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GIVING BACK: Ausable River Association launches sustainable road salt initiative

January 10, 2020
By ELIZABETH IZZO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - The effects of road salt contamination on Mirror Lake are well-documented, and the Ausable River Association wants to find science-based solutions to this problem.

The Wilmington-based organization is starting a new program: The Ausable Sustainable Salt Initiative. This initiative, slated to span at least five years, will allow the group to continue regular water quality and biological monitoring of Mirror Lake, to purchase additional monitoring equipment, and enable them to create an emergency fund that will provide the group resources it needs to respond to crises that may arise.

The Ausable River Association doesn't just monitor Mirror Lake; it also regularly samples 30 different streams throughout the watershed. But for now, the ASSI will focus primarily on Mirror Lake, according to Ausable River Association Executive Director Kelley Tucker.

Article Photos

Ausable River Association Executive Director Kelley Tucker is pictured here in the field.
(Provided photo — Ausable River Association)

"The idea of an Ausable Sustainable Salt Initiative kind of started coalescing around the group in Mirror Lake that was just so interested in moving this forward as an idea for their area," she said. "The Mirror Lake project has become sort of a first attempt to really think more broadly about salt application rates and their impacts, and our ability to understand those, and understand the impacts on our waterways throughout the AuSable."


Restarting natural mixing

A recent peer-reviewed study co-authored by Ausable River Association Science and Stewardship Director Brendan Wiltse and Adirondack Watershed Institute researchers Elizabeth Yerger and Corey Laxson shows that road salt and stormwater runoff has contributed to a discrepancy in water density between different layers of the lake. This discrepancy has disrupted the natural spring mixing cycle and created low-oxygen conditions that reduce the habitability of the lake for its lake trout population. The study focuses on conditions in Mirror Lake between 2016 and 2017, when researchers observed "an apparent incomplete spring mixing in Mirror Lake."

Mirror Lake is what's called a "dimictic lake," which means that its natural mixing process - when water cycles from its surface to the floor - happens twice per year, once in the spring and again in the fall. This process distributes oxygen to the deepest part of the lake, creating a habitat where lake trout can thrive.

According to the study, the lake trout habitat was "restricted" in 2016 and 2017 by a combination of warm surface water and low-oxygen conditions at the bottom spurred by high chloride concentration. Lake trout need cold, oxygenated water. Low-oxygen conditions at the bottom of Mirror Lake also puts the lake at risk of developing algae blooms.

Wiltse believes the lake's natural mixing process can be restored if stakeholders reduce the amount of road salt they use by 30-40%.

The association has received a $175,000 grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to get the ASSI started. With that funding, the group is in the process of helping the village of Lake Placid and the town of North Elba outfit municipal road plows and sidewalk spreaders with technology that will allow local officials to see where those vehicles are in real-time - as well as how much salt is being dispensed at any given time, according to Wiltse.

"That's the sort of information that will allow them to really look at their operation and find areas they might be able to improve," he said. "Maybe a truck spreader needs to be calibrated more frequently, or they can give further training to their drivers, or more investment into live edge plows or other types of equipment."

Tucker added, "It's a big boon for us. Understanding what's going down and what's going in allows the science to sort of see when there's changes - well, how does that relate to the input? That's an important connection that we haven't been able to make, and a lot of other lakes haven't been able to make. In some sense, we're lucky that the lake is smaller, the perimeter is well-defined, it's a fantastic model for understanding how to turn this around."


$600K target

Altogether, the association is hoping to raise $600,000 to fund the ASSI over the next five years.

"Hopefully, it's a program that dies because we find that sustainable solution," Wiltse said. "It's really about just making these resources available to the community so that we can hopefully stop telling the story about Mirror Lake that's bad, and start telling a really positive one, and folks can start looking to Lake Placid as one of the first places in the country that's really solved this challenging problem."

The goal is to eventually use the results of the ASSI to help other communities.

"There are communities that have many town roads and fewer state roads, there are communities with gravel roads, there are communities that have very limited workforces and a lower tax base. How are we going to help them? It starts in one place and we'll learn with each iteration that we go through," Tucker said.

To help the Ausable River Association reach its financial goal of $600,000 and fund the Ausable Sustainable Salt Initiative, visit the "give" page on the AsRa website at



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