#Snowpack news: #SouthPlatteRiver basin tops in #Colorado = 115% of normal, all basins normal or above

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

And, here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map for today from the NRCS.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 21, 2020 via the NRCS.

Western Resource Advocates: Tri-State’s Responsible Energy Plan Signals Important Step Forward in Reducing Carbon Emissions #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Kit Carson Electric announces solar and storage that will put the cooperative at 100% renewables during sunny days by 2021. The New Mexico cooperative will soon go to work on securing wind power. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

Here’s the release from Western Resource Advocates (Julianne Basinger):

Western Resource Advocates today welcomed Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s announcement that it plans to add more than 1,000 megawatts of renewable wind and solar resources to its energy generation.

Tri-State announced more details of its Responsible Energy Plan today at a news conference featuring Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

“Tri-State’s plan signals a welcome and important shift toward a clean, lower-cost energy future,” said John Nielsen, director of Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program. “Tri-State’s coal plant retirements and increased investments in renewable energy will save its customers money and will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change and other harmful air pollution. We look forward to continuing to work with Tri-State to develop ways to achieve further carbon reductions and increased energy efficiency, while also seeking ways to help coal-reliant communities transition to new economic opportunities.”

Tri-State’s Responsible Energy Plan sets a target of 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2024 that will be achieved, in part, through the development of the more than 1,000 megawatts of new wind and solar generation announced today. The renewable energy plan comes after Tri-State last week announced it will close two coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico.

Tri-State announced its board has created a contract committee to discuss changes to its existing member contracts that would allow distribution cooperative members to self-supply more of their own electricity through locally sited renewable generation. The results of that discussion are expected to be announced in April. Tri-State also said it will increase electric vehicle infrastructure in the rural areas it serves.

Even with above-average snowpack, #RioGrande faces uncertain future — Wild #Earth Guardians

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 21, 2020 via the NRCS.

From Wild Earth Guardians:

The National Resources Conservation Service has predicted that the Rio Grande flows at Otowi Bridge (just northwest of Santa Fe) will be 90 percent of average. At the same time, dry conditions this past summer and fall led to drier soils and aquifers in need of recharge—meaning there still will be less water available for rivers and streams.

Parts of Colorado and New Mexico are currently experiencing drought conditions. When soil moisture is low and aquifers are drawn down, much of the water from snowmelt is needed to replenish aquifers and soil.

In the hotter, drier world we live in, this is all the more evidence that we need to learn to manage water differently for both people and the environment.

Read the press release.

States, Congress, Trump okay $156M to extend innovative Platte River recovery program — @WaterEdCO

Platte River Recomery Implemtation Program area map.

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.

The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.

The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.

In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.

Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.

Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.

“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.

But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.

It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”

Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.

With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.

Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.

Today the picture is much different.

The whooping crane spring migration has risen more than 12 percent since 2007, while the number of least tern and piping plover breeding pairs have more than doubled during that same time period, a major achievement in the species conservation world.

Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.

The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.

“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Western Water Plans: Uncertain about uncertainty? — @WaterEdCO

Standley Lake in Westminster. May 14, 2019. As Colorado emerges from drought last year, its reservoirs are struggling to refill. Credit: Jerd Smith

From Water Education Colorado (Bianca Valdez):

This four-part series contrasts the processes behind the Colorado Water Plan with four other recent Western Water Plans: California, Texas, Montana and Oregon.

The future holds infinite numerous possibilities and, with it, the imperfect understanding of future natural hazard impacts and society’s adaptations to those changes. An increasingly arid climate and rapid population growth in the Western U.S. underlies and exacerbates challenges in water policy and future planning.

Why is uncertainty important to consider in planning?

Considering uncertainty in planning allows for the development of stronger (e.g. more “resilient”) strategies that can accommodate the inevitability of future change. From varying perspectives, the term “uncertainty” could imply doubt, a lack of sufficient data to draw precise conclusions, or a lack of understanding. In the specific context of planning, uncertainty is defined as an unknown future full of varying future conditions. The unknown is a hard thing to plan for! But when a multitude of possibilities is accepted by planners as reality, it simply makes sense to prepare for a reasonable range of solutions.

No one holds a crystal ball. Despite sometimes causing decision paralysis, the presence of uncertainty should not prompt inaction. A discussion or quantification of uncertainty can help support evidence-based adaptation and planning. Science, technology and research are used to mitigate and adapt to conditions such as climate change and allow for the opportunity to quantify variables, reduce issues, and communicate data.

Communicating uncertainty

One benefit of communicating uncertainty, is the opportunity to engage with, and potentially learn from, stakeholders’ concerns and fears. Selecting an appropriate vehicle for uncertainty communication and strategically developing content is required to minimize misunderstandings. Data and uncertainty can be communicated through text, charts, maps and graphs.

