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Valley turns Tahoe waste into green

Andy Bourelle

There is a saying in Douglas County – much like the Lake Tahoe-wide motto of helping to keep Tahoe blue – about keeping the Carson Valley green.

However, many people may not realize both efforts to preserve defining aspects of their communities complement each other.

Forest-reduction efforts designed to help the long-term clarity of Lake Tahoe indirectly lead to healthier, greener fields down at the bottom of the mountain range.



How? Compost.

A majority of the wood removed from the Tahoe Basin’s forests – which isn’t burned – is transported to Carson Valley, chipped, placed into windrows of compost and eventually spread on valley fields.



“Besides reducing fuel and fire danger, this material is valuable and can be used to replenish the soil,” said Jeanne Lear, recycling coordinator of South Tahoe Refuse. “The other alternatives are disposal in a landfill or stack and burn, which can hurt air quality.”

From June 1997 to June 1998, South Tahoe Refuse shipped more than 6,000 tons of wood – trees, stumps, yard waste, lumber and more – to Minden. About two truckloads a day go there, where Bently Biodynamics chips the wood for its own compost and for another operation, Full Circle Compost.

“We’re very fortunate to have a regional composting operation right next door,” Lear said.

About 90 percent of South Tahoe Refuse’s wood materials are taken down Kingsbury Grade for composting. The other 10 percent can be chipped up at the lake and used for construction projects – in place of hay – for temporary erosion control.

Logging and other refuse operations throughout the basin also transport wood materials to Minden to be used in the operations.

Composting is a natural process, where organic material is broken down. In nature, however, it can take up to 100 years. The composting operations can accomplish the same outcome in six weeks, breaking the material down into a soil-like product called humus.

Any organic material can be composted – hay, corn stalks, tree trimmings, grass clippings, pumpkins, onions, manure and trees from the Tahoe Basin – as long as there is a ratio of three parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen in the windrow.

“(Tahoe trees are) a good source of carbon that is close to the ranch,” said Frank Baggiolini, compost manager of Bently Biodynamics. “I think it’s beneficial to the basin, too. We’re up there trying to be a part of the solution, not the problem.”

Bently Biodynamics – an extension of Bently Agridynamics – composts on numerous Carson Valley sites, providing compost for its own farm land and for sale to other farms.

“Just in the year we’ve been applying it, we’ve seen a 30- to 40-percent increase in yield on our crops,” said Toni Compston, agriculture research and environmental administrator for Bently Agridynamics. “On some fields, it’s actually doubled.”

Craig Witt, owner of Full Circle Compost and Milky Way Farm, spreads compost on his own fields and provides it for residents who don’t need to buy it in bulk.

According to Witt, there has been a farming trend in recent years of avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers and relying more on organic material.

In one handful of healthy soil, Witt said, there are more living organisms than there are people on Earth. Chemical fertilizers produce plant growth, but not necessarily healthy growth. Using compost increases the soil’s health, helping to create more sustainable farming.

While the compost operations help the Valley, they benefit the Tahoe Basin at the same time – and likely will be more of a benefit in the future.

Because of the strong need to have native plants around Lake Tahoe, Witt said he is working on a compost “recipe,” utilizing only Lake Tahoe materials.

“There is a huge opportunity to work with the players in the Tahoe Basin,” Witt said. “I hope next year to have some sack compost that can be used up there.”

While compost can benefit Tahoe soil, Witt said, “designer compost” would be even better for Tahoe. The compost could be used for a wide range of projects, from residential yards to helping avoid erosion in a large stream-stabilization project.

“It makes sense to have what I call ‘Tahoe compost,'” Witt said. “In a natural environment and fragile ecosystem like the Tahoe Basin where part of the problem is the human element, using biosolids in a mulch – is that good? If we use natural material from the Tahoe Basin for compost that goes back into the Tahoe Basin, that just makes sense. That’s designer compost.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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