Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Humanure and You

Dear Readers, 
My friend is honoring us with a guest post on humanure, and why he does it!  We've talked about his soil, or lack thereof, here.  I bet he has practical tips for composting  humanure effectively and healthfully. Yay!

By the way, to be all official, his post represents his thoughts and feelings, not mine.  I offer alternative definitions at the end of his inspiring post. 
That is some low soil moisture soil right there.
My first experience with a composting toilet was 10 years ago in Boone, NC. A friend of mine was living in a yurt on his girlfriend's parent's land. I dreaded using the thing, but I was oddly curious about it. When the time finally came to choose between the toilet and digging a hole in the woods, I opted to try it out. The toilet was right under the deck that made up the yurt's flooring. Literally, right under the kitchen. There was no stink. Not walking up to it, not even when opening the lid.

Looking back on it now, I think it's interesting I almost opted for digging a hole in the woods. There really aren't a lot of differences, a matter of time mainly. In the right circumstances, if you dug a hole out of an old tree stump, it could actually be a single use composting toilet. The main difference is the rate of the breakdown  into "humus". Not to be confused with the Greek chickpea dip, humus is what organic matter (ie poop) turns into when it breaks down, but before it becomes soil [Well, I beg to differ.  Humus is actually a component of soil]. As it turns out your poop is very useful, nitrogen-rich organic matter. When rendered down to humus it makes a very good and healthy supplement for soil. If animals don't dig it up, a poop in a hole in the woods will eventually break down into humus (and then into soil [same comment here, it is already a part of soil, but I still love you Shindagger]). But a good composting toilet will very quickly turn your poop, which is nasty, stinky and rife with dangerous bacteria, into benign, odorless humus.

Compost, which has become fashionable in recent years, needs nitrogen to be healthy and active. Most compost safe materials are carbon rich, so you really need [a good source of nitrogen such as] the manure from a large animal to keep your compost balanced and working. You can get manure from lots of sources, but don't forget that you are a large omnivore creating nitrogen-rich manure every single day.

I own land in the Chihuahuan Desert, where all my water is brought in by truck, or caught from the sky. The average flush toilet flushes 2-2.5 gallons of water every time you pull the handle. In most cases, they don't use spare grey water caught from sink/bath drains, they use 100% potable drinking water. Once flushed the water is useless, disease infested "black-water". Either it is piped back through a sewage treatment plant, treated with various unbelievably complex techniques and turned back into potable water, or it all goes into a nasty concrete pit in the ground called a "septic tank," where it festers, and leaches slowly back into the ground. There's nothing pretty about a flush toilet. It's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind way to easily deal with your poop, but past all those pipes, mixed with all that water your poop is still poop, and it has to be dealt with. My hero Joseph Jenkins, author of "The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure," says "Organic material should be recycled by every person on the planet, and recycling should be as normal and integral to daily life as brushing teeth or bathing." Composting my own poop I'm able to conserve thousand's of gallons of water, which is a precious resource where I live. I feel good about taking responsibility for my own organic bi-product (poop!), and i'm composting it back into safe, usable, and fertile soil. Anyone can do it.


Creosote Composter

Thank you, Shindagger!
He sent me a funny picture with his post, but I just couldn't put it on my main page, because it has a "bad" word on it, albeit in another language (Spanish).  So, knowing this, if you are ready to see his toilet's anti-theft system, have at it.

Humus: "That more or less stable fraction of the soil organic matter remaining after the major portions of added plant and animal residues have decomposed (refrence #1)."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Watersheds in a nutshell in a nutshell

Hello!  I would like to describe to you the issues that are paramount to my watershed in such a way that you learn about watershed management principles.  First of all, what is a watershed?

A watershed is a piece of land that drains water to an outlet.  An outlet could be a river mouth or an aquifer*.  There is no scale requirement for the definition, and there can be watersheds within watersheds.  They can be super-big or tiny.  For example, the Fort Branch watershed is neighborhood-sized and is a subwatershed of the Austin watershed (city-sized), which is a subwatershed of the Colorado River Basin (about Texas-sized).  Live in the U.S.?  You can find your watershed here (go to the water section and click "Hydrologic Units," then on "Redraw map") and here (scroll over the names to see the watersheds light up).  But technically, you can make a watershed while building your sand castle.  
OK, so technically this isn't a watershed since it isn't "land," but close enough.  Look, there is an outlet!