Policymakers, scientists and public stakeholders may frame uncertainty in water management in different ways. For example, effectively communicating climate data to a stakeholder that accepts climate change and is invested in adaptive practices may look different than effective communication tailored to stakeholders less familiar or receptive to adaptive measures.

Engaging with stakeholders and audiences on uncertainty is an opportunity to change the conversation—uncertainty will always be a part of science, modeling and future planning efforts. If people are frequently reminded of the many possibilities the future holds, they may be able to improve their engagement with and comprehension of planning under uncertainty.

How is it being incorporated into Western water planning?

Stakeholders and the public must be engaged to successfully incorporate uncertainty into water policy. The public can help planners understand how uncertainty should be considered in planning documents and their involvement can help establish expectations around how and why policy may require updates or changes as natural systems shift. Many Western states are beginning to utilize adaptive management into future water planning.

Adaptive Management: an approach to uncertainty

For planning purposes, strategies must be dynamic as conditions change or lessons are learned. The most widespread water management regime is a ‘prediction and control’ regime where the water system’s behavior and response to events may be predicted and optimal control strategies can be subsequently designed. Decisions made from this mechanistic approach tend to be shaped by a regulatory framework that involves technical norms or legal prescriptions. To address the challenge of uncertainty and climate change, there must be a shift from this common method to a more adaptive and flexible approach in water management.

Adaptive management refers to a systematic process for continually improving management practices and policies by learning from the outcomes of implemented management strategies. This form of management has been proven to be effective as it allows for management regimes to experiment by comparing selected practices and policies and then evaluating the alternative hypothesis for the system being managed. Here is an example of Texas utilizing adaptive management in their water planning process:

  • The Texas Water Plan 2017 explicitly addresses uncertainty around project implementation (Chapter 8). The plan articulates sources of uncertainty, including permitting timelines and financial processes. Regarding ecological and climate uncertainty, the Texas Water Plan recommends implementing a combination of water management strategies that could provide more water supplies than are required to meet projected needs. The Texas Water Plan encourages an adaptive process and cites the five-year update cycle as a response to changes and uncertainties.
  • Given the uncertainties of future hydrology and climate, water planning efforts can be strengthened by incorporating risk and uncertainty into water resource management planning. Advancing adaptive practices can occur through learning by doing, stakeholder engagement, and sharing best practices and data. Effectively communicating risk and uncertainty improves the likelihood that adaptive practices will be successfully implemented.

    Water agencies can drive innovation in policy with scenario planning. Although scenario planning will reveal unfavorable future scenarios, the ability to prepare for likely futures and to adapt to uncertainty will provide a foundation for better planning. Managing uncertainty is far from a new challenge, however, in these modern times, tools exist to ensure water leaders can help illuminate the best paths forward. See how uncertainty was incorporated into water planning for the Colorado Water Plan on next week’s post!

    Our next post, to be published January 21, will explore how different state water plans in the Western U.S. incorporate uncertainty through the development of scenarios. Read the first post in our Western Water Plans series, “How does the Colorado Water Plan compare to our neighbors,” and the second post, “How do Western states incorporate regional engagement into water resource planning.”

    Bianca Valdez is a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder pursuing a Masters in Environmental Policy. Bianca has a passion for water resources and intends to continue to immerse herself in the water policy space. Bianca holds a B.S. in Hydrogeology from the University of Texas at Austin.

    More #whitewater park work to begin this week in Basalt — The Aspen Times

    An overview of the Basalt whitewater park. There is third wave now in the park, although it’s not as burly as the first two. At least not at 2,500 cfs. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Aspen Times (Jason Auslander):

    Pitkin County will begin construction next week on the latest fix to a whitewater park on the Roaring Fork River in Basalt that some said was too dangerous during high water last summer, sources said Wednesday.

    “The primary goal of the adjustment is to improve high-flow navigation from runoff,” said Quinn Donnelly, an engineer with River Restoration of Carbondale, which designed the park. “(High water) was creating big holes and people were flipping.”

    Contractors next week will begin altering two man-made concrete wave structures in the riverbed to make them less difficult to navigate during high-water conditions, Donnelly said. Crews will move around boulders and create ramps to better flush water through the area and create a wave-train, he said.

    “The goal of this winter’s work is to strike a better balance between the fun surfability of the waves and their high-water navigability,” Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board Chairman Andre Wille said in a news release Wednesday. “The end result will be wave features that are easier for river runners to bypass at high flows.”

