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Ellicott City - Soak It Up – Part 3 – By, Lori Lilly

posted Jun 18, 2019, 12:41 PM by Howard Ecoworks   [ updated Jun 27, 2019, 5:05 AM ]

Did you miss Part 1, Soak It Up event highlights?  Find it HERE.


Did you miss Part 2 too, on watershed tours?  Find it HERE.


Part 3 of this blog series took longer to get to than anticipated!  I’m going to jump right into biochar and save the discussion on Tour #3, which revolves around individual stewardship, for blog #4, the last blog, which will cover resiliency.


Where to start with biochar…


Well, my preference is to first broaden the discussion from biochar to soil health in general for a few reasons…

  1. I’m finding that when I talk about biochar, extreme reactions are the result.  It’s like folks will immediately get excited and ready to be part of this be-all-end-all strategy for saving the world OR they are turned off, skeptical and dubious about biochar itself and whoever is delivering the message.  Of course, as usual, we are looking for the middle ground here.
  2. We’re talking about biochar because we have this bigger problem with our soils – they are degraded, compacted and generally unhealthy.  Biochar is one of many strategies that can be used to improve soil health.  Biochar, being relatively new as a discussion point yet ancient in actual practice, is providing a vehicle for elevating the discussion of real underlying issues with our soil.
  3. Soil doesn’t get enough attention.  If you’re in agriculture, soil gets all kinds of attention but for some reason, it seems lost on the rest of us in the conservation field in terms of its importance to ecosystem services, including rainwater infiltration, carbon sequestration and stormwater runoff reduction.  We forgot what we learned in elementary school, which is that soil is a non-renewable resource – once it’s gone, it’s gone for pretty much good.
  4. Soil organic carbon and the potential for carbon sequestration in soil is a very real thing, just like climate change.  Some facts:

Here is a graphic to remind you of the carbon cycle.  We have emissions and plant and animal respiration putting carbon dioxide into the air, we have photosynthesis binding up carbon in plants, we have decay and decomposition putting carbon into the soil and we have carbon dioxide dissolving on the ocean’s surface where the majority eventually ends up in the deep ocean.

Probably good to take a second at this point to define biochar, oops!…Biochar is a charcoal material formed by combusting waste organic matter in an oxygen-limited environment. Biochar has high internal porosity and low particle density that facilitates increased infiltration.  Ongoing research at the University of Delaware shows that amending wood-derived biochar to a roadway soil that was initially classified in Hydrologic Soil Group B moved the soil into Hydrologic Soil Group A.  With this change, stormwater runoff volume was reduced by 88% on average for 84 storm events over 1.5 years of testing.  Biochar can be made from many different types of organic feedstock and therefore can have variable properties that are also dependent on the process used to make it. 


Biochar has been used in agriculturefor 2,500 years.  Research is ongoing with regards to the many environmental benefits associated with biochar.  Two leading national and international sources of information on biochar include the US Biochar Initiative and the International Biochar Initiative.  The USDA has also conducted a lot of research on biochar, HERE is a sample.   Take a second to check out this graphic illustrating how biochar ties into the carboncycle.  If the pyrolysis process is used to create other energy products such as bio-oil or syn-gas, then we can see up to 50% less return of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with that same amount of carbon sequestered in the soil.



My own interest in biochar was spurred by the UDel research referenced above.  That is an amazing runoff reduction and indicates the potential for a very cost effective practice simply by amending soil.  What are the implications on a watershed scale?  What are the implications for the Tiber Hudson watershed?  What if we could take the 800 acres of grass land cover in the watershed and amend it with biochar – how much runoff reduction could we expect to see and how would that cost compare to other proposed strategies?  Seems worth exploring if you ask me.  And that’s why we amended a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant that we have for the Soak It Up campaign to support additional research on biochar with UDel in the Tiber Hudson watershed.  Our research plots are on two different soil types in the watershed – silt loam at St. Peter’s Church and loam at Slack Funeral Home.  This research project will continue for another 6 months or so and then we will share results. 


So biochar can help to reduce stormwater runoff volumes and water quality pollution, but it can also be a strategy for carbon sequestration, increasing soil organic carbon and generally improving soil health.  Problem is, it’s not very available as of yet.  Production is not happening in MD.  But as stated earlier, it is an ancient practice and we can in fact make it ourselves!   I have been experimenting with making biochar in kiln that I had commissioned by Bill Knapp of Bill Knapp Arts:  This was fashioned by designs that are available from a woman named Kelpie Wilson from Oregon who is really taking biochar to new levels:   My friends Paul and Phal at Ridge to Reefs have been supporting me in these efforts while doing all kinds of incredible work around the globe with biochar.  

Some fun things about making your own biochar:

      • It’s a great past-time in cooler months and a wonderful way to bring people together (especially when beer  and bagpipes are involved).  Everyone, whether they participated or not, feels like they were part of something productive and bigger than themselves.
      • It’s definitely a more active process than sitting back and watching the fire turn the wood to ash.  We may not have figured the process out entirely yet and may be working too hard to get good coals before we douse them with water but, still, expect to be more active.
      • The fire is started on top of the wood, which kind of throws the whole boy-scout philosophy of starting the fire on the bottom on its head.  But in this way, a better draft and less smoke is created.  Even if you’re not making biochar, this seems like a best practice that any outdoor-loving enviro can take on.
      • You’ll need something to put the biochar in.  I’ve used burlap bags that can hold up to 10 gallons and still be tossed over the shoulder – only problem is if the biochar is still wet or moist when put in the bags, they can get moldy.  The Phoenix has loads of 5 gallon buckets that have been working pretty well 😊


I’ll be having more backyard biochar burns starting this fall.  Meantime, we are also looking to add commercial grade biochar to our rain garden/biortention soil mix for our summer construction projects at about 5% by volume.  We are also generally looking for more ways and opportunities to get carbon into the ground, be it in the form of wood chips, compost and/or biochar.  One technique that we are interested in trying, is adding a layer of wood chips as shown in the graphic below to facilitate the denitrification process.  If we use this model that includes compost and biochar in the soil mix (“sand layer”) and wood chips on the bottom, we will have added three sources of carbon to the practice that will degrade at different times from a couple years to a couple hundred years and, ideally, enhance the overall functionality and ecosystem service benefit of the project.


When we talk about getting carbon into the soil, it enables us to re-think our waste streams.  The Alpha Ridge Landfill has so much organic wood waste- from slash piles to mulch to wood chips- that the County has a hard time moving.  Instead of letting this decompose and get back into the atmosphere, how can we bury it so it becomes part of the soil carbon pool?  Better yet, how we can use it to produce biochar and sequester that carbon in the ground for hundreds of years while also filtering contaminants from stormwater and reducing overall runoff volumes?  So far, I haven’t been successful getting the County to move on this, and certainly production at the landfill is out of the question.  They have also recently invested heavily in compost operations so may not like to hear that compost leaches nutrients but a blend of compost with biochar could be ideal for some applications.  In any case, there are existing mandates for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.  It seems carbon management is or at least should be right around the corner - how can we start embracing local carbon management strategies as a contribution that we can make here locally to climate change?

Stay tuned for the last in this blog series - we'll be visiting Resiliency.