Piedra River: Say hello to Chimney Rock Farms #ColoradoRiver

April 15, 2014
Chimney Rock Farms photo via the Cortez Journal

Chimney Rock Farms photo via the Cortez Journal

From the Cortez Journal (Mary Shinn):

At Chimney Rock Farms on the Piedra River, Brewer has built two commercial-scale aquaponic greenhouses that house fish tanks and thousands of square feet of troughs where kale, lettuce and tot soy float on a foot of water in rafts from seed to harvest.

“We’re pioneering this, no doubt,” said Brewer. He said that the operation, located 6,600 feet above sea level, is the largest commercial aquaponics farm venture in Colorado.

Brewer plans to supply new Southwest Farm Fresh, A Farm and Ranch Cooperative, which was started in Montezuma County. He also plans to supply the Pagosa Springs farmers market, his Community Supported Agriculture membership, organic grocery stores and restaurants.

In March, the operation had already been supplying a grocery store for three weeks.

In the aquaponic environment, the greens mature in six weeks, which allows him to provide custom mixes of greens and meet demand quickly.

“It’s revolutionary for us,” he said.

In addition to greens, his tilapia – the “aquaponic” aspect of the hydroponic system – can also be sold. Brewer may sell the fish whole on ice at farmers markets, but they are not his main focus.

How it works

In the most basic terms, fish poop feeds plants. In technical terms, the tilapia excrete ammonia. Bacteria break the ammonia down into nitrites and then into nitrates, which feed the plants. The plant roots filter the water, and the water is pumped back to the fish.

The tilapia can’t be kept with the plants because they’d eat the roots. But very small mosquito fish clean the roots and fend off potential mosquitoes.

The seeds are germinated in soil, and the fish-fertilized water flows beneath. As the plants mature, they are transferred into rafts that allow for more space and push down the trough. This system reduces man hours and eliminates all weeds.

“We were spending 60 percent of the time to produce a leafy green, weeding our beds,” he said. To harvest, the roots just need to be trimmed off.

It is also very efficient in terms of water. Aquaponic systems use less than 5 percent of the water of traditional agriculture, Brewer said.

“This is a good fit for us in the desert Southwest,” Brewer said.

As green as possible

Brewer was looking for ways to grow year round, but the inefficiencies of a greenhouse held him back.

“Heating traditional greenhouses with fossil fuels – propane and natural gas – is a very, very tough way to make a living,” he said.

In his newly built greenhouses, the water is heated by solar panels, and a wood boiler. This allows him to grow when temperatures are below freezing outside. He also uses solar panels to power air and water pumps, and grow lights. The solar panels allow him to put electricity back into the grid, and his monthly electricity bill has dropped from more than $600 to just $16.

In the new greenhouses, he hopes to grow from mid-February through Thanksgiving.

He expects that he will make back his investment in his capital improvements in five to six years.

It was important to him to reduce his use of fossil fuels because they are limited resource and their ballooning costs can cut into thin farm profit margins.

“As a farmer, your margins are too thin to rely on fossil fuel costs as a line item,” Brewer said…

“Hopefully, we can prove the economic viability of this such that other people are willing to take the capital intensive risk to build a system like this to grow local food,” he said.

More San Juan Basin coverage here.


Colorado Water 2012: A look at the basins of Southwestern Colorado

October 31, 2012

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Here’s the latest installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series, written by Bruce Whitehead. Here’s an excerpt:

Southwestern Colorado’s rivers are unique in that many of the rivers and tributaries flow from north to south and are administered as independent river systems.

This is due to the fact that many, such as the Navajo, Blanco, Piedra, Pine, Florida, Animas, La Plata, and Mancos Rivers, are tributary to the San Juan River in New Mexico or just upstream of the state line. The Dolores River flows from north to south, but makes a “U-turn” near Cortez and heads back to the northwest and joins the Colorado River in Utah. The San Miguel River originates just above Telluride, and flows to the west where it joins the Dolores River just above the Colorado-Utah state line.

The southwest basin has many areas that are under strict water rights administration on a regular basis, but there is still water available for appropriation and development pursuant to Colorado’s Constitution and the Colorado River Compact. The region is also known for its beautiful scenery and recreation opportunities, which is the basis for the establishment of the Weminuche Wilderness area as well as nearly 150 reaches of streams with in-stream flow water rights. Over 50 natural lake levels are also protected by the state’s In-Stream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program.

Water leaders have been active for many years in the basin and recognized early on that in order to meet agricultural and municipal demands storage would need to be developed. The Southwestern Water Conservation District was formed in 1941, and has been responsible for the planning, development, and water rights acquisition for many of the federal projects in the region. Reservoirs such as McPhee (Dolores Project), Jackson Gulch (Mancos Project), Ridges Basin a.k.a Lake Nighthorse (Animas-La Plata Project), Lemon (Florida Project), and Vallecito (Pine River Project) provide for a supplemental supply of irrigation and municipal water in all but the driest of years. The delivery of these supplemental supplies assists with keeping flows in many critical reaches of river that historically had little or no flow late in the season due to limited supplies and water rights administration.

Southwest Colorado is also home to two Sovereign Nations and Indian Reservations that were established by treaty in 1868. Under federal law the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe were entitled to federal reserved water rights, which had the potential to create conflicts with Colorado water law and non-Indian water users in the basin. After nearly a decade of negotiations, a consent decree was entered with the water court that settled the tribal claims. The Tribal Settlement included some early dates of appropriation for the tribes, and a water supply from some of the federal storage projects including the Dolores, Animas-La Plata, Florida, and Pine River Projects. This landmark settlement is evidence that both tribal and non-Indian interests can be provided for with water storage and cooperative water management.

More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.


San Juan Mountains: Acid rock drainage predated mining activity by millennia, mining made it worse

July 6, 2012

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From The Telluride Watch (Peter Shelton):

The report, titled “Natural Acid Rock Drainage Associated with Hydrothermally Altered Terrane in Colorado,” was recently given an award by the Geological Society of America as the best environmental publication of 2011. The report identifies a number of high-country streams in Colorado, including Red Mountain Creek, where surface water is acidic and has high concentrations of metals upstream of historic mining.

“Of course, the mining made it much, much worse,” commented Don Paulson, a former chemistry professor who is now curator of the Ouray County Historical Museum. Paulson has followed efforts to identify sources of stream pollution and the remedial measures undertaken to improve water quality in the Uncompahgre River and its tributaries.

There was a big push to clean up the water affected by mine waste (and the role it plays in the inability of high country waterways to support aquatic life) in the 1980s. At that time the Colorado Department of Health (now Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) first sued under the Superfund Act, then negotiated with Idarado Mining and its parent company, Newmont Mining, substantial cleanups on both the Telluride and Ouray sides of the mountain. The Telluride side saw improvements to the water quality of the Upper San Miguel River. But the acid pH and the levels of zinc and other minerals in Red Mountain Creek has not changed significantly despite Idarado’s remediation in the area of the Treasury Tunnel.

More water pollution coverage here.


The Piedra River Protection Workgroup will meet December 6

December 1, 2011

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From the Piedra River Protection Workgroup via the Pagosa Sun:

The Piedra River Protection Workgroup will meet on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center in Pagosa Springs.

The Piedra River Protection Workgroup is a diverse group of stakeholders exploring protection tools on the Piedra River north of U.S. 160.

Everyone is invited to participate.

For more information, contact Tami Graham at 759-9716 or go to http://ocs.fortlewis.edu/river protection/. [ed. I could not get the link to work]

More San Juan River basin coverage here and here.


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