Blacktail Permaculture makes it happen

It’s one thing to learn about the work of pioneers like Paul Stamets and John Todd and get all excited about their vision of the 21st century. It’s quite another to roll your sleeves up and actually start putting that vision into action. But that’s just what my buddies at the Blacktail Permaculture farm are on well on their way to doing. Situated on plot just outside of Denver, the Blacktail crew recently submitted a grant to use fungi to filter polluted groundwater and restore the native tallgrass prarie ecosystem. While grants don’t tend to read all that interestingly, this one happens to packed with verdy tidbits about the science of regeneration. Read on for the full text.

Mycorestorative Aquaculture for Wetland Habitat Creation, Biotic Augmentation and Groundwater Recharge

Introduction

It is uncommon to see landscape elements within the Great Plains’ ecosystems harbor as much functionality as the sparse, yet absolutely essential, mosaics of the wetland. Not only do the plains wetland habitats of the United States biologically function to support the ecosystem’s need to provide a prodigious amount of diverse food sources for top predators like raptors, bald eagles, and coyotes in the prairie food web, alongside massive support for the food needs of all functional animal, plant, and microbial life in a holistic and healthy prairie ecosystem (Ghabo), but wetlands have repeatedly been shown as a buffer and biological mechanism to neutralize and integrate excess nitrates and phosphates that left to their own devices would be toxins and pollutants (Brix; Ullah). It is fundamental to prairie health and stability to have available the vast diversity of organisms proffered by the wetland mosaics which dot the landscape of North America’s short grass prairie and requisite for the purity of our groundwaters. As such, it is exigent that restoration projects make sure first and foremost wetland resources are pristine and unadulterated.

Unfortunately, wetland habitats at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) have been overloaded, and then compromised due to excessive contamination from on-post industrial use. There is a potential 434 acres of wetlands at the RMA that are not operating to their full capabilities in an ecological sense. It is our desire and intention to restore the services lost at the RMA’s wetlands by designing and constructing a series of off-post wetland ponds while simultaneously experimenting with and utilizing a novel low-cost mycorestorative1 technology to further draw-out and metabolize nitrates and phosphates present in pumped groundwater, before the groundwater is returned to its original aquifers by slow percolation.

The ecological restorative effects are expected to last into perpetuity and only advance in their robust support due to the nature of the project. We intend generally to set the stage for the ecosystem to operate autonomously and to “do its magic”, if you will, with a little successionary direction provided in the beginning stages of the biological networking. Maintenance will occur every now-and-again as the context demands throughout the decades. This maintenance will be described more fully in the succeeding Description of Proposed Work. We are fully confident in the success of the project partly due to the fact that the ponds’ setting will remain within the micro-community of a fully organic farm dedicated to an ethic of “healing the Earth” and absolutely committed to the non-use of inorganic biocides.

Additionally, siting could hardly be better for the development of these constructed wetlands. The proposed site is a little less than 3 miles away from the RMA itself and about 1 mile away from the tributary waters of the South Platte River and its rich riparian habitats (see figure 1). Wetlands built at our proposed site will be a connective ecological corridor between the RMA and the Platte River. The benefits of such an ecological asset may be untold as stress for migrating wetland and wetland dependent creatures could be drastically reduced, effectively increasing survival rates among these creatures.

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Figure 1: Adapted from NRTSC page 3-25

“Figure 3.7. Extent of detectable DIMP in shallow groundwater in 1994, according to USGS (1997).”

Background

Given the contamination at the RMA and its concomitant soil and water resources, generally high-tech solutions have been applied to ameliorate and contain resource damages to on and off-post sites. These solutions have ranged from the establishment of groundwater intercept and treatment facilities to the mixing of contaminated topsoils with uncontaminated soils to decrease concentrations of contaminants at the Arsenal. Despite the absolute importance that these mitigation efforts continue until clean-up is fully accomplished, the affected biotic habitats at the RMA need immediate attention for restoration and reestablishment.

Aquatic habitats at the RMA have shown concentrations of contaminants in their sediments, which have “exceeded benchmark levels that indicate the probability of adverse effects on aquatic biota” (NRTSC). It is quite likely these wetland habitats are not fulfilling their potential capacities as spaces for buttressing maximum biodiversity and biofiltration functions. The construction of new wetland habitats will provide a healthy space for aquatic biota to fully realize its ecological potential and such an effort will offset damage done to wetland habitat at the RMA.

