Adirondack Watershed Institute finds more wells with elevated salt.
By Michael Virtanen
New testing shows that more Adirondack wells are contaminated by unhealthful levels of road salt.
The Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College collected data showing that two-thirds of the wells it tested downslope from state roads were polluted by sodium beyond the federally recommended health limit of 20 parts per million. State crews spread salt to de-ice the roads, and it ultimately spills into nearby streams and leeches into the groundwater.
The data confirm and expand on what the institute reported last year, when it found that more than half of a smaller sampling of downslope wells exceeded the threshold.
According to the institute, its recent sampling of nearly 500 wells throughout the Adirondack Park showed that 64 percent of those that were downslope of heavily salted state roads exceeded the threshold, Executive Director Dan Kelting said. Those 157 downslope wells averaged 33 ppm.
“If we continue the same practice, concentrations will continue to go up,” Kelting said. “We’ll have more and more surface water contamination. We’ll have more and more people’s wells be contaminated by salt.
“We’ll have less and less of an opportunity to change it.”
Almost one-third of the 157 wells downslope of state roads also exceeded the recommended limit for chloride, salt’s other component, of 250 ppm. Some samples measured around 1,000 ppm of chloride, Kelting said. “That water is not potable. It’s not drinkable in those wells.”
The other side of the issue is maintaining driver safety. The state is evaluating the effectiveness of alternative road treatments like sand, brine and new, segmented snowplow blades, or applying salt according to specific weather and lowering speed limits.
The institute’s past studies have found rising salt concentrations in many Adirondack lakes and streams. Its recently released assessment of 21 lakes in Hamilton County from 1993 to 2017 showed that all but two “exhibited a clear signal of road salt influence. We found that 93 percent of the variation in chloride concentration … could be explained by state road density.”
Scientists have warned about salt’s increasing impact on fisheries, tiny plants and animals critical to the food chain, and the ability of lakes to circulate and get oxygen deep, where coldwater fish swim.
This winter, the state Department of Transportation has tried using less salt on stretches of highways along Mirror Lake and Lake George, which have seen their salt content rising for decades.
Meanwhile, the Fund for Lake George and other environmentalists have advanced a broad municipal effort to cut salt use in that watershed, while another group, AdkAction, has launched an effort to do the same park-wide.
The threat to Adirondack waters was formally noted by state officials almost 30 years ago, recommending the DOT find a new approach to winter road maintenance to limit environmental damage in New York’s northern mountains. A later study by scientists documented changes in lake chemistry and damage to roadside soil, trees and other vegetation along one stretch of state Route 73 outside Like Placid.
In the institute’s updated findings, 20 percent of the 126 wells sampled downslope of local roads—which generally have lower speed limits and get less ice-melting salt than state roads—exceeded the health standard for sodium. Three percent exceeded the chloride threshold.
In stark contrast, 206 wells that are upslope of the roads and their runoff were tested, and none exceeded either guidance value, according to the institute.
Cutting salt applications would begin to restore water quality, Kelting said, but “it’s going to take decades for nature to clean out somebody’s well.”
AdkAction, a nonprofit founded by permanent and seasonal Adirondack Park residents, has recently signed 18 of the 102 municipalities within the 5.8-million acre park to a memorandum acknowledging the problem and calling for reduced salt applications, Executive Director Brittany Christenson said. That follows the similar memorandum signed by municipalities around Lake George
“What we’re really advocating for is a park-wide salt-reduction test area,” Christenson said. “That is our long-term vision.”
“We think that that’s really the only way to get to the point where we can protect our waters because incremental changes have been shown again and again to make very little difference,” she added. “And we think it can be a huge benefit to the state because it can position them as leaders across the country for addressing this issue.”
The memorandum cites approximately 10,555 lane-miles of local, county, state and federal roads in the Adirondack Park, and an estimated 192,700 metric tons of salt is used on them annually.
Most of the Adirondack salt, about 110,000 tons annually, is applied to state roads and highways, according to Kelting. They comprise only about one-fourth of the Adirondacks’ total roadways, but often have higher speed limits than local roads, many of which are plowed and sanded, or just plowed, he said.