    Despite repeated requests Wednesday for how much the project will cost and where the money will come from, a spokesperson for the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board declined to release it. The park was initially built for $770,000 with Healthy Rivers funds, though it’s not clear how much has been spent since then to tweak it.

    This winter’s project will mark the second time the whitewater park has had to be re-engineered because of safety concerns.

    State looking to oppose White River storage project in water court — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The view looking downstream at the proposed site for the reservoir and dam on the White River. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to oppose the project in water court because of their concerns that it is speculative. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    After years of their questions and concerns not being met, Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to formally oppose the water rights associated with a proposed reservoir project in northwest Colorado.

    In November, the Colorado Division of Water Resources filed a motion to intervene in the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s application for a 90,000-acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River. The state DWR is now waiting for a judge to determine whether it will be allowed to file a statement of opposition in the case.

    For more than 4½ years, state engineers have expressed concerns that the conservancy district has not proven there is a need for the water, which would be stored in the proposed White River reservoir and dam project between Rangely and Meeker. The issue is whether Rio Blanco has shown that it can and will put to beneficial use the water rights it applied for in 2014. It remains unclear whether the town of Rangely needs the water.

    “And throughout this case, the Engineers have consistently maintained that RBWCD must demonstrate that its claimed water right is not speculative,” the motion reads. “Although RBWCD has addressed some of the Engineers’ concerns in the past six months, the Engineers maintain that RBWCD has not met its burden.”

    State Engineer Kevin Rein said his office had been trying to resolve its concerns with Rio Blanco’s claims to water informally and doesn’t take filing a motion to intervene lightly.

    “We are very aware of the influence we can have on the process and costs and delays, so we don’t just frivolously file a statement of opposition every time we have some issue with a case,” Rein said. “We believe there are issues that need to be fixed in this water-court application in order for it to go forward.”

    One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Rio Blanco declines comment

    The White River storage project, also known as the Wolf Creek project, would store anywhere from 44,000 to 2.92 million acre-feet of water. The water would be stored either in a reservoir formed by a dam across the main stem of the White River — this scale of project proposal is now rare in Colorado — or in an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, just north of the river. Water would have to be pumped from the river uphill and into the off-channel reservoir.

    Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

    Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

    Rio Blanco says Kenney Reservoir is silting in at a rate of 300 acre-feet per year, threatening the future of Rangely’s water supply and flatwater recreation, and a new off-channel reservoir on the White River could help solve this problem.

    Deirdre Macnab, seen here on her 13,000-acre 4M Ranch between Rangely and Meeker, is the current sole opposer in the water court case for the White River storage project. Colorado’s top water engineers are looking to intervene in the case because they say the project applicant has not proven there is a need for the water. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Opposition

    If a water-court judge grants the motion to intervene, the state will become the second opposer in the case. Currently, the only other remaining opposer is 4M Ranch, owned by Deirdre Macnab.

    Tucked between rolling hills of arid, sagebrush-covered rangeland, the proposed reservoir and dam site abut her 13,000-acre property along the White River.

    Macnab, who bought the beef and hay operation nearly five years ago, is on the board of the conservation group White River Alliance, as well as the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable. Macnab said the main reason she opposes the reservoir project is because of the state’s concerns.

    “If we felt that there was a clear purpose and need that would benefit the public, then we would, in fact, be supportive of this,” Macnab said. “But the fact that the experts are saying there does not appear to be a clear purpose and need means that this would be a real travesty and waste of taxpayer money. It’s something we will continue to oppose until that changes.”

    The site of the potential off-channel Wolf Creek Reservoir on the White River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Additional concerns

    State engineers are also concerned about the vagueness of the revised amounts of water for various uses that Rio Blanco says it needs.

    In a 2018 report, Division 6 engineer Erin Light questioned Rio Blanco’s claims that it needed water for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale and irrigation uses. In response, Rio Blanco dropped those claims but almost doubled the need for municipal and industrial use for the town of Rangely and added a new demand for recreation.

    The conservancy district also set the amount of water for environmental needs for threatened and endangered species at between 3,000 and 42,000 acre-feet despite its acknowledgement that the actual amount needed for this use was unknown. Rio Blanco then added a new demand for a sediment pool of 3,000 to 24,000 acre-feet and an insurance pool of up to 3,000 acre-feet but did not describe either of these uses.

    “Thus, despite removing its claims for industrial/oil and natural gas/oil shale, which originally accounted for over half the demand for the claimed water right, the total demands for water identified by RBWCD actually increased to 24,000-100,000 acre-feet,” the motion to intervene reads.