It is fully expected (according with the current ecological theories of a shifting-mosaic steady state) once wetland habitats are built and established in the proposed site that the service flows to the biotic community will swiftly accumulate as ecological succession proceeds in its aggradation stage2. Maximum ecological function will be realized when the net primary productivity3 (NPP) of the constructed wetlands is at its highest and when the successionary stage of this mico-system interfaces aggregation phase to its transition phase4 (Jacke) (figure 2). The NPP of the system may be managed to continuously remain at this interface in order to maintain maximum biodiversity and biofiltrative function. This management may take the form of simply cutting back or collecting certain wetland species and algaes, which have a propensity to “take over”, thereby making room for other plant species in the wetlands micro-system. We are confident the maintenance will occur with little or no outside impetus due to the fact that these cuttings are considered a resource to the organic farm in the form of mulch. Farm Staff will be trained as the years pass to assure proper harvesting technique is practiced as not to diminish delicate, established biodiversity. This knowledge will be passed along as different human stewards engage the site.

“The four phases of secondary succession as defined by Bormann and Likens include reorganization, aggradation, transition, and steady state. Each is defined by the behavior of the system with respect to the levels of biomass in the ecosystem. Adapted from Bormann and Likens, 1979.” -Adapted from Jacke 2005

We also expect groundwater quality to significantly restore to baseline conditions as it first passes through a mycorestorative channel and then as it processes in the wetlands proper. This process will give a two-fold framework to directly benefit groundwater that remains within the detectable DIMP plume of the shallow groundwater originating from the RMA (NRTSC, Page 3-25) (Figure 1).

Mycorestoration is a recently identified phenomenon, which is described as the use of fungi to repair or restore the weakened immune systems of environments (Stamets). The use of mushroom mycelia as tools for ecological restoration is a new concept that we borrow from age-old methods of nature. Certain mycelia have the unique property of being able to breakdown and metabolize the most pernicious substances of chemical warfare agents and biological warfare agents and they are able to neutralize and predate microbial pathogens found in water around large factory farms (Stamets). This discovered use will prove to be invaluable in our restoration efforts as we pump groundwater and run that water through a concrete channel mycofilter, able to snugly fit straw bales inoculated with Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom) and Trametes versicolor (turkey tail mushroom); both being fungi that are effective in the metabolisis of persistent organophosphates.

The combination of mycofilters to constructed wetlands will significantly help restore groundwater resources to baseline conditions, and this precisely is the novel approach we hope to implement. Active groundwater resource improvement will accumulate as water is passed in this schema and returns by slow percolation back into the aquifers. Ecological improvement will be accomplished because the constructed wetlands will support a rich biodiversity and augmented intraspecial numbers.

Description of Proposed Work

The implementation of the constructed wetlands will take on a four-phase program. The first phase is the actual design work that will incorporate the integration of several consultary sources, the coordination of excavators, well drillers and wind/solar pump builders, and the networking of farm volunteer and staff for on-site construction. This first phase may also stage acquisition of increased water rights and other legal framework parameters. Phase two will be on site construction of the wetlands. This phase will begin with the excavation, proceed with compacting and lining the pond wetlands with clay sealants, and finish with the well drilling. Construction of the wind-solar pump apparatus and the construction of the concrete mycofilter will swiftly succeed well drilling. The pond wetlands will then be ready to receive water. Phase three will be stocking the filled pond wetlands with the appropriate native aquatic species. And phase four will be the ongoing maintenance work to direct the ecological succession of the wetland to maximize biodiversity and net primary productivity.

Phase One: design and coordination

Fortunately, reliable literature is abundant in consulting for the specifics and nuances of wetland construction. Namely, the United States Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Natural Resources Conservation Service has published a valuable book entitled “Ponds – Planning, Design, Construction”, which we plan to draw immense reference from as we develop the wetlands. Other literature with invaluable information for pond mechanics, biology, and ecology include “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”, “Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds”, and “Ecological Aquaculture: A Sustainable Solution”.  We also have close associates worldwide and nationally in the sustainability, permaculture, and ecological restoration movements who have provided and will again provide information, critique, and advice as to troubleshooting in the development process of the wetland construction.

For the construction and design of the mycofilter, we would like to allocate funds towards the vis-à-vis consultary services of Paul Stamets. Paul is the premier source for consulting in this new field of mycorestoration, and has had successful consultary relationships with the Battelle Corporation, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the US Department of Defense in matters regarding the mycoremediation of oil spills and chemical weapons clean up. He runs the company Fungi Perfecti and has been a dedicated mycologist for more than thirty years.

This beginning stage will be when we compile numerous company background checks, quality assessments, and quote fishing for completing the multiple tasks we require to successfully build wetlands. We will screen and interview competing companies under the rubric of quality work done and cost-effectiveness. The matching companies will be able to align themselves with the principles put forth for ecological restoration and will have good communication with us to complete the project correctly. The process may also entail a survey for appropriation of additional water rights. After a survey has been completed on the market we will purchase rights for the augmentation of water flow in the constructed wetlands.

