Low-salt diet eyed for Lake George

Municipalities around Lake George are being asked to think about ways to reduce their use of road sa

This winter will remain a vivid memory for a while, and it exhausted municipal salt budgets.

But municipalities around Lake George are being asked to think about next winter, and ways to reduce their use of road salt, for the lake’s sake.

Salt levels in the lake have tripled since 1980, and road salt runoff is thought to be the primary culprit.

“We need to start putting our lake on a low-salt diet to avoid serious consequences,” said S.A.V.E. Lake George Partnership Chairman Robert Blais, mayor of Lake George village.

Municipalities and private groups that organized around the invasive species threat are now taking on the salt issue, since high salt levels are as much a threat to the lake’s health as invasive species.

The counties and municipalities in the lake’s huge watershed — three counties and nine towns or villages — in the next few weeks are going to be asked to sign a non-binding agreement that they will try to reduce the amount of road salt they use next winter.

The town and village of Lake George have already signed on, as has the town of Bolton, but the goal is to get them all to agree.

“We’ve come a long way in the science of what we know about salt and its impact on the environment, and also how to use it more efficiently,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George.

Siy said the amount of salt in use can be reduced while still keeping winter roads safe.

High salt levels are bad for the lake’s fish, amphibious and other wildlife, though Blais noted the lake provides drinking water for a lot of people, too.

The amount of salt being purchased by communities around the lake has risen from 7,900 tons in 1973 to 15,000 tons by 2009, according to the partnership. The increase is partially due to the amount of development around the lake, though Siy said public expectation that roads will nearly always be clear is also a factor.

The problem is that as snow melts and spring rains arrive, the salt ends up being washed into the lake.

“The threat posed by rising salt levels is being called the ‘acid rain of our time’ for good reason,” said Bolton town Supervisor Ron Conover, who said his town has already taken steps to reduce its salt use.

The environmental damage road salt can do has been known for years, with damaged trees along Adirondack roadsides to prove it. There have been Adirondack-wide conferences, but highway department habits die hard.

The S.A.V.E. coalition plans a “road salt conference” of its own this fall, which will include discussion of measures the states of Vermont and New Hampshire have taken to reduce the use of road salt. Vermont’s Department of Transportation has found applying a “salt brine” to roads just before a storm reduces the amount of rock salt that needs to be applied later.

The memorandum of understanding being circulated would be non-binding, but would serve as a “statement of intent” for the community to work to reduce its salt use next winter. Praying for a milder winter doesn’t count, by the way; highway superintendents tell me they use nearly as much salt in a mild winter, when freezing drizzle replaces drifting snow and turns roads into skating rinks.

Underwater sensors being installed in the lake as part of the multimillion-dollar Jefferson Project research effort will provide quick feedback on whether salt-reduction efforts are working, Siy noted.

“We really want to make Lake George a model for how to bring diverse interests together to address a tough problem,” he told me Friday.

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