    Grant money

    Since 2013, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has given roughly $850,000 in grant money to Rio Blanco to study the White River storage project, including a $350,000 Colorado Water Plan grant in 2018. According to CWCB communications director Sara Leonard, Rio Blanco has so far spent about 60% of these most recent grant funds.

    Leonard said that DWR’s motion to intervene was not a surprise to the CWCB, that the two state agencies with seemingly differing views on the project have met and that the CWCB is aware of the state engineers’ concerns.

    “The grants that have been awarded to the applicant to date have all been with the intention of helping the District with the evaluation process,” Leonard wrote in an email. “In other words, the motion has not changed the scope of the ongoing work in the grant.”

    The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 toward investigating the feasibility of the storage project.

    “We are not advocates and we are not opposers,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of River District community affairs and chair of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. “It’s a regional question that our constituents need to figure out.”

    Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Jan. 17, 2020 edition of The Craig Daily Press.

    “The ​Juliana​ case is far from over” — Julia Olson #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Credit: Tom Toro via Yale Climate Solutions.

    Here’s the release from Our Children’s Trust (Julia Olson, Andrea Rodgers, Philip Gregory):

    The ​Juliana ​21 Continue to Fight for Justice in the Biggest Climate Lawsuit in America

    [On January 17, 2020], a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ​“reluctantly” concluded that the youth plaintiffs’ case in ​Juliana v. United States​ must be made to the Congress, the President, or to the electorate at large. The decision finds federal courts cannot provide the youth with a remedy for their climate change injuries. In her dissent, District Judge Josephine L. Staton wrote that the youth plaintiffs brought suit to enforce the most basic structural principal embedded in our system of liberty: the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction. Judge Staton would hold that the youth plaintiffs have standing to challenge the government’s conduct, have articulated claims under the Constitution, and have presented sufficient evidence to press those claims at trial. Counsel for the youth plaintiffs vowed to ask the full Ninth Circuit to review the determination that federal courts can do nothing to address an admitted constitutional violation.

    Julia Olson​, ​executive director and chief legal counsel of ​Our Children’s Trust​ and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, commented: “The ​Juliana​ case is far from over. The Youth Plaintiffs will be asking the full court of the Ninth Circuit to review this decision and its catastrophic implications for our constitutional democracy. The Court recognized that climate change is exponentially increasing and that the federal government has long known that its actions substantially contribute to the climate crisis. Yet two of the judges on the Panel refused to set the standard for redressing the constitutional violation, to protect our Nation’s children. The standard is a question of science that should be determined at trial. The majority opinion ignores the fact that we have yet to go to trial on the issue of redressability.”

    There were numerous points in which the majority opinion of Ninth Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz found in favor of the youth plaintiffs, including: the evidence showed climate change was occurring at an increasingly rapid pace; copious expert evidence established that the unprecedented rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels stemmed from fossil fuel combustion and will wreak havoc on the Earth’s climate if unchecked; the record conclusively established that the federal government has long understood the risks of fossil fuel use and increasing carbon dioxide emissions; and the record established that the government’s contribution to climate change was not simply a result of inaction.

    The opinion also recognized that the youth plaintiffs had suffered concrete and particularized injuries from climate change. The panel held the district court properly found the youth plaintiffs met the Article III causation requirement because there was at least a genuine factual dispute as to whether a host of federal policies were a “substantial factor” in causing the plaintiffs’ injuries.

    Yet, two of the three judges held the youth plaintiffs’ claimed injuries were not redressable by an Article III court. Specifically, the majority held it was beyond the power of federal courts to order, design, supervise, or implement the youth plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan where any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted to the executive and legislative branches. In short, the majority ruled the remedies the youth plaintiffs have requested must be implemented by Congress or the President, not the courts.

    Philip Gregory​, with Gregory Law Group of Redwood City, California and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, stated: “Despite finding the government was actively contributing to climate change, and despite the fact the court found these youth plaintiffs submitted evidence of concrete and particularized injuries, and despite the fact that the youth plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to show federal policies were a substantial factor in causing plaintiffs’ constitutional injuries, a majority of the panel concluded there was nothing federal courts could do to address these constitutional violations. We strongly disagree with this conclusion and will take this determination to the full Ninth Circuit.”

    Kelsey Juliana​, the 23-year-old named plaintiff in ​Juliana ​and resident of Eugene, Oregon, said: “​THIS ISN’T OVER. Prepare for a petition for review en banc to the 9th circuit as we refuse to do anything but move forward and ultimately win. Courts do have an obligation to address issues of constitutional, existential crisis, like climate change. STAY HOPEFUL STAY WITH US STAY TUNED STAY IN POWER.”

