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Clean water or safe roads? The Adirondacks shouldn’t have to choose

In today’s divisive political atmosphere, it’s surprising to find legislation that enjoys widespread bipartisan support. Here’s one: the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and Pilot Program. If signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, this pilot program will set the course for clean water and safe roads while laying the foundation to save the state millions of dollars each year. 

New York state’s Department of Transportation uses over 1 million tons of road salt annually, making it one of the heaviest users of road salt in the nation. In these challenging times for the New York state budget, smart winter road maintenance strategies can cut costs substantially. According to Clear Roads, New York state spent an estimated $77 million on road salt last year, with about 20% of that spent on Adirondack roads. Salt corrosion imposes a hidden tax on the people of this state: damaging transportation infrastructure, reducing the value of motor vehicles, reducing the value of ecosystem goods and services, and corroding pipes and appliances in homes where wells have been affected by salt pollution. 

The state maintains only about a quarter of the roads in the park, but studies show that runoff from state roads is responsible for the vast majority of contamination. Lakes and streams take a major hit, but most experts agree that in a matter of decades surface waters will be able to recover. Most worrisome is when the salt gets into groundwater. Some aquifers take hundreds or even thousands of years to flush. That means that the road salt we are applying today may remain in pockets of Adirondack groundwater 30 generations from now. But we don’t have to wait 30 generations to see the negative effects. 

There are already dozens of known cases of contaminated drinking water today, right here in the pristine Adirondack region, which is known for its clean water and wild terrain. Some homeowners with private wells downhill from state roads have already lost access to clean drinking water. Recently, Lake Clear homeowner Kirk Peterson told me, “I don’t see any hope on the horizon, and I despair at ever being able to drink our well water.” He continued to say, “Despair is the key descriptor of my mood over this.” 

Homeowners like Kirk face any number of challenges, including salty tasting or even non-potable drinking water, the need to frequently replace household appliances, and even digging new wells. Salt-contaminated drinking water is not just a costly nuisance — for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions, it creates a serious public health hazard.

Part of our statewide addiction to road salt is an underlying belief that we need it — that we won’t be safe without it, or even with less of it. But it is imperative to the well-being of our communities, our environment and even our wallets that we break this addiction. We must enlist data-driven strategies, new technology and best practices that will reduce the amount of salt pollution spreading from our roads while maintaining the safety of not only the driving public, but also the health and safety of everyone who sources their drinking water from private wells.

The state legislature passed the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and Pilot Program (S.8663-A/A.8767-A) in July. Since that time, the bill has been making its way to the governor’s desk. It takes only a signature to start this program that will ensure that the people of the Adirondacks, and ultimately all New Yorkers, can enjoy both clean water and safe roads. Gov. Cuomo, will you sign?

Brittany Christenson is executive director of AdkAction, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization based in Saranac Lake whose mission is to create innovative projects that address unmet needs, promote vibrant communities, and preserve the character of the Adirondacks. 

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