Record rains complicate biosolids management on the Front Range

Flexibility among farmers and utilities crucial to success

For many farmers, the first half of 2023 will be remembered for extremes in precipitation. While snowmelt flooded thousands of acres in California’s Central Valley to bring back historic Lake Tulare, the Midwest’s Corn Belt endured a dry June and July. A bit further west, the Great Plains began to emerge from drought – but it was too late to stave off a poor wheat harvest. The Northeast endured devastating floods in July, and on Colorado’s Front Range, the rain kept coming.

In all instances, water resource recovery facilities have been impacted. But in Colorado, the saturated conditions have been especially challenging for biosolids management. Front Range utilities – serving the 5 million people who live between Fort Collins and Pueblo with wastewater treatment – often rely on land application. Fallow wheat agriculture provides a convenient outlet, since about half of the acres cultivated near the Front Range are unplanted (and therefore ready to accept biosolids) during any given year. But with fields saturated and crop schedules reshuffled, completing the nutrient cycle from city to farmer has been a more complicated endeavor.

“Getting all this rain has been a double-edged sword,” said Mike Scharp, Vice President of Sales and Environmental Services at Denali, a nationwide provider of biosolids management services. Scharp has worked with Colorado utilities and farmers for more than 20 years.

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On one hand, Colorado farmers saw some of the best crop growth in years and relief from more than a decade of drought. In July, Colorado corn growers were looking at the best corn crop in the U.S. With soils full of moisture, farmers made plans to plant much more ground in the fall.

On the other hand, saturated soils have made transportation and distribution of biosolids more difficult. Fields that became muddy in the spring hardly had a chance to dry out. Scharp and his team worked closely with farmers to find fields and identify access points so that trucks and tractors could apply biosolids as a fertilizer substitute while preventing damage to soft ground.

“It’s been a big balancing act,” Scharp said.

For smaller communities that rely on lagoons for wastewater treatment, the abundant precipitation has meant that dredging plans have been delayed, said Luke Bond, a senior environmental manager at Denali with more than 25 years of experience.

“For 95 percent of the time, it’s sunny, it’s nice in the summer,” Bond said. “But this summer has been exceptional.”

Lagoons in Colorado typically dewater through evaporation over the course of the summer so that, by July, there is significantly less water volume and therefore reduced transportation costs associated with lagoon cleanouts. Between days of rain, the water levels in lagoons on Colorado’s Eastern Plains have dropped. But returning rains have only filled them back up again.

“During years like this, experience and flexibility with logistics are critical,” Bond said. “Good relationships with agricultural producers, with biosolids generators – these things have seen us through.”

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Photo Caption: A Denali operator applies biosolids to a hay field near Denver. Unusually wet soil during the summer of 2023 meant that biosolids managers like Denali had to work closely with farmers to find access points for land application while preventing damage to fields.