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 Smithsonian.com, 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.