The site residents at the farm intend to invest large amounts of sweat equity on the wetlands’ construction until the project is complete. We also have at hand an extensive network of interested volunteers who have expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of helping in the wetlands’ development; in whatever roles this help might be needed. We will need some money to cover labor of more arduous tasks such as clay tamping, shovel digging, concrete work or biotic placement.

Phase Two: wetland construction

As soon as the design details are reconciled, the construction contractors are hired, and the materials needed are appropriated, we will begin the construction of the wetlands. The first activity will be the design map extrapolation, survey set and excavation of the wetland ponds. We plan on a total sum of wetland habitat taking a space of about two acres and going as deep as twelve feet. We foresee the pond wetlands consisting in two differentiated spaces at the proposed site. In other words, we want to make two separate pond wetland spaces each requiring their own separate water well sources. This method may provide experimental control for separate habitat development between the two wetland ponds and may also provide a degree of experimental control for the mycofiltrative element. For practical purposes, the two separate wetland ponds would be of such distance from one another that it would be easiest to provide them both with their own water sources. The benefits of having separate wetlands will also benefit the surrounding prairie ecosystem as a micro-corridor would be created, providing the prairie fauna with a food source in the form of migrating insects. When the land is excavated we will move into compacting and lining the pond wetlands with clay to diminish extravagant water loss due to seepage. Simultaneously, we will add large boulders in strategic places of the wetlands to gather thermal energy, which will buffer annual temperature extremes and provide friendlier water for spawning aquatic life.

Once the topographic excavation and finishing of the pond-wetlands is complete we will begin well drilling to the subsurface Arapahoe aquifer for one pond-wetland, followed by hired construction of the solar-wind water pumps for both pond-wetlands. The solar-wind pump combination is chosen as opposed to a conventional on-grid electric pump because the overall life of this pump will have less of a net ecological footprint, translating into more overall cost-efficiency. We request two separate solar-wind pumps to use in drawing water. One pump will be used in the newly dug well and another pump will be used to draw water from a pre-existing on-site well.

Mycofilters will be placed at each pond-wetland, connecting the pump to the pond proper. As water is pumped it will first flow through the mycofilter before it pours into the pond. This is done to compartmentalize the fungal mode of water quality restoration, easily monitored by chemical analysis before and after entrance to the mycofilter. Essentially the mycofilter we will build is a concrete corridor made to snugly fit one or more straw bales inoculated and colonized by specifically chosen mycelia. These mycelia are selected for their capacities to metabolize certain molecular constituents. We will use Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushroom) and Trametes versicolor (turkey tail mushroom) whose additive metabolism has been shown to sequester and break down into inert compounds anthracenes, benzopyrenes, chromated copper arsenate, dimethyl methyl phosphonate (VX, Soman, Sarin), dioxin, persistent organophosphates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pentachlorophenols (PENTAs), and trinitrotoluene (TNT) (Stamets, P.).

The straw bales are easily inoculated and have tolerable maintenance whose human agents are fully capable of replacing and renewing as years pass. The sterile technique used to inoculate the strawbales will proceed with a 55-gallon metal barrel able to fit a straw bale with a propane burner under the barrel. The barrel will be filled with water, the water will be brought to a boil and the strawbale to be inoculated will then be added to the barrel. After a few minutes of sitting in the boiling water within the barrel, the bale will be pulled out and allowed to cool to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Grain spawn of Trametes or Pleurotus will then be added to the interstice of the bale and the bale will be set-aside for two weeks covered with shade cloth and watered daily to induce mycelial colonization of the straw. After the two-week period the colonized bale will be added to the concrete channel of the mycofilter. Sterilizing the bale is important to give the desired fungi a head start over unwanted competing fungi from colonizing the bale. Each bale will only be inoculated with one species of fungi so as to encourage Trametes and Pleurotus not to compete with one another in niche establishment.

An interesting experimental field for State control and monitoring might be to see if groundwater pumped has less DIMP concentration in exiting water as opposed to water entering the mycofilter. A very attractive aspect of the mycofilter’s character is how relatively inexpensive and accessible it is compared to the highly technical mechanical filters employed in various groundwater pumping sites today, making this appropriate technology available to wide skill-set of the populous. Also, since Pleurotus and Trametes both metabolize otherwise toxic substances into inert compounds, they may be used to beneficially feed other organisms in the wetland ecosystem without otherwise attritive effects of the un-metabolized groundwater toxins.

