Winter is here, and it’s time to think about the impact road salt has on our watershed.
Lakes in the Adirondack region have naturally low concentrations of chloride and sodium. But widespread use of road de-icers (primarily sodium chloride) has significantly increased the concentration of these chemicals in the environment.
Road salt, by some, is considered the new acid rain of our time. Research conducted by the Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) estimates that 192,700 tons of road salt are used each year in the Adirondacks, and nearly seven million tons have been used since 1980 — about six times the total load of sulfate and nitrate from acid deposition.
State roads in New York have the highest road salt application rates in North America. The state Department of Transportation applies an average of 23 tons of road salt per lane kilometer annually, according to AWI. It’s estimated that over 1,200 tons of salt is applied each year to the 54 kilometers of state road that surround the Upper Saranac Watershed.
Road salt is entering our groundwater and lakes and is having an impact on our ecosystems, drinking water, and potentially our health. While we are unsure of the direct impact road salt has on organisms, we do know there are direct and indirect effects on aquatic ecosystems. From AWI’s study: “Based on laboratory studies, the lethal concentration for most aquatic organisms is much higher than concentrations encountered in a lake environment. However, at times lethal concentrations can be encountered in near-road environments that receive direct run-off, such as road-side streams or vernal pools.”
Road salt can also affect well water. In Dutchess County, for example, 20 percent of the wells have salt concentrations that prohibit use by residents with high blood pressure. Locally, a number of wells have been contaminated by road salt in the Lake Clear area.
While the solution to the road salt problem is not an easy one to solve, the Upper Saranac Foundation is working with AWI to monitor and address these issues. We do know that if salt continues to accumulate at its present rate, many surface water and well water sources will be unhealthy for humans and wildlife in the near future.