department of health number. You might even say it tastes good. But if you are on a low-sodium diet, with hypertension or heart disease, you may not know your water has health effects since it doesn’t taste salty.”

Not far away, Brendan Wiltse, of the Ausable River Association, peered down at a large, round pipe jutting into Mirror Lake. It is one of many such pipes carrying runoff from the busy streets of Lake Placid. That runoff includes things like heavy metals, bits of rubber from car tires and cigarette butts.

But what Wiltse is more worried about is road salt. Because Mirror Lake is only three miles around, the salt has an outsize influence on the water quality.

Wiltse, the association’s science and stewardship director, explained that saltwater is denser than freshwater and so sinks to the bottom when it enters a lake. Part of the 500-square-mile Ausable River watershed, Mirror Lake now has so much salt that the natural mixing that occurs in spring and fall is happening only in fall. If the mixing process were to stop in fall as well, the ecological consequences would be severe.

“People like to say the bottom half of the lake is dead,” Wiltse said. “There are things living down there; they just don’t require oxygen. But there’s no fish. There’s not going to be a lot of zooplankton. Basically, the zone without oxygen gets bigger all summer long.”

Lake trout are especially vulnerable to salt intrusion in Mirror Lake, which reaches a depth of 60 feet. “They like to be deep, where it’s cold in the summer, and they are getting pinched as a result of that,” he continued. “There’s very little water this time of year that’s left for them to inhabit. If the lake were ever to stop mixing in the fall, there’s a good chance we would lose cold-water fish like lake trout.”

The Ausable River Association recently received a $175,000 grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to determine how much salt is getting into Mirror Lake and from which sources. Part of the money will go toward the purchase of live-edge plows for the village of Lake Placid and town of North Elba.

“It would be nice to know how much we need to reduce the salt by,” Wiltse said, as a mallard duck waddled near his feet. “We can be much more strategic in where we make investments if we know the goal we are trying to reach.”

While efforts to grapple with salt in Lake George and Mirror Lake are well underway, Brittany Christenson, executive director of nonprofit group AdkAction, is eager to expand those initiatives across the region. “It needs to happen in every municipality in the park and on the state level,” she said at the salt summit.

To that end, her organization helped form a Road Salt Working Group and crafted a pledge for towns to sign. While not legally binding, the pledge commits towns to tracking salt use and training workers on ways to pare the amount they pour on roads. So far, more than two dozen towns have signed on.

For Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, such commitments are key, given what he calls the “culture change” around road salt that will be necessary. “Some of these guys—and they are mostly guys—they don’t want to change,” Siy acknowledged during a break in the salt summit, referring to highway superintendents. “But they live here. They fish. They enjoy the resource. If they believe in the science and the ability to help solve the problem, then you are halfway there.”

Lisa W. Foderaro was a reporter for The New York Times for more than 30 years. She has also written for National Geographic and Audubon Magazine.

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