As soon as the pond-wetland structures are made, the pumps built and active, and the mycofilters in place and ready to operate, we will begin pumping water to fill the ponds. Currently Reisbeck Subdivision has state water rights whose waters may be used to fill these ponds. However, there currently is also a demand by the farm to use the water pumped in irrigating its vegetables and orchard crops. Since some of this water has to be used to irrigate farm products, there may potentially be a retraction of possible wetland habitat acreage. We are very much interested in working with the State to augment the annual amount of water Reisbeck Subdivision would be permitted to pump in order to maintain maximum water volume in the constructed wetlands. This may take the form of acquisition of additional water rights. Maybe allocation release from the RMA’s institutionally controlled water quantity may be used to fill these wetlands too. Nonetheless, any augmented water pumping would be left altogether in the pond to support the wetlands’ habitat. It would only be released via infiltration to once again return, albeit purified and restored, to the Arapahoe aquifer from which it came.

Phase Three: wetland stocking

As soon as the constructed wetlands are filled with water, we will begin the procedure of stocking the wetland-ponds with native flora and fauna. Much of the plant starts will come from seed we acquire from the Western Native Seed Company (http://www.westernnativeseed.com/) who provide dozens of wetland species seed for the short-grass prairie biome. Much of the stocking of fauna for the wetland will be left to natural migratory niche acquisition of various organisms. We will communicate with the fellows of the Wetland Program Services of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources on how to acquire or attract non-plant keystone species. We expect these habitats to dynamically move and succeed such that we will need to consistently observe what organisms are left out of particular niches. We expect our conversations with local wetland biologist to enlighten us on what habitat guilds function symbiotically with one another to maximize compositional, functional and bio diversity.

Phase Four: ongoing maintenance

It is fully expected that after the construction and initial stocking of the mycorestorative wetland ponds that the system will require very little outside maintenance. Healthy ecosystems have the phenomenal characteristic of being self-supportive and regenerative, and we intend precisely to create such an autonomous habitat. However there are a few facilities in the habitat we identify we would need to help maintain. These primarily are relegated to technological mechanical issues.

We will need to perform routine annual check-ups of the wind-solar pumps to make sure they are pumping an acceptable volume of water each season. This may require outside specialist attention for the first couple of years, but the burden will happily impart to the farm’s staff as that staff becomes acquainted with the equipment. There may be years when pump equipment fails and needs to be replaced, so we would like to allocate funds keeping this in mind. Additional forums of routine maintenance will include annual or bi-annual changeout of inoculated straw bales in the mycofilter. The straw being the substrate to which the mycelia adheres to eventually breaks down due to the eating activity of the mycelia. This maintenance is completed easily enough and will need no outside help starting from day one.

There are several areas we have identified which would benefit from active State monitoring and partnership. First, it would be desirable to coordinate with State authorities knowledgeable with wetland ecosystem dynamics that could provide advice in needed habitat management for maximizing biodiversity and guild arrangements. Secondly, it would be very valuable to work with State authorities in assaying water quality in both pre and post-wetland restoration. This would include water quality assessment between the elements of the mycofilter-aquaculture arrangement itself. Lastly, it would be useful to work with State authorities in accessing relative ecosystem health and biodiversity compared to other wetland ecosystems in the bioregion

References:

Ghabo, A. A. (2007) Wetlands Characterization; Use by Local Communities and Role in Supporting Biodiversity in the Semiarid Ijara District, Kenya. Terra Nuova East Africa.

Brix, Hans. (1994) Use of constructed wetlands in water pollution control: Historical development, present status, and future perspectives. Wat. Sci. Tech. Vol. 30 No. 8. pp. 209 – 223.

Ullah, S; Faulkner, SP. (2006) Denitrification potential of different land-use types in an agricultural watershed, lower Mississippi valley. ECOLOGICAL ENGINEERING 28 (2): 131-140.

Natural Resource Trustees for the State of Colorado. (2007) Natural Resource Damage Assessment Plan for the Rocky Mountain Arsena, Commerce City, Colorado.

Jacke, D; Toensmeier, E. (2005) Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction. pg.239-290.

Stamets, Paul (2005) Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley. pg. 50-64, 82-109.

United States Department of Agriculture. (2000) Ponds – Planning, Design, Construction. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Agriculture Handbook Number 590.

Mollison, B. (1988) Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tagari Publications. Tyalgum Australia. pg. 458-505.

Ludwig, A. (2005) Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds. Oasis Design. Santa Barbara.

Hutchinson, L. (2005) Ecological Aquaculture: A Sustainable Solution. Permanent Publications. Hampshire, England.

An Extended Definition of Wetlands and the Impact of the Loss of Wetlands http://www.articlemyriad.com/37.htm

Hong-yu, L. (2000). Landscape planning and ecology construction of wetland comprehensive protected area system in the Sanjiang Plain. Journal of Environmental Sciences, 12(3), 361.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (1995b) America’s wetlands: Our vital link between land and water. Office of Water, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. EPA843-K-95-001.

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