Road Salt damaging to Adirondack watershed

NYSDOT/PHOTOThe State Department of Transportation, scientists and environmental groups are looking for salt alternatives for de-icing along roads in the Adirondack Park.

PAUL SMITH’S — Safe winter roads and clean water aren’t mutually exclusive.

But the use of road salt has significantly increased salinity in Adirondack watersheds, according to ongoing research by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College.

New York’s deicing recommendations show 1,400 pounds of sodium chloride is used to clear two lanes of a one-mile section of road below 10-degrees Fahrenheit.

The 20-mile stretch between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake cost $588 to deice four years ago.

But, a Working Group formed to review the reaction of road salt here says the cost does not include the effect on the environment.

“Our research clearly shows that road salt is accumulating in our watersheds and that salt levels in Adirondack streams can exceed those encountered in urban areas,” Dr. Dan Kelting, executive director of the Watershed Institute, said in summing up a conference held at Paul Smith’s College last month.

“Results strongly suggest that our groundwater is being contaminated with road salt, which is a threat to human health, and further, (that) our aquatic ecosystems may be experiencing toxicity.”


The Watershed Institute, Paul Smith’s College, and a working group comprised of environmental advocates, road engineers, scientists, local government leaders and state transportation officials is taking action to mitigate salt toxicity.

They set priorities for the study this upcoming winter.

The working group “will examine rights-of-way in the Adirondacks to see where natural mechanisms like sunlight and passive filtering could be used to assist with snow and ice removal, while better protecting local waters,” according to board member Lee Keet.

Trimming tree-lines along the roads may add natural sunlight to the roadway, helping melt the winter snow.

But there are other solutions on the planning table.


A technique of road construction using “pervious pavement” helps to reduce storm-water runoff, according to the state Department of Transportation, which used the new technique on a 3/4-mile stretch of Beach Road on the south end of Lake George in 2013.

DOT found construction costs for the project ran 15 percent higher than routine road construction. 

But road maintenance used 25 percent less salt and may, in fact, require no salt.

Pervious pavement adds layers of fractured stone to the base, soaking up water in a 5 to 7-inch storm over 24 hours, DOT announced at the conference.

Pervious road construction is potentially useful for sensitive areas, DOT said in its report, although long-term wear-and-tear could be an issue on Adirondack roadways.


At the road salt conference, an engineer with the Colorado State DOT shared results they have achieved in replacing sodium chloride with magnesium chloride.

In the Adirondack Impact study, Kelting found that the cost to treat the same 20 miles between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake with magnesium chloride would be $555 — about $33 less than the sodium chloride currently used.

Adirondack Council Conservation Director Rocci Aguirre said everyone in the working group agrees that they know enough about road salt damage to take action.

“But more information is needed on the toxicity of alternative chemicals and the implications of any chemical use, including road salt (sodium chloride), on human health,” he said in summarizing the conference.


The working group is creating a five-year plan for changes to the use of road salt in the Adirondacks. 

Solutions may blend the use of new road construction technology with advanced salt distribution systems on state and local maintenance trucks; and protect salt-sensitive areas.

“We made a lot of progress,” Keet said in a news release.

“Nearly 80 town, county, and state leaders met with representatives of the leading environmental and research organizations. 

"We all agreed to work cooperatively toward solutions that keep roads safe, while protecting water from contamination.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam:

Twitter: @KimDedam

Trending Video

Reporter covering Tri-Lakes area news, Essex Co. court trials, and environmental issues impacting the Adirondack Park. She began writing for the Press-Republican in 2005, starting with the Boquet Valley beat. She lives in Elizabethtown.

Recommended for you