Sunday, November 4, 2018

Chris Navitsky: Work To Limit Road Salt

Lake George Scientists in the 1970s began to notice and be alarmed by the abnormally acidic lakes and streams they were discovering throughout the Adirondacks. In some cases, fish populations were disappearing. Their groundbreaking work coined the term acid rain, caused by fossil-fuel emissions that drifted on high-altitude winds and were flushed down in cloud bursts.

Today, just as science-driven rules limiting industrial and vehicular emissions have helped our local waterways begin to recover, evidence we are seeing supports new approaches to safely managing snow and ice on roadways, driveways, and sidewalks while protecting our freshwater resources.

Scientists are documenting increases in the salinity of freshwater sources, both in the ground and on the surface, and working with advocates, operators, property managers, and public officials to create solutions that reduce salt volumes without compromising public safety.

The Fund for Lake George is proud of the role we have played in the creation of a scientific record that documents not only increases in freshwater salinity over time, but identifies specific solutions that are measurable and achievable. We are proud, too, to be the catalyst in the conversation about road salt reduction, including hosting annual conferences for public and private road maintenance professionals since 2015. The fourth annual S.A.V.E. Lake George Partnership Salt Summit took place last month at the Fort William Henry Conference Center in Lake George.

The Salt Summit maintains a daylong focus on the real-world challenges and benefits of developing and implementing salt reduction strategies. It draws a broad mix of national and international experts from varying backgrounds and points of view, but all with an interest in reducing salt usage while preserving public safety.

There is an urgent need for public officials and private property managers to develop and implement sustainable salt reduction strategies as the number of water bodies affected by chlorides increases. Research led by Dr. Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute and a professor at Paul Smith’s College, has documented salinity increases in lakes, streams, and drinking wells in the Adirondacks, especially in water sources that collect runoff from state highways. The same study found that, on average, salt usage on state-maintained road surfaces is 2.5 times greater per mile than on roads maintained by municipalities or private owners.

Since 1980, an estimated 7 million tons of road salt has been spread throughout the Adirondacks, and the effects to our ecosystem and potentially public health and private property values are profound. Approximately half of the streams and three-quarters of the lakes in the Adirondack Park have shown increases in salinity, and Kelting’s research shows salinity in lakes that are subject to road salt runoff is 14 times higher than in wilderness lakes that have no paved surfaces around them. Increases in salinity are linked to decreases in water clarity, which studies have shown are correlated to a loss of private property values in shoreline communities.

Similarly, more than half of drinking water wells sampled along state highways exceeded the state’s guidance for sodium content, compared with just 10 percent of wells off local highways. None of the wells that were outside a road runoff area exceeded the sodium guidelines.

Rick Relyea, a professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has also studied road salt runoff impacts as part of his work with the Jefferson Project, a collaboration of RPI, IBM, and The Fund for Lake George. As reported last year by, he found that exposure to road salt can reduce the size of rainbow trout hatchlings by up to 30 percent and can change the genetic makeup of wood frogs.

The Fund has engaged with municipal leaders and private property managers throughout the Lake George basin to identify and target investments in salt reduction. Beginning in 2016, municipalities around Lake George started participating in a first-of-its-kind assessment of salt use rates for an entire watershed. These measurements were the basis for innovative, effective actions to address the challenges.

Since 2015, The Fund has invested more than $478,000 in all phases of salt reduction, including a salt tracking system that allows plow operators to accurately measure salt application rates. The Fund also has provided matching grants to municipalities for equipment purchases, including improved plow technology for the towns of Lake George and Hague, which maintains the steep and winding stretch of Route 9N over Tongue Mountain. After testing the improved plow technology, called live-edge plows, town highway personnel were convinced: they were able to make fewer trips, apply less salt and still keep the roads clear and safe. Hague’s early leadership helped to demonstrate the effectiveness and cost savings of combining the right equipment with reduced salt usage, and we have data that document 30 percent reduction in salt usage on trucks with improved plow technology.

With the proper training, tools, and investments, we can begin to turn the tide on overuse of road salt while maintaining emphasis on driver and pedestrian safety. Together, we can save money, protect our natural resources, and maintain safe communities.

Chris Navitsky is the Lake George Water keeper, a program initiated and overseen by The Fund for Lake George.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

Photo of Lake George by Carl Heilman II.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

17 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Good article. Important issue. All the science is great and noteworthy but you should included the social issues that half the drivers don’t feel responsible to use snow tires and drive slower and they expect the government to control and provide everything.

    • john says:

      Right?! We should ban all snow plows and require that if you want to travel, you must provide your own snow clearing equipment. This will slow people down to a reasonable speed. Next thing you know, people will demand salted hiking trails.

    • Paul says:

      Yes, I am sure that most lower income people have 6 or 8 hundred dollars lying around to buy snow tires like maybe you or I do.

      • Scott says:

        I am glad you didn’t suggest that the government should be responsible for providing snow tires.

      • Boreas says:

        Mandatory in Quebec – makes it simple. I doubt we need the studs though.

