Saturday, August 29, 2020

A salty subject

This past Tuesday, the Explorer hosted our first public event of the COVID era — a Zoom panel discussion with Dan Kelting, the head of the Adirondack Watershed Institute of Paul Smith’s College.

We focused on something Kelting has been studying for a decade and I’ve been reporting on all year: road salt and what it does to drinking water supplies in the Adirondacks.

Kelting dived into the issue years ago, first to roundup what was known about road salt pollution elsewhere and then to find out what it was doing to the Adirondacks. In sum, too much salt running off roads ends up in waterways. There, it harms humans by messing with heart and kidney function, destroys plumbing and upends ecosystems.

Over the years, Kelting has sampled about 500 wells across the region, finding consistent evidence that people who live downhill of roads, particularly state roads, have salty water.

Kelting’s work shows up in my own reporting, so you can read about some of it here and here, but there’s nothing like getting to see people talk, especially now. We’ve posted a version of the conversation this week on and our YouTube channel, including a Q&A with readers, which you can watch at your convenience.

When I first started investigating road salt pollution, a few of my reporter friends asked me, OK, well, what do we do instead?

Part of the conversation with Kelting goes over chemical alternatives to road salt and simple practices that can reduce how much salt runs off the road. But one new thing we really got to talk about is a bigger discussion: What if we don’t salt the roads?

Out West, in parts of Colorado and California I’ve travelled a time or two, highway officials cede some local roads to the snow and ice, including major mountain passes. In some cases, drivers are expected to have chains or all-wheel drive if they want to use a road in the winter. In other cases, officials put gates across roads and close them entirely until the snow melts.

That’s a tough call and certainly has consequences for mountain towns, which become locked in during the winter, a potentially big economic hit. But if it’s one extreme, what happens in the Adirondacks is another. Here, as Kelting put it, people have become accustomed to summer driving speeds in the winter.

Right now, there’s a push to come up with some alternatives that are more, pardon the pun, middle of the road, meaning highway officials could find some way to keep roads safe for driving and waters safe for drinking. But for now we can say the consequences of our current approach have put the region’s waters at risk and made them undrinkable for some.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Ry’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.

One Response

  1. David Gibson says:

    Bravo, Ry and Dan Kelting. For a park as administratively fractured as the Adirondacks, where DOT offices from one end to the other tend to manage the state highway system and winter ice somewhat differently from each other, your Explorer/AWI/ADK Action partnership bridges communities and the entire Park. The latest state legislation crfeating the road salt task force does the same. Governor Cuomo, please sign that bill soon.

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