By Ry Rivard
The Village of Saranac Lake’s drinking water now comes with a warning label: too much salt for some people.
Testing late last year turned up elevated sodium levels in the village water supply. Officials are now telling the public about those findings in the fine print of a yearly water quality report sent to village’s 2,300 customers, covering a population of more than 5,000.
While village officials are unsure where the salt came from, a possible source is the salt that crews apply on roads to maintain traffic safety in winter.
As it is, though, the sodium levels are both mysterious and remarkable, given the region’s reputation for and economic reliance on pristine water.
“I want to know where this is coming from,” said Kevin Pratt, the village’s longtime water system operator.
Tests found no other major problems with the village’s water—no repeated signs of bacteria or other toxins—and it remains safe for most people.
But federal guidelines recommend that people on severely restricted sodium diets avoid drinking water with more than 20 milligrams of sodium per liter of water. The village’s water has 53 milligrams. Someone would have to drink nearly a gallon of such water to get the same amount of sodium as a serving of Lay’s potato chips.
The village also found elevated levels of chloride, another component of salt. It’s not considered harmful to human health on its own, though it can corrode plumbing.
The recent test is the first to look for salt in years. The state Department of Health, which regulates drinking water, hasn’t required Saranac Lake to test and report salt levels since the village switched its water supplies around 2012.
Saranac Lake used to draw water from McKenzie Pond. Now, the village pumps water from an underground aquifer.
Because there hasn’t been consistent testing for salt, town and village water districts in the Adirondacks have been flying blind even as other testing shows road salt tainting private homeowners’ wells across upstate New York.
Saranac Lake Trustee Rich Shapiro said health officials didn’t say exactly why they had started testing for sodium now—but he had a hunch.
“I assume they have started because of the issues that have turned up in personal wells around the area,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said officials “routinely review data and may analyze trends on a case-by-case basis for those systems with elevated sodium or chloride levels.”
The village’s consumer report includes boilerplate language from the department that points the blame at a variety of possible sources: road salt, animal waste and water softeners.
The village pumps its water from about 150 feet below ground. The wells are across the Saranac River from State Route 3 and on the grounds of the village’s wastewater treatment plant.
Though there are seams of salt beneath the ground in other parts of New York, the salt in the village’s wells doesn’t appear to be natural.
“That’s not what you’d expect for natural conditions, especially in the Adirondacks,” said Paul Heisig, a groundwater scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Unfortunately, beyond that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. In recent interviews, different experts had different takes on what may be going on. So, the village needs to do more testing to get to the bottom of things.
But such testing isn’t necessarily required and so may not be done.
Dan Kelting, who has tested hundreds of private wells as head of the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College, said he couldn’t rule out road salt. But he said it seemed “unlikely” because the chemical traces of salt in the village test are almost too perfect. He wondered if something went wrong during the sampling. If the results are accurate, he said it would mean a “remarkable level of contamination” of the village’s water supply.
Jack Halstuch, the director of the lab that analyzed the village’s water sample, said it’s possible the samples he got had a problem, but it’s often obvious if something went wrong during the sampling.
A state Department of Transportation spokesman said the department wasn’t aware of any issues involving Saranac Lake’s water system and any suggestion that its road salt is a culprit “is completely unsubstantiated.”
Some water officials around the Adirondacks have been on the lookout for road salt contamination in community water supplies.
In other parts of the country, even higher salt levels are routinely found in large public drinking water supplies, but largely because of local soils or widespread farm runoff—two causes with no easy solution. In the Adirondacks, high salt readings are more likely to be a sign of something gone wrong—something that could be fixed.
When salt has been found in community water supplies in the Adirondacks, it’s usually because of a nearby road salt pile or because of a freak event, but recordkeeping can be spotty.
In the Town of Keene, town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said officials found high sodium in an aquifer next to the highway garage—for a water supply used only by the highway garage. The solution was easy: bottled water.
In the Town of Fine, there was a spike in sodium levels several years ago that seems to be tied to a pump that ran nonstop for two weeks and may have sucked in salty water that normally wouldn’t have been pumped up.
“I am assuming that is road salt, but I can’t guarantee any of that,” said John Russell, a water official in the area. The pump was part of a water system that is no longer in use.
Saranac Lake switched water supplies about eight years ago. Before that and since about 1900, it piped water out of McKenzie Pond—which it can still do in an emergency.
But state health officials became concerned about the safety of water taken from lakes and ponds, which are considered more susceptible to contamination than groundwater supplies. They forced Saranac Lake, among other rural agencies, to choose between installing expensive new filtration systems and finding a supply of groundwater, which is generally considered safer.
Faced with high costs to build a new filtration system, the village chose to drill two wells.
“I wasn’t happy losing McKenzie Pond, but this is still a great source,” Pratt said.