“Salt Reduction by 50% by 2020” – among local governments, highway superintendents and environmental protection groups on Lake George, that’s the buzz phrase of the season.
“30,000 metric tons of salt are deposited every year within the Lake George basin,” said Eric Siy, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George. “But we know we can reduce its use. We can apply salt smarter and make our roads safer.”
Town highway departments, which are responsible for maintaining most of the 250 miles of roads within the Lake George watershed, could save tens of thousands of dollars every year by shifting to salt substitutes and applying those products efficiently.
According to Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky, the use of road salt has increased practically every year since the 1940s; as a consequence, the levels of salt within Lake George itself have tripled in the last thirty years.
“The more we learn about the impacts of road salt on the Lake George watershed, the more motivated we are to achieve road salt reductions in the earliest possible time frame,” said Navitsky. He’s working with Dr. Jim Sutherland, an expert on on non-point source pollution, to monitor tributaries of the lake for excessive salt levels. Finkle Brook, in the Town of Bolton, is one of those tributaries. According to Navitsky, salt levels there are more than 100 times higher than normal.
But not all salt washes directly from the highway into the lake or its tributaries, said Navitsky. A highly soluble compound, the road salt also finds its way into ground water. If salt finds its way from groundwater into wetlands, it can affect plant and wild life. And if it reaches wells, it can increase the salinity of drinking water and pose risks to some people’s health. According to Siy, salt not only poses risks to the environment and to human health, it has economic impacts, damaging infrastructure and vehicles.
Workshops, Grants Help To Drop Salt Usage
Thanks to in part to workshops sponsored by the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board, consultations with highway departments and The Fund for Lake George’s annual Salt Summits (daylong conferences for the property maintenance contractors, highway superintendents and the public employees responsible for applying de-icing agents to roads, driveways and parking lots), the use of road salt has started to drop.
The Village and Town of Lake George, as well as the Towns of Bolton and Queensbury, are likely to reduce their use of salt even further as the result of a new $200,000 state grant.
Developed by the Lake George Park Commission’s executive director, Dave Wick, and awarded through the Capital District Regional Economic Development Council to the Village of Lake George, the grant will fund the purchase of equipment to manufacture and apply an anti-icing salt and water solution known as brine.
“It impairs the bonding of ice and road surfaces; that’s why it’s an anti-icing rather than de-icing measure,” explained Walt Lender, the executive director of the Lake George Association. According to Dave Wick, lake shore towns could reduce their salt usage by half simply by applying brine to their roads over the course of a winter. “It’s a safe, environmentally sound alternative to rock salt,” he said.
Walt Lender commented, “brining is one of the best techniques available for reducing the amount of salt we use, since the solution requires only a fraction of the salt that is normally spread on roads.”
A similar initiative in a town near Utica has proven to be very successful, Wick said.
“The Highway Superintendent of New Hartford told us that he not only applies the liquid to roads before a storm arrives, as an anti-icing measure to prevent snow and ice from bonding to pavements, but as a de-icing measure as well. With the money the town has saved on salt, it’s been able to upgrade its equipment,” said Wick.
According to the grant application, the Town of Lake George’s Highway Department will become “the hub of a regional road brining collaborative.” An industrial-sized mixer producing enough brine to serve all three municipalities, funded by the $200,000 grant and a $50,000 contribution split between between the three municipalities, will be installed in the Lake George Highway Department’s garage, said Wick.
According to Wick, highway departments would also be provided with the training and equipment necessary to launch pilot programs in their communities.
“The town highway superintendents have been very open minded about trying a shift in their operations to see how this program could work,” said Wick. “If this model can take hold, Hague and Ticonderoga are interested in seeing the program expand to include them.
Grants Fund Storage Sheds, More Training
This latest state grant supplements one secured by State Senator Betty Little in 2008 worth $150,000, said Wick.
That grant funded the construction of sheds for storing salt, and reducing its tendency to leach into groundwater, road temperature sensors and the development of Snow and Ice Management Plans for municipalities within the Lake George basin. Organizations such as the Lake George Association and The Fund for Lake George have awarded smaller grants to Town Highway Departments to pay for new equipment and training.
Last year, for example, The Fund for Lake George awarded the Town of Lake George a $9,750 grant to purchase a new Live Edge Plow, which can accommodate a road’s uneven, sometimes erratic surface. The Lake George Association will assist the Town of Bolton with the purchase of its Live Edge Plow this year, said the LGA’s Walt Lender.
According to Chris Navitsky, the Town of Hague, which has used Live Edge Plows on the road over Tongue Mountain, has reported that its highway department crews now make fewer trips and apply less salt while maintaining safe, bare roads. “The towns’ use of Live Edge Plows helps show others what it takes to reduce the use of road salt and the rewards of doing so,” said Navitsky.
Monitoring, Brine Key To Reduction of Salt
For there to be an effective, basin-wide salt reduction program, the use of brine and modern equipment such as advanced plows and road sensors must be integrated with the collection of precise data, says Eric Siy.
“We’ve outfitted snow plows with state-of- the-art monitoring equipment that is tracking the use of salt mile by mile, moment by moment,” said Siy.
Siy said the monitoring equipment – “little black boxes” – are part of a three year study by The Fund to learn how much salt is dispensed and where it is is distributed. Roadside cameras have also been installed to monitor road conditions, which helps crews refine their road-clearing methods.
According to Chris Navitsky, the Lake George basin is the first watershed in America to be scientifically monitored for salt application. “By gathering data, we can develop strategic plans based on historic application rates,” said Navitsky.
Eric Siy noted, “The highway departments appreciate value of the study. They recognize that they’re an important part of a significant initiative to protect Lake George.”
Photo: The road over Tongue Mountain 50 years ago.
A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror.