Sunday, July 16, 2023

Governor Hochul Must Order The Release Of The Adirondack Road Salt Task Force Report

Road salt pollution in Adirondacks lakes has been well documented over the last three decades and spotlighted for political action over the last decade. Contamination of residential and small business drinking water wells in lands downslope of heavily salted roads have also been documented, and in some communities is on the rise. The much-heralded Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force was appointed in 2021 after legislation was passed to form it in 2020. This Task Force was created in honor of former Town of former Wilmington Highway Supervisor and Town Supervisor Randy Preston, who was outspoken about reducing road salt pollution.

The Task Force, led by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Transportation (DOT), got off to a slow start with closed door meetings at first, followed by a few open meetings in 2022 after public criticism before it closed its door again to write its final report, which is now long overdue. At this point it appears that Adirondack Park communities will head into another winter without any meaningful actions to halt or mitigate road salt pollution.

Protect the Adirondacks and the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute are in their 26th year of a partnership monitoring lakes and ponds across the Adirondack Park through the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP). This program has compiled a long-term dataset of over 70 lakes that is invaluable because it provides 25-year trend lines about the water quality of many major representative lakes and ponds across the Adirondacks. ALAP has grown to be one of the best sustained water quality monitoring programs in the northeast US. ALAP is also a key source of road salt pollution data in the Adirondack Park along with the Lake George Association (LGA)/RPI Darrin Fresh Water Institute’s long-term study of Lake George.

Blue Mountain Lake, in Hamilton County, is a case study about road salt pollution. From a standard trophic status water quality assessment that looks at phosphorus levels, chlorophyll-a levels, and transparency, Blue Mountain Lake is categorized as an oligotrophic lake, a lake with the highest water quality. Blue Mountain Lake regularly sees water clarity readings of 9-10 meters, which is a very high level of clarity for an Adirondack lake where the average is around 4 meters.

Unfortunately, Blue Mountain Lake also ranks very high as a waterbody significantly influenced by road salt.Sodium and chloride concentrations, the key substances in road salt, hit levels of 14 mg/L and 19.9 mg/L respectively in recent years, indicating that salted roads in the Blue Mountain Lake watershed are impacting the chemistry of the lake. Its chloride concentration is greater than 86% of ALAP lakes and is approximately 100 times higher than background concentrations, or the natural level.

The high salt levels in Blue Mountain Lake are due to runoff from NYS Routes 28 and 30, which drain into three streams in the lake’s watershed — Minnow Brook East, Museum Brook, and Potter Brook, as well as 587 hectares of land along the lake that is not drained by any specific tributary, but through which salt travels into the lake through the groundwater or sheet flow stormwater runoff. The big hill in Blue Mountain, still known locally as Museum Hill, flows into Museum Brook. (Neither local landmark has kept pace with the times, as neither have been renamed Adirondack Experience Hill or ADKX Brook.)

In the Adirondack Park we’re a landscape, and arguably a people too, more shaped by cold than warmth. We have six full months of winter and even though in this new era of climate change where it’s just as likely to rain as it is to snow in the winter, November to April are still predominantly cold, winter months. That said, it’s also not uncommon to see salt trucks out on the Adirondacks highways in October and even in early May during a last-gasp freak snowfall.

Across the Adirondacks, it is estimated that 193,000 tons of salt are put down on state and local roads each winter, about 110,000 tons on state roads alone. The NYS DOT applies on average over 23 tons of salt per lane kilometer on state roads annually. A standard state road, such as Routes 28 or 30, that runs east-west and north-south through the Park, has two lanes, so the math doubles. When we shift to miles, this means that over 32 tons of salt per mile are applied on these roads. Given that there is just over 11 lane miles of state roads in the Blue Mountain Lake watershed, a coarse estimate, along with local roads, of the annual road salt load dumped around the Blue Mountain Lake watershed roads is over 400 tons per year. Try to picture all that salt in terms of the filled beds of a long line of 2-ton pickup trucks.

Scientists have calculated that 50% of the salt applied to Adirondack roads is washed into a stream and then carried to a lake or wetland. The other 50% travels to lakes and wetlands via groundwater from salt plowed onto the land, or blowed off the road, that creates a salt bank in the upland soils of a lake and pond. The salt in the salt bank is then carried to lakes, streams, or wetlands from groundwater charged by rain. Scientists have found that in summers with heavy rainfall the salt loading to lakes in summer months can often top loading in winter months. Pollution of groundwater has also contaminated hundreds of wells of residences and businesses across the Adirondacks.

Salt pollution is not something beyond our local control, like climate change or acid rain. We can’t point fingers at anybody else. It’s nobody else’s fault. This is homegrown pollution that we’re choosing to do by ourselves. Surface water in Adirondack lakes has naturally low concentrations of chloride. The only natural source of chloride is the slow weathering of granitic bedrock and a small contribution from atmospheric deposition. In the Blue Mountain Lake watershed, for instance, Beaver Brook and Minnow Brook West are two streams on the west side of the lake that largely drain Forest Preserve and conservation easement lands that have no salted roads. These streams provide a good benchmark for the non-impacted streams, or streams in a natural condition, that illustrate baseline “background concentrations.” Testing has shown that salt levels in these streams is negligible.

