Maintaining Gravel Roads Key Component of Water Quality

In Maine, we have a long history of gravel road building and maintenance. The reality is that most of the unpaved gravel roadways in Maine started out as foot paths or logging roads used by horses or oxen. Over time, these old byways became access points for vehicles and were “improved” to the point that they could be driven on. Improvement generally meant adding gravel and cutting in rough ditches as needed. Unfortunately the added gravel would erode on an annual basis and more would be added the following spring or summer and ditches would fill with sediment and fail to carry water away from the road surface. This cycle of eroding soils and adding more gravel continues today with most gravel “camp” roads. As development has increased, so has vehicle traffic. Travel by much heavier vehicles like those used for the new construction leads to major problems that all cost money to fix and have negative impacts on water quality.

Poorly maintained gravel roads have a huge impact on the water quality in our lakes and ponds. Several years ago, Maine DEP released some numbers showing that eroding gravel roads, despite their small land area, can have a greater impact on our lakes than other factors such as agriculture, forestry or development that take up considerably more room. Eroded gravel and sediment carry phosphorus and other pollutants that are deposited in our lakes and ponds by runoff resulting in a host of water quality problems including sedimentation, algae blooms and decreased oxygen levels.

Several years ago I began working with the Maine DEP to develop a method of helping road owners and association members, to better address and maintain their gravel roads. Several methods were tried with varying amounts of success until we found the best and most helpful way to tackle the problem. Informal road groups and organized associations alike both needed a way of planning for specific repairs over a longer period of time. Most road groups have limited budgets collected in the form of dues and it is the rare group that has the funding to “fix” an entire road in a single season.

Developing a Road Maintenance Plan that prioritizes the needed work and how to properly protect the improvements made in the road once they are complete has proven to be the best investment a group can make in their road.

When creating a plan for a road group, the first activity undertaken is to walk or drive at a snail’s pace the entire road looking closely at all of the problem areas and also looking at the larger watershed picture. Carefully photographing each site and recording the necessary construction to properly address the problems will provide the group or association with useful documentation. Once the plan is complete and all information has been collected, it is time to prioritize the sites. The plans I prepare prioritize sites based on two important factors. First, what construction or maintenance needs to be done to protect the investments already made in the road? Second, what kind of impact is a particular site having on water quality? Looking at an entire road and all of its problems is overwhelming to most road associations so prioritizing and fixing the worst sites first is usually the place to begin.  Information on gravel types and sizes is included as well as general information on dust control, culverts and proper surface crowning.

A group pooling resources and having a 300’ section fixed the right way vs. the band aid approach of adding more and more gravel will save money! Other than annually grading and shaping the “new” section, if constructed properly, it shouldn’t need attention for many years thus generating a savings in annual gravel costs. Properly armoring a section of ditch that was prone to erosion and washout can be a permanent fix if it is cleaned out regularly and kept free of leaves and other debris.

I recently spoke to a landowner who praised the merits of the plan his road association invested in three years ago. That association has addressed one major issue each construction season. They have invested in the types of road maintenance and repair which the plan recommended. As a result, the road is much improved and less money is spent on the annual disasters that required “fixes” and the spring soft season has been far easier for the property owners to deal with. He felt that they spent about the same amount of money over the long term and had a much better roadway as a result. In addition, the erosion runoff into the pond has decreased significantly.

Josh Platt is the President of Maine Environmental Solutions LLC and also works at the Kennebec SWCD. He has been implementing projects aimed at improving water quality here in Maine for the past twelve years. Josh lives in Hallowell and will be presenting on Gravel Road Planning at the Maine Lakes Conference in June. He can be reached at 207-441-9366 or at

Investing in a Gravel Road Management Plan has proven to be the best investment a group can make in their road.

 Alwife Restoration for the Member Lakes

  Update coming soon!




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