Growing concern about the water quality of Maine’s lakes has led the state to recommend that towns use a new practice that would lessen the environmental damage caused by spreading tons of salt and sand on the roads every winter.

Although state experts say wetting the roads before a storm with a brine solution is safer and more effective, many towns and plowing contractors have been slow or resistant to embrace the change.

Paul Fongemie, the public works director of Winslow, said he has heard the hype about pretreating the roads with a brine solution, but he hasn’t yet heard a strong enough argument about the benefits to make the switch.

The switch costs money. It requires an investment in sprayer tanks and equipment. It also forces public works crews to rethink how and when they treat roads.

“It really hasn’t been examined that much here,” Fongemie said. “Some of us older guys are harder to convince. We’re a little set in our ways.”

But environmental advocates, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have sounded the alarm on protecting the water quality of Maine’s lakes. Maine spreads about a billion pounds of salt on its roads every year, according to a 2010 University of Maine study, and that salt doesn’t just disappear when it melts. Much of it winds up in lakes, streams and groundwater supplies, which can wreak havoc on wildlife.

Native species such as white pine, salamanders, frogs and fish are sensitive to salt. When the water gets too salty, they lose ground against more salt-tolerant invasive species.

The resources council has joined with other groups, including the Maine Lakes Society, the Lakes Environmental Association and the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance to promote a new bill, L.D. 1744, that is designed to help the state Department of Environmental Protection focus on lake protection and reduce nutrient runoff to lakes, including phosphorus.

With a shift toward using a brine solution coming too slowly, or not at all, the state has stepped up efforts to convince communities of the benefits.

The state has formed a Salt Management Task Force, which has representatives on it from the DEP, the Department of Transportation, the Maine Local Roads Program and the Maine Winter Maintenance Task Force. The task force members are drafting an official set of best management practices for the use of salt in Maine. Once completed, as soon as this spring, the DEP hopes knowledge about using a brine solution will trickle down to the end users of Maine’s roads, paved parking lots and sidewalks.

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Bill LaFlamme, an environmental specialist with the DEP, said salt toxicity can kill aquatic insects, undermining the stability of the entire ecosystem.

In addition, wildlife is attracted to the salty roads, increasing the number of roadkills and collisions between vehicles and deer or moose, he said. Salt can also leach into the groundwater, contaminating wells and creating health concerns, particularly for people with hypertension.

Sand, the other substance commonly used to help cars gain traction on icy roads, has problems of its own. Sand clogs ditches and small waterways, clouding the water and creating dusty air conditions for the workers who eventually do their best to clean some of it up, typically in the spring.

Sand can also carry phosphorus into lakes, which fuels the growth of harmful algae and contributes to algal blooms that can cause massive fish kills in lakes in extreme conditions.

Experts say there is no clear path to a future in which no salt or sand is used to keep Maine’s roads clear and safe.

RETHINKING SALT

While the state has seen success using brine solution, many towns and private businesses are not using the snow-melting tactic. Some state experts said the problem is a culture of public works directors who are resistant to change.

“Tradition plays a lot in this business,” said Pete Coughlan, the 27-year director of the Maine Local Roads Center, through which the transportation department offers training, technical assistance and information to municipal employees. “People are used to sand and salt. The biggest thing is the unwillingness to move out of the comfort zone of a practice that’s been done for decades.”

Other Maine town officials are leery of the practice.

In Winslow, public works director Fongemie said that the entire approach to treating the roads would have to change, with crews having to target the hours before the first flakes fell instead of after.

“If it predicts snow at 2 a.m. and it actually starts at 10 p.m., what do you do when you go out and snow is already on the roads?” he said.

One community that recently made the switch to a brine solution is Belgrade, where Town Manager Greg Gill was among those who advocated requiring plow contractors to use trucks equipped with tanks of the liquid.

So far, it has been difficult to say whether the town will save money, Gill said, because there has been unusual weather and a learning curve with an unfamiliar way of doing things. He’ll have a better feel for the answer in May.

Clogging nozzles, unexpected temperatures and staff training all played a role in making the year run less smoothly than it might in the future.

Even if the cost savings don’t materialize, Gill still thinks the move is a positive one.

“I’ll tell you our road conditions are a heck of a lot better,” he said. “Savings is one thing, but people’s lives and safety is another. To me, that’s very important.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @hh_matt