In Minnow Brook East, Museum Brook, and Potter Brook, all of which are impacted by state highways, the salt levels are 25 to 100 times greater than in natural streams. To be crystal clear, the only plausible reason that we see such high levels of salt in these three streams is because we dump a lot of salt in them.

For Blue Mountain Lake we have conclusive data about road salt pollution. For Lake George we have conclusive data and communities on the lake have taken action to reduce road salt applications by local highway departments. On dozens of other lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks, and in many streams in the Park, we have conclusive data on salt pollution. Yet, year after year, winter after winter, snow and ice storm after snow and ice storm, nothing is done to reduce salt pollution in Blue Mountain Lake and most other negatively salt-impacted lakes in the Adirondacks. Across the Adirondacks, there’s no state-led experimentation with different technologies. There’s no innovation. There are no changes to winter road de-icing practices, no trial and error, no new technologies, no reforms, no roadmap to reduce or eliminate this pollution. Just pour on the road salt and flush it into the lake. Blue Mountain Lake is a salt polluted lake, and it is not alone.

Lake George has seen a tripling of salt concentrations in the last three decades and that trend must be reversed. Recently, Lake George has seen considerable experimentation in winter roads management where the LGA and Lake George Waterkeeper have worked hand-in-hand with local governments to reduce salt use. They’ve tried different blades on snowplows, new metering equipment to regulate the dispersal of salt, using less salt, and using salt brine, among other practices. The results are eye-popping with several Lake George towns, like the Towns of Lake George and Hague, seeing 50% or greater reductions of salt use.

Mirror Lake in the Village of Lake Placid has experienced steadily escalating salt pollution trends for years, which scientists believe changed key ecologic functions in the lake. The Village of Lake Placid has recently embraced new practices to reduce salt use in the Mirror Lake watershed. These reforms have helped to bend the upward curve of Mirror Lake salt levels.

It’s intolerable that many of the Adirondack Park’s grandest lakes are polluted by road salt. The intolerable shouldn’t be tolerated. Those close to the Road Salt Task Force say the DEC and DOT are far apart on highway management reforms. There is also a disgruntled group of members displeased with the heavy hand of the DOT and the weakness of some key recommendations. The proof is in the pudding, as in many ways we all know what needs to be done, because we’re seeing it around Lake George and Mirror Lake.

The Task Force has had enough time. If there is a minority report, it should be published with the final report. If the Department of Transportation is reluctant to embrace reforms, then the public should know that. If there is disagreement on proposed actions the public should be informed about the substance of those disagreements. If there are competing and contradictory recommendations, then the public should be able to sift through them all. Trust the fact that the public will be able to differentiate between strong and weak recommendations and separate the wheat from the chaff. We can handle the truth. What we should not have to do, is continue to wait, continue to absorb new pollution, and continue to dither with business as usual and no action.

Governor Kathy Hochul should order that this report be finalized and give the Road Salt Task Force no more than 60 days to release its final report to the public.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

19 Responses

  1. John says:

    NYS and DOT will never release a report on road salt reduction . This would leave them exposed to liabilities caused by unsafe roads during winter months . The road salt has caused New York tax payers millions of dollars in infrastructure damage , not to mention homeowners wells , lakes and rivers .

    • Bill Keller says:

      You’re right. I have a shallow well who’s salt level has increased since I purchased the property over 30 years ago. The town had to pay for new wells for the homes surrounding the town garage because of improper salt storage (stored in the open) even after the citizens volunteered and built a salt storage shed. Then you have the trucks spreading 100% salt on the roads over the years. The biggest hurdle will be getting the small town highway departments on board with any recommendations from this report.

  2. John Evansky says:

    Driving on snowey roads is not a problem if you have snow tires and especially with studs. But too many think all season tires are ok. Roads do not need to be salted everywhere. Hills and curves yes. Let drivers learn the correct speed to drive on snow covered roads. Dumping huge amounts of salt to melt everything completely is nothing but a waste. Level straight roads need not be salted. It’s unnecessary and wasteful.

    • LeRoy Hogan says:

      I agree. I remember in 1970s Minit, North Dakota, you did not see pavement on city streets and parking lots until the spring thaw.

  3. Todd Eastman says:

    Salt pork…

    … fat contracts to the salt industry paid by state and local governments with your $$$…🙄

  4. Nanci Vineyard says:

    Do you have a link for us to email Hochul on this topic?

  5. Hanks Chimes says:

    I live in Buffalo, I cherish the ADK’s.
    How do we get a petition or whatever necessary to get something done.
    I treasure the lakes and fish for pike and bass, not swordfish and shark 😉

  6. James Schaad says:

    Just to sounds like some ‘old guy’…

    ‘Back in the day’ we learned to drive rear wheel drive cars and got where we needed to go in the winter. Today’s front and all-wheel drive cars (complete with anti-lock brakes) makes winter driving much better.

