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Thursday, May 26,2011

Clean acres

State, county crack down on fertilizing fields with sewage

By Jefferson Dodge
After an outcry last spring about possible threats to local water quality, Boulder County officials have been keeping a closer eye on the use of biosolids, or treated human sewage, on open space farmland.

The move was prompted in part by a local whistleblower’s concerns and a Boulder Weekly article regarding the effect that such natural fertilizers can have in areas where the water table is high.

And while the battle over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) will likely take the spotlight this year as an advisory group reviews the county’s cropland policy, the use of biosolids is expected to be on that committee’s radar, as well.

• • • •

State environmental protection specialist Kenan Diker, the person who issues permits to Colorado farmers who want to use biosolids, acknowledges that the stink raised by Boulder County resident Elvis Licul has prompted him and county officials to regulate biosolids more closely.

As documented in a March 18, 2010, Boulder Weekly story that won a third-place award in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest, Licul initially became concerned about biosolids due to the stench from farms adjacent to his property northwest of Longmont. After looking into the matter, he found research indicating that health problems have been reported in areas where biosolids were used, including claims of infants getting “blue baby syndrome” due to ingesting excessive nitrates in drinking water. According to test results acquired by Licul, the list of metals found in biosolids includes arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium.

State regulations prohibit biosolids from being applied to lands where the water table is within five feet of the surface. Over the past couple of years, Licul has identified several farming areas where wetlands and other obvious signs indicate that the water table is higher than the five-foot threshold, and as a result, the use of biosolids has been suspended on hundreds of acres of county open space.

Licul also pointed out last spring that the depth of the water table can vary by as much as seven feet on his own property between the winter and summer months, so he questioned why water depth is sometimes measured in the winter, when it is lowest. His complaints have prompted state and county officials to begin performing depth measurements in the summer, when irrigation and runoff can raise the water level.

County Water Quality Program Coordinator Mark Williams told Boulder Weekly it is now standard operating procedure to measure water depth in the summer before biosolid application is approved in areas where there is any question whether groundwater approaches the five-foot mark. (In some areas of Colorado, the aquifer can be as deep as 150 feet below the surface.) The same approach is implied, if not explicitly spelled out, in state regulations on biosolid use, which say that no one can apply the human waste in areas where the “annual high groundwater table” is within five feet of the surface.

• • • •

While it no longer smells like sewage at his property, Licul is not done. He wonders why a novice like himself was able to find maps with wetlands and high water depths clearly marked near areas where biosolids application had been approved.

“Why didn’t [Parks and Open Space Director] Ron Stewart find that map?” he asks. “Why did I find it?” Licul also questions the accountability in an approval process that seems to be circular because it appears to pass responsibility from the state to the county to the applicator and back again.

“I get the feeling that, in 40 years, we’ll be saying, ‘Can you believe we used to spread this on land where we grow our food?’” he says.

Short of an outright ban on biosolids on taxpayer-funded open space in Boulder County, Licul now wants the new practice of measuring water table depth in the summer put into written regulations, because if it’s not in writing, the practice might be discontinued when the people in those regulatory positions change.

Guidance on biosolids could be put into writing when the county’s new cropland policy is developed. A group of farmers and other citizens serving on a new Cropland Policy Advisory Group (CPAG) is in the midst of a months-long examination of such issues. Jesse Rounds, the natural resource planner with Boulder County Parks and Open Space who is serving as administrator to CPAG, says that group is expected to discuss biosolids at its July 6 meeting.

Licul’s insistence has resulted in at least one written agreement, between the county and biosolids applicator Liquid Waste Management. The agreement stipulates that the highly diluted sewage water will not be applied to the Warner open space parcel until groundwater depth is measured during the irrigation season.

“I’m not against the farmers, or Liquid Waste Management,” Licul says, “but what do we have in Colorado if we don’t have clean water?”

• • • •

Licul’s concerns prompted Diker and county officials to personally visit the half-dozen Boulder County open space properties in question last summer.

The county officials on the June 28 site visit included Williams and David Bell, agricultural resource manager for Parks and Open Space. Bell told Boulder Weekly that of the county’s 98,000 acres of open space, farming is allowed on about 25,000 acres. And only six properties totaling about 1,200 acres have received state permits for biosolids. (There are about 26 other private properties where their use has been authorized by the state.)

According to Bell, those six open space parcels are the Warner, Stinn, Darby, Alberta Clark, Faul and Craig properties. As a result of the recent increased scrutiny, only about 312 of those 1,200 acres have been cleared by the state and county for biosolids application.

In the case of Warner, biosolids won’t be authorized until Liquid Waste Management takes a summer reading of the water table. Bell says the state has not reissued permits for the Stinn and Alberta Clark properties, and only about half of the Darby site has been authorized for biosolids application, in a high area where there is no irrigation. The Faul property, where the water table has been measured at 7.3 feet, is being converted to an organic farming area, so no biosolids are being used there. But the same farmer who is using Faul for organic farming has gotten the green light to use biosolids at the Craig site, which Bell says is high land with no summer irrigation. (Farmers can grow several crops on land without irrigation, including winter wheat, dryland corn, dryland barley and dryland sunflowers, according to Bell.)

• • • •

One question that Licul still asks is whether the county has financial motivation to lease open space land to farmers — and whether restricting the use of biosolids puts a damper on that side business.

Bell says the county generates about $1.2 million a year by leasing open space land to farmers, but it’s no cash cow, since nearly $1 million of that is spent annually on maintaining those grounds and their fences, gates, irrigation and related expenses.

Licul also questions why, in an age when organic farming is on the rise, the county would allow a practice that precludes the use of land for that purpose for three years — the amount of time a farmer must wait after applying biosolids or chemical fertilizers before being able to gain certification as an organic farm. And he wonders why the county doesn’t exert any control over its conservation easements where biosolids are applied.

According to Bell, the county has no agricultural rights associated with those easements, only development rights. In other words, the county can keep those lands from being developed, but has no say on how they are farmed.

But it looks like Licul will at least get the summer water-table measurement in writing at the county level.

Bell says his office is creating a standing operating procedures manual in which that will be included.

Licul still wonders, however, how the much more controversial GMOs will be regulated, in light of the lapses he’s seen in the regulation of biosolids.

After all, he says, this is open space land paid for by the county’s taxpayers, and the citizens should have some say in how it is used.

“This belongs to the people of Boulder County, not to Ron Stewart or the farmers,” he says. “Do the people of Boulder County want this on there?”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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