    Levi Draheim​, 12-year-old plaintiff from Satellite Beach, Florida, commented: “We will continue this case because only the courts can help us. We brought this lawsuit to secure our liberties and protect our lives and our homes. Much like the civil rights cases, we firmly believe the courts can vindicate our constitutional rights and we will not stop until we get a decision that says so.”

    Juliana v. United States​ is ​not​ about the government’s failure to act on climate. Instead, these​ young plaintiffs between the ages of 12 and 23, assert that the U.S. government, through its ​affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, is depriving them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources.​ The case is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children’s Trust, and all seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system.

    Counsel for Plaintiffs are Julia Olson, Esq. of Eugene, OR, Philip L. Gregory, Esq. of Gregory Law Group of Redwood City, CA, and Andrea Rodgers, Esq. of Seattle, WA.

    Microwaving sewage waste may make it safe to use as fertilizer on crops — The Conversation


    Water purification at a modern urban wastewater treatment plant involves removing undesirable chemicals, suspended solids and gases from contaminated water.
    arhendrix/Shutterstock.com

    Gang Chen, FAMU-FSU College of Engineering

    My team has discovered another use for microwave ovens that will surprise you.

    Biosolids – primarily dead bacteria – from sewage plants are usually dumped into landfills. However, they are rich in nutrients and can potentially be used as fertilizers. But farmers can’t just replace the normal fertilizers they use on agricultural soil with these biosolids. The reason is that they are often contaminated with toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium from industry. But dumping them in the landfills is wasting precious resources. So, what is the solution?

    I’m an environmental engineer and an expert in wastewater treatment. My colleagues and I have figured out how to treat these biosolids and remove heavy metals so that they can be safely used as a fertilizer.

    How treatment plants clean wastewater

    Wastewater contains organic waste such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, oils and urea, which are derived from food and human waste we flush down in kitchen sinks and toilets. Inside treatment plants, bacteria decompose these organic materials, cleaning the water which is then discharged to rivers, lakes or oceans.

    The bacteria don’t do the work for nothing. They benefit from this process by multiplying as they dine on human waste. Once water is removed from the waste, what remains is a solid lump of bacteria called biosolids.

    This is complicated by the fact that wastewater treatment plants accept not only residential wastewater but also industrial wastewater, including the liquid that seeps out of solid waste in landfills – called leachate – which is contaminated with toxic metals including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. During the wastewater treatment process, heavy metals are attracted to the bacteria and accumulate on their surfaces.

    If farmers apply the biosolids at this stage, these metals will separate from the biosolids and contaminate the crop for human consumption. But removing heavy metals isn’t easy because the chemical bonds between heavy metals and biosolids are very strong.

    Gang Chen microwaves some biosolids, separating the organic material from the toxic metals.
    Gang Chen/FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, CC BY-SA

    Microwaving waste releases heavy metals

    Conventionally, these metals are removed from biosolids using chemical methods involving acids, but this is costly and generates more dangerous waste. This has been practiced on a small scale in some agricultural fields.

    After a careful calculation of the energy requirement to release the heavy metals from the attached bacteria, I searched around for all the possible energy sources that can provide just enough to break the bonds but not too much to destroy the nutrients in the biosolids. That’s when I serendipitously noticed the microwave oven in my home kitchen and began to wonder whether microwaving was the solution.

    My team and I tested whether microwaving the biosolids would break the bonds between heavy metals and the bacterial cells. We discovered it was efficient and environmentally friendly. The work has been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. This concept can be adapted to an industrial scale by using electromagnetic waves to produce the microwaves.

    This is a solution that should be beneficial for many people. For instance, managers of wastewater treatment plants could potentially earn revenue by selling the biosolids instead of paying disposal fees for the material to be dumped to the landfills.

    It is a better strategy for the environment because when biosolids are deposited in landfills, the heavy metals seep into landfill leachate, which is then treated in wastewater treatment plants. The heavy metals thus move between wastewater treatment plants and landfills in an endless loop. This research breaks this cycle by separating the heavy metals from biosolids and recovering them. Farmers would also benefit from cheap organic fertilizers that could replace the chemical synthetic ones, conserving valuable resources and protecting the ecosystem.

    Is this the end? Not yet. So far we can only remove 50% of heavy metals but we hope to shift this to 80% with improved experimental designs. My team is currently conducting small laboratory and field experiments to explore whether our new strategy will work on a large scale. One lesson I would like to share with everyone: Be observant. For any problem, the solution may be just around you, in your home, your office, even in the appliances you are using.

    Biosolids after collection from a waste treatment facility.
    Gang Chen/FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, CC BY-SA

    [ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

    Gang Chen, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, FAMU-FSU College of Engineering

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.