    There are no ‘unsafe roads’ in the world, only ‘unsafe drivers’; if the road is truly unsafe (as judged by the driver, their self-assessed skill level and road conditions) then it is on them to make the call as to whether to proceed or not. If you don’t know how to drive in the winter then learn how or stay home!

    Don’t expect the lawyers to ‘rubber pad the world’ so you can speed down the road all year long like a dry June day.

    The failure of our culture to teach personal responsibility is a plague to our society.

    (Ok, how was that for an ‘old guy rant, eh?)

  7. Ray Worth says:

    One of the grandest views for motorists headed north on I-87 is that of Butternut Pond on the descent from the base of Pokomoonshine. Sadly that pond and Augur Lake, into which it flows on the way to the Ausable River, have had dramatic rises in salinity due to road salt runoff from that very highway. Indeed there is virtually no buffer or impediment to the briny runoff that upset the delicate limnological balance in these bodies of water. The public needs and deserves to know the findings of the Road Salt Task Force so they can take informed political actions to remedy this situation. Governor Hochul needs to order the publication and release of the Task Force Report.

    • Todd Miller says:

      I feel your pain, Ray. For several years, just about every time there’s an article on road-salt contamination I take the opportunity to write a comment asking when will the Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) at Paul Smiths going to release a peer-reviewed report (including data) on the results of their road-salt contamination of groundwater wells in the Adirondacks that was conducted in 2019. I’ve also contacted AWI several times but was never given a timeline for release of such a report, however, I was told that a peer-reviewed report is their goal. It is crucial to have a peer-reviewed report in a timely manner and made available to the public as well as to the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force. The Task Force needs to get their act together.

  8. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The failure of our culture to teach personal responsibility is a plague to our society.”

    That, and the erasing of the old ways James! Too… add all of the electronic gadgetry which we have become so reliant on in most areas (even education), which is not only conditioning us into a zombie and/or wimp stage, but also is a form of control over what is left of our minds. Just look at the heaps of our society who have handheld devices glued to their persons, their hands, ears, eyes… see them driving by or walking down our roads, or in public spheres. We’ve got problems and all of the electronics which we are so heavily reliant upon, are not helping matters. Matter of fact, to a progressively increasing extent, they are making us soft and spongy. It’s only a matter of time, one or two more generations, before we are mere blobs covering the surface of the earth.

  9. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “there is virtually no buffer or impediment to the briny runoff that upset the delicate limnological balance in these bodies of water….”

    Those who have the power to allow such, our erected leaders who bend to the insurance giants (for one), should have known this when salt first started being spread! This is no different that planting drilling rigs in environmentally-sensitive areas so as to convenience humanity and satiate oil or gas executives whose sole purpose is cabbage. It is the same thing as asking an automaton, “which comes first…..the image in the mirror, or clean water?”

  10. Charlie Stehlin says:

    ““there is virtually no buffer or impediment to the briny runoff that upset the delicate limnological balance in these bodies of water….”

    In short…we just don’t care ray. It’s all about us! It’s not about the little or big fishie’s whose homes we continue to contaminate!

  11. Linda Ramirez says:

    I was surprised to learn that some younger drivers did not know we used to put chains on our tires. (Western Pennsylvania.) Not sure they were much better environmentally, but you were not allowed to drive on them when the snow was gone.

  12. Paul says:

    “nothing is done to reduce salt pollution”. What about these DOT signs you see that say “reduced salt study area” – or whatever? Also, it sounds like you are referencing lots of data for many lakes. Why do we need another report? Isn’t it just going to tell us the same thing?

  13. Bob Meyer says:

    The politicians in their wisdom decided that during the 1980 Olympics in Lk Placid that the roads had to be bare pavement so the spectators could drive like it was “summer”. 🥴. Ever since then the Adirondacks have been “blessed” with road salt mania. So dumb!

  14. Todd Miller says:

    To me, Mr. Bauer’s article pretty well represents the state of salt contamination studies in the Adirondacks. That state being that there has been an overemphasis on salt contamination studies of surface water and very little or none on groundwater, even though most residents and visitors to the Adirondacks rely on potable groundwater pumped from aquifers in the Adirondacks. Mr. Bauer used 1,344 words to describe examples of salt contamination in lakes and streams and, incredulously, only 15 words (one sentence) on groundwater. Don’t you think this lop-sided emphasis on surface-water needs to change? During 2000-2021, there had been about 10,200 new wells were drilled in the Adirondacks. Although the total number of wells in the Ads that precede 2000-2021 is unknown, I would venture to guess it to be several tens of thousands of wells. Since most people living and visiting the Ads rely on wells for their source of drinking water and other uses, don’t you think we need to know more about this very valuable water resource?

  15. S. G. says:

    People need to learn how to drive and buy snow tires, not these all season tires that are not made for winter driving.

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