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 pre-wetting the roads 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 pre-wetting 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 Council of Maine, 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.

Proponents of the bill say the lakes generate more than $3.5 billion in annual economic activity and support 52,000 jobs in the state.

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.

The best management practices will be given to plowing contractors, who will in turn show them to their clients, including many of Maine’s small towns and retail businesses.

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.

However, considerable time and effort have gone into coming up with ways to reduce the amount of those substances used to melt snow and ice. When dry salt crystals hit the road, a significant percentage of them bounce and scatter, ending up melting ice alongside the road rather than on it.

Maine’s Department of Transportation and several towns have invested in technologies that minimize the amount of waste in the system. Some truck spreaders are tied to computerized systems that constantly measure the temperature of the pavement and dispense the optimal amount of material.

Another practice that has gained currency with the state is pre-wetting the road with a brine solution before the snow starts to fall. Plow trucks are equipped with tanks that hold a brine solution of 23 percent salt, 77 percent water — basically, rock salt dissolved in water.

Before the snow has a chance to accumulate on the pavement, the truck uses nozzles to coat the surface with the solution. Rather than dropping crystals onto packed snow from above, the theory is that the brine solution melts the flakes as they hit the ground, leaving the roads safe for travel.

The brine solution and other new practices have helped the state dramatically reduce the amount of materials it puts on state-owned roads, according to Mike Burns, the Department of Transportation’s regional manager for the capital and mid-coast areas. In the 1990s, Burns said, the state used about 500,000 tons of sand. Last year, the amount had been cut to about 60,000. Over the same time period, the amount of salt has increased somewhat, from about 75,000 tons of salt to 110,000 tons, but Burns said the elimination of sand makes up for the increase.

Even so, the state transportation department still uses rock salt for more than two-thirds of its road-clearing materials, while brine, sand and Ice B-Gone make up the smaller remains.

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.”

The roads center offers a series of statewide workshops every November and December, during which it urges towns to consider taking on the tools and training needed to use a brine solution. Last year, 90 towns sent representatives to the workshop, but not many have made the switch.

The state has also put on classes for retailers with large parking lots and snowplow contractors, many of which provide services to small towns without public works departments.

LaFlamme oversees the department’s Nonpoint Source Training, an education program to help bring non-municipal salt users into the fold. LaFlamme said much of the salt use in the state could be reduced if people just had a better idea of how it works.

“It requires some understanding of pavement temperature and the amount of salt you use,” he said.

For example, salt doesn’t melt ice when the temperature gets below 15 or 20 degrees. But when the temperatures get to those levels, many people respond by using more salt.

“We have reports of businesses just applying salt willy-nilly, thinking it’s going to be the more salt, the better,” he said. “People put piles and piles of it down when it gets real cold.”

LaFlamme said retailers who are responsible for keeping parking lots and sidewalks clear of dangerous conditions often use more than is necessary, in part because they are trying to minimize their liability for falls that might occur on their property.

The program scheduled three training sessions for snow plow crews in Brewer, Lewiston and Portland last year, but two were canceled for lack of interest. In the late spring, an advisory council to the training center will decide whether to offer more classes next season.

Some towns that have tried the salt solution have reported resounding success, as in Pownal, which in 2003 became one of the first communities in the state to use a brine solution. The roads center newsletter reported Pownal has saved about 40 to 50 percent of the salt used per storm.

In the winter of 2002, the town used an average of 35 tons of salt on its roads each time it snowed. The next year, it used 42 tons per weather event.

But when Pownal changed to a brine solution, that number started going down and has held steady at about 20 tons per storm over the past five years.

THE ROAD AHEAD

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.

Fongemie said resistance from the public is another reason more towns haven’t made the switch. Maine drivers are comforted when they see the brown of gritty sand that will help them to find traction on the blacktop, he said, and the state has proven that salt can be effective on high traffic roads, where a constant stream of vehicles churn up the slush and keep things moving, but that it might not be as effective on roads that see little traffic.

“Some roads in Winslow aren’t going to see a car all night,” Fongemie said.

Susan Lessard, town manager of Hampden, said the town considered but rejected the idea of switching to use of a brine solution several years ago. She said the upfront equipment investment was one discouraging factor, and that the town considers sand to be an integral part of keeping the roads safe.

“We’re not a salt-only community,” she 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.

To finance the change, the town paid $6,000 to upgrade three trucks owned by the town’s plowing company, Warren Brothers.

The company has been using the new system on Route 135, one of three major loops covered by trucks in the town.

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.

“I do believe once the weather straightens around and the contractors are trained and the equipment is right, I think yes it will save money,” he said.

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 — 861-9287 mhhetling@centralmaine.com Twitter: @hh_matt