Farmers Step Up To Solve Rocky Mountain National Park’s Pollution Problem — KUNC

St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park
St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

For the past eight years, the biologist has spent most of his time thinking about how nitrogen pollution is changing the park’s forests, wildflowers, and alpine lakes. He’s also been looking for a way to stop it.

As Cheatham explains, it’s not that nitrogen is bad in and of itself. It’s that there’s too much of it in the park. Think about putting fertilizer, which is basically nitrogen, on your lawn or garden, he said.

“What if you applied that fertilizer — and that’s exactly what it is — at that rate — 15 times what’s on the label. Weird things are going to happen.”

Weird things are happening in the park’s alpine meadows and in the lakes nestled beneath its craggy peaks. Cheatgrass, an invasive weed, is making its way higher and higher into the park, buoyed by extra fertilizer, as are other weeds. Native trees are weakened by the extra nitrogen. Rivers are becoming more acidic…

Scientists are still investigating the links between the algae bloom and nitrogen, said Cheatham. Regardless of if the link is direct, they are sure of one thing: too much nitrogen is throwing off the park’s ecological balance. If nitrogen levels stay high, the park could look completely different in just a few decades…

That’s where Jon Slutsky comes in. He’s a dairy farmer in Wellington, Colorado, about 50 miles east of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Slutsky admits that at first it’s hard to make a connection between a dairy farm on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and biological in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Yet strange as it might seem, farmers on the plains are responsible for a significant amount of the extra nitrogen that’s falling in the park, as rain, or snow.

Other sources include automobiles, oil and gas operations, and other industrial activities from within Colorado. Some nitrogen comes from as far away as California, Nevada, Nebraska and Iowa, according to a 2009 report.

Spurred by a 2004 petition from Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Defense Fund, the Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began to focus on reducing nitrogen in the park.

Pointing at a corral where a few of his 1,500 dairy cows were chowing down, Slutsky said this is where the problem starts.

“Ammonia is created out in the corrals — the cows are designed so perfectly, they provide everything — so the urine hits the ground and it creates ammonia,” Slutsky said.

Ammonia, which contains nitrogen, can come from a cow urine and manure reacting with the air. Ammonia is a gas, and it can be transformed into another type of particle, ammonium nitrate, that is small and easily carried on the wind.

Normally, wind comes from the west. So most of the nitrogen created at dairies like Slutsky’s, and other farms, is carried to places like Nebraska. A few times a year, though, the winds change.

“Not real often. But on occasion they do. Maybe a dozen times a year,” said Slutsky.

When that happens, the nitrogen gets carried up into the park. If it rains or snows, it falls on the park, providing fertilizer for weeds like Canada thistle and stressing out the park’s ecosystem.

Neither the park’s Jim Cheatham nor cattle feedlot owners want this to happen. That’s why the Park Service and other federal agencies are partnering with groups of Front Range farmers to use a novel alert system.

Slutsky and around 50 other farmers signed up for a voluntary program where they get an alert when the winds are blowing the wrong way, from the east, and a system is likely to move in and rain nitrogen down on the park.

The alert tells them how long the weather system will last, often two days or less. In response, the farmers can implement conservation practices that keep nitrogen out of the air. Slutsky might decide to move manure another day. Another farmer might postpone a fertilizer application.

Texas A&M University professor Brock Faulkner is a consultant for the project, which went through a trial run in 2014, sending out 10 warnings to Eastern Plains farmers.

“If we could shift the timing of those practices so that those emissions occur at a time when they’re less likely to cause detrimental environmental impacts, that would be fantastic,” said Faulkner.

More water pollution coverage here.

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