      • Walker says:

        So let’s see… if some people can’t afford to repair their brakes or keep their emissions in check we should not have laws mandating state inspection?

        I’m surprised no one is taking the position “Why should my taxes pay for road salt I don’t need because, after all, I use snow tires?”

        • adkDreamer says:

          This is surprising:

          According to this site, only 12 states require annual vehicle safety inspections and only 3 states require annual emissions inspections. All the other states are either biannual, location specific within the state or conditioned based upon age of vehicle, type of use, etc. 10 state have no vehicle inspections at all.

          • Boreas says:

            When I started driving in PA in the early 70’s, they actually had a semi-annual inspection! Talk about a PITA – your car would fail inspection if an ice pick could easily penetrate any body or underbody panel or exhaust component. This was when cars were built with zero rust protection.

            Up in the Great Lakes snowbelt, it was all but impossible to keep a car on the road for 3-5 years without significant body work or a significant investment in Bondo just prior to inspection. And I believe they used significantly LESS salt back then. PENNDOT often used cinders (crushed slag from coal burning) to give traction on ice. Not only did the cinders beat the crap out of your car, they couldn’t have been too environmentally sound.

            Where I lived, you either ran with snows/chains on the rear with 200 pounds of sand in the trunk, or you stayed home after a snow. Virtually no one had 4WD or FWD. So I guess some things have improved!?!

  2. Jay says:

    Simple winter driving rule-SLOW DOWN

  3. J. Bingham says:

    Your 30% tonnage reduction statistic doesn’t mean salinity improvement, if the state begins using the 600% more saline salts available in plentiful, cheap waste-water from Marcellus Shale petroleum drilling and earth fracturing. That tonnage as a measure would have an imprecise correlation, given the extreme variability of salinity from different sources. Where is all that waste-water salinity from hydraulic fracturing being dispersed, into what waterways and water-sheds? Won’t that waste-water find its way onto our state and local roads, through these current studies, as a cheap, legal, highly more saline solution for everyday road safety, with rapid and devastating results for water systems…and living things…unless adequate measures, and measurements, are implemented to head it off?

  4. Boreas says:

    Are there any publicly-available data that would show annual salt usage (tons/mile?) by town, municipality, and county in NYS and/or ADK Park? Is there a map of the Park identifying the water resources most susceptible to road salt damage? I would assume such susceptibility would be dependent on soil depth & composition as well as vegetation cover and slope.

    The reason I ask is that it seems many of the better-funded studies are funded by certain well-populated watersheds and communities focusing on potable water quality, but more sparsely populated areas without a lot of public wells are not addressed in the same depth. Since ADK water tables and waterways are unique because of soils, slope, and vegetation, I am not sure how well this unique area fits in with general state and national studies. Seems to me the entire Park should be singled out for unique studies to properly address a unique ecosystem. If there are such detailed Park-wide studies, could someone please point me to the data/results?

    The results I have read in the past have been too general in language and results to be of much help other than ‘just use less road salt in populated areas’. If the most sensitive areas can be identified, perhaps ‘spot-usage’ in addition to overall usage could be considered across the Park. Some counties use a significant amount of sand on lesser-used roads, but sand usage can have its own negative impacts on water quality and road safety. It is certainly a complex problem exacerbated by our numerous roads through unique ecosystems.

  5. Charlie S says:

    “Scientists in the 1970s began to notice and be alarmed by the abnormally acidic lakes and streams they were discovering throughout the Adirondacks. In some cases, fish populations were disappearing.”

    And here it is almost fifty years later and we talk in whispers ‘only’ about it, meanwhile the use of salt has been increasing. There’s money in the use of road salt in winters evidently…..for the corporation/s that sell it for one. Also there’s the insurance angle…which is to say insurance companies don’t like to pay out so less accidents on roads is their target… a la salt! Why else would they spread the roads with salt at even a hint of snow arriving (before the snow even arrives.) And what with cities and towns being so desperate for money the last thing they need is an insurance claim because their roads weren’t salted. Walmart doses up their lots heavily when even a trace of snow is predicted. Insurance claims! The more we advance through the ages the more we destroy the only home we know just to save a few dollars or to earn a lot of them!

  6. Charlie S says:

    8 hours later and my comment is still not posted. Used to be comments immediately surfaced. Things sure do change. I’m about done as a contributor to Adirondack Almanack. I feel very dissuaded……and unwelcome!

  7. Charlie S says:

    Used to be post went right through John.
    Lighten up? I quit smoking many moons ago.

  8. This is an excellent article with an imporant message for all who love the Adirondacks. Though not mentioned in the article, another Adirondack group,, has been working hard to reduce salt for more than seven years. In fact, it was AdkAction which organized and payed for the well water testing, which will continue. I urge you to check out our web site and consider becoming a member as a way to “work to limit road salt,” as Chris urges. You can ask that your membership or donation be used on the AdkAction salt reduction project. Check out our other great work on monarch conservation, pollinator protection, promoting Adk arts and the new Adk student film fest which we will launch this coming May. Join us and help with all this at a small price.

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