Lake George to cut back on road salt

This article appeared in Adirondack Explorer

Environmentalists, scientists, and public officials in the Lake George region are stepping up efforts to reduce road-salt contamination in the lake’s watershed.

Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, said at a conference in October that thirty years of research has shown that the lake is getting more salty.

It’s an issue that has gone unaddressed for literally decades, and now is the time [to address it],” Siy said. “With the science we now have in hand, we can solve the problem.”

The Fund for Lake George was one of many organizations and municipalities in the Lake George area that participated in the third annual salt summit in Ticonderoga in early October. It was sponsored by ADK Action and other groups.

Every winter, thirteen tons of road salt are applied per lane-mile to roadways in the Lake George watershed, a total of nine thousand tons a year, according to the Fund. The amount of salt in the lake nearly tripled between 1980 and 2009.

Jim Sutherland, a science adviser for the Fund, said if all road salting had ended in 2009, it still would have taken until 2040 for salt levels in the watershed to return to normal.

Sutherland points to Finkle Brook in Bolton an example of a contaminated waterway. The stream’s concentrations of chloride (an ion contained in road salt) are up to 150 times higher near roads than they are in undeveloped areas.

Sutherland said high concentrations of road salt are toxic to plants, fish, and various aquatic organisms and can foster the growth of blue-green algae, which can cause skin rashes, sore throats, and stomach ailments.

High salt concentrations in drinking water also can lead to health problems, especially in people with heart and kidney issues. Lake George is a source of drinking water for many of the communities living around the lake. Roadside wells can also become contaminated.

Sutherland said road salt in soil causes calcium to leach into waters—and calcium helps Asian clams and zebra mussels grow. Both invasive species are found in Lake George.

Conservation organizations and communities are looking at a variety of options for reducing road salt, including improved technology on salt trucks, improved monitoring of road conditions, and the use of alternatives to salt.

David Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, said the towns of Lake George, Bolton, and Queensbury and the village of Lake George will experiment with using a brine—a solution of road salt and water—this winter. Brine is applied to roads prior to winter storms to reduce the formation of ice and hence the amount of salt that must be applied after the storm.

Wick endorsed the application of brine after visiting the highway department in New Hartford, near Utica. He said New Hartford has been able to reduce its use of traditional rock salt substantially, which has environmental and economic benefits.

Lake George Mayor Bob Blais said brine is just one way the village intends to deal with road-salt contamination. He noted that the village uses roadside cameras to monitor road conditions, which helps crews refine their road-clearing methods.

I think all the governments in the North Country know now that they’ve got to look at their budgets, look at their equipment, the trucks, the tools that they have, and we’ve got to start to work together to cut back [on road salt] before it’s too late,” he said.