Lake George officials look into reducing road salt usage

Officials around Lake George say they're on their way to reducing the amount of road salt spread aro
Daniel Gilliland of Snow Liquid Solutions explains a road-brining system to those attending a road salt reduction meeting Monday in Lake George.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Daniel Gilliland of Snow Liquid Solutions explains a road-brining system to those attending a road salt reduction meeting Monday in Lake George.

Officials around Lake George say they’re on their way to reducing the amount of road salt spread around the lake each winter – salt that washes off the road and ends up in the soil and eventually the lake’s waters.

The lake, which is at the center of a $2 billion annual southern Adirondack recreational economy, has seen the sodium levels in its water more than triple in the last 30 years – a trend that could be promoting certain invasive species, and if not addressed, could cause further environmental damage to the lake

“All we know is that the trend line is in the wrong direction,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George.

The fund and the S.A.V.E. Lake George Partnership on Monday sponsored its second annual Lake Salt Summit, to help the nine communities that surround the lake find ways to reduce their use of winter road salt.

The meeting, held at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center in Lake George, focused on high-tech ways of measuring salt use and using such new techniques as “brining” a road with a salt-water solution before snow and ice starts to land, as a way of reducing salt use later in the storm.

“Pre-wet with salt brine, and you will use less material all the time,” said Paul Brown, a snow and ice engineer with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation who spoke at the meeting. “We use 25 to 35 percent less material, with the same result.”

Brown also said communities that brine see their overtime costs drop, because fewer plowing-salting runs are required during and after a storm.

The New York State Department of Transportation also uses brining extensively around the state, said Bob Winan, DOT’s statewide director of transportation maintenance.

“Liquid brine is like putting down that first layer of salt during the storm,” he said.

Start-up costs of brining roads, though, are in the tens of thousands of dollars, including a need for installing new equipment on plowing trucks, a brine-making facility, and training for highway crews – and no local highway departments in the Lake George basin have adopted it, despite interest. Some, including the village of Lake George, have experimented with alternative materials they say have reduced their costs.

Brine is only effective if the road surface temperature is 15 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, raising questions about whether it will always be effective in the Adirondacks, where weather can be bitterly cold.

And town highway superintendents said their highest priority has to remain keeping the roads travel-worthy and safe.

“If we don’t get the job done, we get calls,” said Bolton town Highway Superintendent William Sherman.

Bolton and other towns around the lake have signed agreements with the SAVE Partnership stating they will seek to reduce salt use and implement “best practices” for its reduction.

“It’s a lot of people all trying to do the right thing,” said Walter Lender, executive director of the Lake George Association. “We’ve been talking to the towns and to the village for a couple of years about using less salt.”

Jim Sutherland, a retired state Department of Environmental Conservation researcher, said changes in soil chemistry caused by road salt have increased the amount of calcium in the lake, and that has benefited one of the lake’s most persistent invasive species, the zebra mussel. Zebra mussel shells are made from calcium.

If salt levels continue to rise, Sutherland said the impact is unknown, but he noted that some people have health conditions that are highly sensitive to sodium exposure. “We don’t know the health impact, but we know some people are sensitive,” he said.

It is also well-established that road salt runoff can cause damage to trees and other vegetation close to roads.

The partnership last year paid $131,000 to have high-tech monitoring equipment installed on 17 salt-dispensing trucks around the lake. That information will be used to establish a baseline from which to develop salt-use reduction recommendations.

Siy said the coalition is planning to spend $232,000 this year on salt reduction, including offering matching grants to any community willing to buy brining equipment or make other investments.

“This isn’t just about reducing salt use because its environmentally harmful. We’re also doing it because it’s economically beneficial,” Siy said. “That’s why it’s so feasible.”

The meeting drew highway superintendents from Essex County as well as around Lake George.

Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky said lake officials think a successful salt reduction strategy around the lake could serve as a model for other communities around the Adirondacks, in much the way its invasive species boat inspection program has.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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