Guest Blogger Lori Lilly
July 11th, 2023
My introduction to biochar came about 2018 from my colleague Paul Sturm who has his own nonprofit called Ridge to Reefs that does incredible work around the globe, especially on sensitive island ecosystems. I was kind of an “instant fan” of biochar, which later turned into a minor obsession. There are many fascinating attributes and applications of biochar and, for me, it enables a discussion of many complex environmental problems through one avenue – we can talk about soil health, carbon, nutrients, plant health, organic waste, stormwater runoff – all in one fell swoop!
Early on, I became aware of Dr. Paul Imhoff’s work on biochar at the University of Delaware. His research into the stormwater runoff reduction potential of biochar soil amendment was fascinating. He looked at the cost effectiveness of biochar soil amendment as a best management practice (BMP) and it showed to be really competitive for reasons such as being non-structural, it’s flexibility for applications, the ability to retain land use such as turf cover – Dr. Imhoff found that biochar soil amendment would cost less per impervious acre treated than 20-23 other BMPs such as bioretention and bioswales. Biochar soil amendment is particularly effective on road rights-of-way – it’s an excellent linear practice that optimally functions right at the edge of impervious and pervious cover (think about all the sidewalks and driveways!).
Around 2011, I became involved in flood issues in Ellicott City, MD, beginning with the development of a watershed plan for the Tiber Hudson watershed draining to Old Ellicott City (OEC). It was during the writing of that plan – like literally writing the plan – when I worked at the Center for Watershed Protection upstairs of the Wine Bin in OEC, that our first, of the most recent floods, occurred. The 2011 flood is lesser known than the two that came later in 2016 and 2018 but it is the flood that brought me into the community and in coordination with the County in various ways around Ellicott City and flooding.
As the County worked on addressing the runoff from impervious surfaces (along with a great many other factors that contributed to the floods), I wanted to know more about how we could engage private property owners in stormwater runoff reductions efforts and how we could reduce runoff from the 700 acres of turf grass in the watershed – hopefully all you readers out there are all quite familiar with how little ecosystem service benefit is provided by turf grass and especially how it fails in the realm of stormwater runoff reduction! I wondered – how could biochar soil amendment fit into the Ellicott City flooding equation and could we apply massive amounts of biochar to a BGE right of way that basically bisects the entire Tiber Hudson watershed and thereby reduce runoff without changing the land use?
Using funds from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant, I hired Dr. Imhoff and his graduate students to look at the runoff reduction potential of the soils in the Tiber Hudson watershed. The results were promising and akin to what he had observed on road rights of way in Delaware – saturated hydraulic connectivity increased by a factor of 2-10 in the two sets of test plots and infiltration increased by 34 – >95% compared to 20-40% in the control plots. You can read about the work on our website and see a presentation on our YouTube page.
My (and our) work has since continued its evolution. In 2022, we received an innovation grant from Howard County Government to look at the properties and effectiveness of kiln-produced biochars vs commercial biochar. Kelpie Wilson is a biochar advocate and producer in Oregon who I have come to admire. She makes her own biochar kilns, of which I currently now have two –I had her Oregon kiln design locally made by Bill Knapp in OEC and then I later purchased her Ring of Fire kiln. Due to the shape and properties of the kilns plus by starting the fire on top (unlike the Boy Scout method of starting the fire on the bottom, which we need to eliminate as a general practice), you are able to replicate the conditions needed to make a good biochar with high heat and no (or reduced in this case) oxygen.
Making biochar from local organic waste – esp. from things like INVASIVE SPECIES! – keeps the carbon on-site and, when mixed with soil, inactivates the carbon for hundreds of years while improving organic matter – many wins! My questions continue as I wanted to know how much of my company’s carbon offsets were achieved through our project implementation and then how much more offset we could achieve by integrating biochar into them.
Turns out, Howard EcoWorks carbon footprint is around 42.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year, mostly from employee commutes. Our restoration projects of rain gardens, conservation landscapes and tree plantings, offset our carbon footprint by 34%. By integrating biochar into those projects, we could reduce our carbon footprint by another 32%! Ideally I would’ve like to have known how the carbon footprint would differ between commercial biochar that needs to be shipped in from across state lines vs kiln-produced biochar made locally – but I had challenged my two interns enough with the exercise at this point 😊
In our continued partnership with Dr. Imhoff, we installed several test plots at Howard Community College – we had a control, one invasive feedstock char (privet), one native feedstock char (ash – abundant organic matter in the landscape due to emerald ash borer) and commercial char (Oregon Rogue biochar, which Dr. Imhoff has used in most of his projects). We found that our kiln-produced chars had bulk densities that were a little higher than the commercial char but still within a good range for healthy soil. We found that compaction decreased with all amendments over time, but were on par with tilling and no amendment. Compaction was the least at a depth of 30-50 cm with the privet char. which was on par with the commercial char. Unfortunately, biochar soil interactions take a longer timeframe than grants allow so further assessment of the biochars’ performance is on hold pending additional funding.
Current activities around biochar include the Center for Watershed Protection’s recently funded NFWF project to scale up applications around the Chesapeake Bay – definitely something to keep an eye on. The Chesapeake Bay Program held a Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee workshop at in May, 2023 regarding Using Carbon to Achieve Chesapeake Bay (and Watershed) Water Quality Goals and Climate Resiliency. More information can be found here. All in all, these are exciting times for biochar – for me it is THE winner (along with tree planting) to simultaneously address both stormwater and climate – but that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg! I encourage you to do your own research on biochar and, if you can, join me for a burn sometime!
Lori A. Lilly, CEP, CBLP, Founder & Executive Director at Howard EcoWorks
Lori Lilly is a natural resource management professional with an M.S. in Marine Estuarine and Environmental Science and over 15 years of cumulative experience in watershed planning and implementation, project management, water quality monitoring and grant writing. Lori founded Howard EcoWorks in 2016, to be a regional force for social and environmental change. EcoWorks engages and educates the community about environmental sustainability and restoration, while creating pathways to green jobs through workforce development programs.