No-Salt Divorce

By Gary L. Karl

This winter some Adirondack towns and villages are restricting their salt intake for health reasons.

Road salt, that is. They find that cutting back on road salt is healthier for their watersheds-and their budgets.

The levels of salt in Lake George have tripled in the last 30 years. A scientist who advises the Fund for Lake George, a grantmaking organization, estimates that if road salting had ended in 2009, it would take over 30 years for salt concentrations in the watershed to return to normal.

In Mirror Lake, in the Village of Lake Placid, salt concentrations are 160 times the median for Adirondack lakes not affected by road salt. The buildup of salt on the lake bottom inhibits spring turnover of the lake, jeopardizing cold water fish and the bottom-dwelling organisms that are the first link in a lake’s food chain.

Road salt doesn’t just run off the roads into the lakes. It is also absorbed by the ground. From there it can infiltrate drinking water wells and public water supplies and corrode potable water infrastructure.

Municipalities surrounding Lake George have started a program to cut their use of road salt in half by 2020 on the 250 miles of roads they maintain in the watershed. Their counterparts around Mirror Lake are organizing their own initiative. And governments around the two lakes are collaborating on a common state grant to explore alternatives.

It’s no surprise that new technologies are part of the solution: highway departments are using GPS to monitor road conditions, test-driving new-generation plow blades, and applying a salt substitute known as brine. But common sense in spreading old-fashioned rock salt helps, too.

The surprise is that governments are finding that the new approaches can save them money, too. Just like the doctor says, cutting back on salt is healthier all the way around.

The Schroon Lake watershed contains over 200 miles of roads. According to Adirondack Lakes Assessment Program (ALAP) testing data from 2016 (the most recent year available), the impact of road salt on Schroon Lake is “moderate,” although the chloride concentration in the lake is in the top quartile of the lakes participating in the ALAP survey.

Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson tells the Mini Pearl that his town’s highway department follows industry best practices to minimize the rock salt applied to the roads, mixing in “just enough” to keep the sand from freezing. But, he notes, sometimes “just enough” is not enough in the opinion of constituents who want their roads bare of snow and ice.

Mr. Simpson is also the current president of the Association of Adirondack Towns and Villages. In that role he is working with other Adirondack leaders and stakeholders to develop a best practices standard for road salt use across the entire Adirondack Park–one that balances concerns for the watershed and constituent expectations.

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