AdkAction leads networked approach to spreading best practices
By Zachary Matson
Road managers from around the Adirondacks are mixing brines, piecing together improved equipment and trying to track every pound of salt they drop on roads – even as they hope for more state leadership on highways.
These town and county managers say that they’re using new strategies to reduce their road salt use, maintain roads more effectively and save money to reinvest in refining their approaches.
Those road managers, who in winter can often be found at the wheel of a plow truck, are emerging as key evangelists in the fight against salt pollution.
“We have solutions, and they are working and not compromising safety,” said Sawyer Bailey, executive director of AdkAction, a Keeseville-based nonprofit organization.
It used Lake Champlain Basin Program funding this year to establish the Clean Water, Safe Roads Network, a group of highway departments sharing strategies and resources to minimize salt use, which is fouling Adirondack waterways and drinking sources.
The group met at AdkAction’s office Wednesday to discuss last winter’s experiences and plot ways to improve next year.
“You guys have each other on speed dial,” Bailey said.
Bailey, who has been in the position for about a year, said the organization had secured funding to continue the network next year and to bring in other communities from across the park—expanding beyond the Lake Champlain watershed.
The nonprofit worked with the Adirondack Watershed Institute to map each community’s road network and share sodium and chloride monitoring data. The group plans to identify a benchmark stream or waterbody in each community and continue monitoring salt levels.
The communities are at different stages of adopting a common set of practices: some are doing detailed data tracking and analysis, while others have started by covering salt and sand piles to prevent clumping and leaching.
Something as simple as covering a pile can reduce usage by making it easier to release the mix from the back of a truck at a slower rate. It also limits runoff and contamination. Others are mixing and distributing brines, upgrading trucks with more functional plow blades and more efficient spreaders, and testing what strategies work best across varied topography and weather conditions.
Some communities are also looking to phase out the use of sand in their salt mixes. Sand has long been mixed with salt as an added abrasive, especially at cold temperatures, but the sand fills ditches and lawns, exacerbates stream sedimentation and costs time, labor and equipment to clean after the winter season finishes.
Read about how Hague is taking the lead in road salt reduction
Peru crews this year stopped using sand entirely from their seven routes, relying instead on brining the roads ahead of storms and dropping only salt as needed. They are fine tuning how much salt they drop. They also started tracking salt application rates with technology and road conditions with remote cameras at strategic locations.
When Mike Farrell took over as the town’s highway supervisor over a decade ago, he tried many ways to clear stubborn icy spots from the town’s roads. At one point, he recalled, he even snuck out at night to drop more salt without his veteran drivers knowing.
“There’s got to be a better way,” he said. After hearing about salt reduction efforts around Lake George, last year Farrell and his deputy jumped in the truck and drove down to the Hague garage and got a tutorial on starting the quest to reduce their salt use.
Now, instead of spending the spring trying to sweep up the sand they dumped all over town during the winter, Peru crews are getting an early start on road maintenance and plotting how to better monitor and reduce their salt rates next year.
Farrell estimated that the town will save around $70,000 by eliminating about six weeks of sand cleanup that usually consumes the highway crew in early spring. Working with the town board, he hopes savings can be put back into equipment improvements, which helps drive down overall salt use.
Mike Farrell, Peru town highway supervisor, shows off a brine sprayer at the town’s garage.
Photo by Zachary Matson
“Keep your budget where it is and keep investing,” he said.
The town of Plattsburgh highway department this winter tested using only salt on three of its nine routes. Greg Burnell, the town’s deputy highway supervisor, said the salt-only approach was “night and day” better than the sand mix. While the town doesn’t plan to “jump all in,” he said they will further reduce their sand use and find other efficiencies by adding trackers to trucks. He noted that sand cleanup requires about six weeks of heavy equipment use and associated fuel costs. Instead, highway crews could work on, well, highways.
“It will allow us to get back to doing road maintenance the way we should,” he said.
Washington County has expanded its brining operation to nearly all of its roads. While it can now produce 6,000 gallons of brine an hour at its Whitehall garage, it can’t yet transport or store enough brine at each of its seven other locations. The county is also tracking salt application rates and attempting to focus competitive tendencies on the goal of more efficient salt use.
Deb Donahue, the Washington County superintendent of public works, said they continue to test different plow blades for best performance.
“We have what we think is great, but we are going to try others,” Donahue said.
The conversation also focused on the many challenges to speeding up adoption of low-sodium strategies.
Department leaders said some veteran employees are resistant to change, unconvinced different ways will work or worried about losing overtime pay. The departments are also struggling to fill vacancies and concerned about long-term labor shortages.
The road crews are constantly piecing together the equipment to implement the new strategies, from brine-mixing equipment to storage tanks. Some trucks let operators spray the salt with a brine mix as they spread it evenly across the road; many do not.
Infrastructure needs like access to water presents other hurdles. The Town of Hague department—one of the furthest along in the region—has to truck water from Lake George to its barn to mix brine. They also have to deal with the expectations of residents, visitors and political leaders in explaining changes.
Still waiting on the state
Where’s the state task force report? That’s the question Franklin town board member Dick Jarvis put to Phill Sexton, a consultant working with AdkAction and the towns. Sexton also serves on the state’s Road Salt Reduction Task Force, which has not finalized a long-anticipated report on the issue and proposed solutions.
Expressing frustration at the lack of a report, Sexton pointed to state agencies that claim they are formatting the document as the cause. Sexton said he expected the report would suggest pilot programs similar to the projects underway already by leaders at the AdkAction meeting.
“What we are doing here is implementing what will be in the task force report,” he said.
Bailey, whose predecessor served on the task force, said the nonprofit is eager to see a report and hoped it would accelerate action at the state and local level.
“The public deserves to see it,” Bailey said.
Representative from nine Adirondack towns and counties met in Keeseville to share strategies to reduce salt use. Photo by Zachary Matson
The department leaders said anecdotally they don’t see state administrators as aggressive in reducing use and highlighted examples of bureaucratic barriers to improvement. One of the local department leaders said he knew of an improved salt spreader sitting unused in a state garage, while another indicated pushback from state officials for the low salt application rates on state roads he was contracted to plow for the state.
“They should be watching what we are doing,” said Tyler Jarvis, the deputy highway supervisor in Peru. Highway officers from Wilmington, Keene, Peru, the town of Plattsburgh, the town of Lake George, Hague, Harrietstown, Saranac and Washington County attended the meeting.