“We need to reduce the application rates. That’s the only way to reduce road salt in our time,” Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky told the Adirondack Park Agency in March. “The goal in Lake George is to have a 50 percent reduction by 2020. We’re on our way.”
Beyond all the municipalities in the Lake George watershed that have begun or agreed to take steps to reduce salting, Navitsky estimated half of the road salt comes from private enterprises. Environmentalists are starting to contact some of the larger resorts in the area about reducing it, he said.
Navitsky estimated that a 50 percent cut in salting—currently about 15,000 metric tons in that watershed—would result in a 40 percent drop in the lake’s sodium and chloride content.
The Adirondack Watershed Institute last fall reported preliminary results from 358 private wells in the Adirondacks for road salt contamination, which are included in its expanded data. Those samples showed 55 percent that got runoff from state roads had sodium above the federal guideline.
The testing found only 10 percent with elevated levels of sodium among 112 that were downslope of locally maintained roads, where less or no salt is used against icing.
Separately, New York’s Health Department so far retested 30 wells among owners from the Paul Smith’s study who requested it, among 350 who have been offered it for free.
Sodium levels ranged from 2 to 289 ppm, with a median of 19, according to the department. Chloride ranged from 1 to 1,123 ppm, with a median of 48.
“We will continue to monitor the presence of salt in Adirondack drinking water and assist as appropriate,” department spokeswoman Erin Silk said.
Kelting said the findings were consistent with his.
Some of the institute’s more recent testing focused on the hamlet of Gabriels in the central Adirondacks, showing 13 of 15 wells downslope from state roads exceeded the sodium guideline. Kelting said the highest level was nearly 400 ppm, or 20 times the recommended threshold.
Well testing was funded by AdkAction, the Fund for Lake George and the Cloudsplitter Foundation.
Drinking water with high salt is not recommended for anyone with high blood pressure. Saltwater also corrodes plumbing and has an unappealing taste.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that people on low-sodium diets should not drink water that exceeds 20 ppm, while people on moderately restricted sodium diets should not exceed 270 ppm. The chloride guidance value is 250 ppm, and is considered an “aesthetic” value that doesn’t have health impacts, according to the state Department of Health.
New York’s Department of Transportation, which has defended using road salt as a public safety need, announced it would test salt-reduction measures on 16 miles of Route 86 from Lake Placid to Wilmington and 17 miles of Route 9N from Lake George Village to Bolton. Those measures are meant to reduce damaging impacts on Mirror Lake and Lake George.
The DOT said in March that the pilot programs were proceeding as planned and it intends to continue the pilot projects “for the next several seasons in order to allow for sufficient data collection and meaningful results.” They are using brine where conditions are favorable and experimenting with sand/salt mixtures, spokesman Glenn Blain said.
Another part of the programs was to have the U.S. Geological Survey monitor water, though that apparently was impeded by January’s federal government shutdown, Kelting said.
Brendan Wiltse, science and stewardship director of the Ausable River Association, said DOT this winter reduced the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph on the stretch of Route 86; started using a segmented plow blade; and applied brine instead of salt at least once, early in the season.
The association put its testing equipment in six watershed streams to measure the effect of the state’s revised practice along the route but initial data weren’t yet available, Wiltse said. Several years of data may be needed.
The DOT has used a new double-blade plow on Route 9N along Lake George this winter, Navitsky said. He hadn’t initially seen any application of brine, or saltwater, which can help prevent ice accumulations before temperatures drop too far.
Heavy road salting in the Adirondacks began in 1980 with the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Kelting said.
A decade later, a special state commission published “The Adirondack Park in the Twenty First Century” report, which recommended that a task force including the park agency and DOT “should study the environmental impacts of road salt, sand and other de-icing materials, and its finding should be used in developing a new DOT policy for the Adirondack Park that minimizes the adverse environmental impacts of road treatment.”
In 2006, the Clarkson Center for the Environment issued a report documenting detailed environmental impacts of heavy use of sand and salt on state Route 73, affecting the Cascade Lakes and Chapel Pond. In addition to changes in lake chemistry, the report cited damage to the soil, trees and other vegetation.
Among various measures to reduce salt applications, the report recommended lowering the speed limit on that stretch of Route 73 during snow and ice season. ■