So, the watershed, like all things, participates in the hydrologic cycle.  As in, when it rains on the land (and you inhale the sweet scent of actinomycetes) some water…
  • Infiltrates into the soil and is either stored in place or percolates further down to the water table; or 
  • Becomes overland flow, runs off, and maybe ends up in a river down the hill; or 
  • Transpires.  "Transpiration is the process by which moisture is carried through plants from roots to small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Transpiration is essentially evaporation of water from plant leaves (reference)." Some water
  • Evaporates up from the land to the clouds again. Evaporation is "the process by which water changes from a liquid to a gas or vapor (reference)."
There are other parts of the water cycle not mentioned here, like water storage in glaciers.  Want more details? Click here.

Here is a picture courtesy of the USGS that helps the visual learners.
Thanks, USGS.

So, what is going on with the hydrologic cycle in my watershed? Well, there are some complaints.  If you read this report, you’ll see that aquatic habitat in the creek has been rated very poorly.  Why? Well, if aquatic habitat isn’t even in the creek (for the most part), you can’t rate that category very highly, can you?  And what does aquatic wildlife need, but …water (aquatic, water - you see where I am going with this)?  There isn’t enough water in our creek to support aquatic habitat.  Now, the cynics out there might ask, well… so? Is not having aquatic wildlife bad?  Well, I guess it is up to us to decide. But let’s discuss why there is not that much water in our creek, and then we can decide what to do about it. 
Here we are upstream, a day after a big rain.

Remember, oh so long ago, when we discussed how rainwater either soaks into the ground or runs off, down slope? OK, well when you cover up your watershed with impermeable stuff like cement and asphalt, the rain is more likely to runoff.  Since it will drain off all at once instead of soaking in, the river draining this watershed gets a lot more water at one time.  So with the same amount of rain, the water flowing in a river that drains a "pavement watershed' will be high all at once, and then a lot lower later on (drip, drip).  A watershed covered in permeable stuff like soil will contribute water to the river flow much more slowly, so the river flow would be more constant.  River water flow in a "soil watershed" wouldn't reach the high peak it reaches for a “pavement watershed.”

So maybe, we don’t have so much aquatic habitat or wildlife because our watershed is partially covered in pavement, which is preventing the soil from absorbing rainwater and helping to keep the river flow at a more constant level. Gasp!!!  There is SO much more to talk about, so stay tuned! Coming up we'll learn why the Austin watershed experts don't want clean rocks in their creeks (?).

Aquifer: a water-bearing rock that readily transmits water to wells and springs (which can form rivers)  (U.S. Geological Survey, 2010).
Water budget: the study of the water that goes into a watershed versus what water leaves the watershed.  It is assumed that the water budget of my watershed has changed due to patterns in development.   

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This might be a Bufo valliceps

Y'all, I went on a super-fun creek walk today with employees of the City of Austin's Watershed Protection Department.  When I arrived at our meeting place (Fort Branch Creek at Glen Crest), I caught a glimpse of breeding season in action.  Bufo valliceps (photo ID'd by my herpetologist hubs)!! Although I wish this toad was a good ecological indicator*, these guys are quite common and can live within a broad range of environmental quality.  Here they are, celebrating life, in their own way. 
Who you callin' a Bufo valliceps? I'm a Gulf Coast Toad!

See all that stuff that looks like black strings? Those are their baby babies (a.k.a. [hopefully]fertilized eggs)!  Here is an underwater view.
Photo credit: Staryn J WagnerEnvironmental Scientist,  City of Austin, WPD

Aaaaand, lucky me, I got to hold the gooey lovies in my hand.
Photo credit: Staryn J WagnerEnvironmental Scientist,  City of Austin, WPD

Here is what they sound like (#151)!!

What does this have to do with soil?  Our activities on soil and how we manage it influences the Bufo valliceps habitat.  How!?!? Come back next time for answers ;-)  Hint: it has to do with stormwater runoff,  rainwater percolation, peak flow and velocity.

Ecological indicator: a measure of the environment (e.g. the presence/absence of an organism)  that is used to evaluate the health of an ecosystem (more technical definition here). 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Who is eating my chicken poo? Staphylinidae!

I always thought that my chicken poo manure disappeared quickly because bacteria really appreciated its great C:N ratio.  Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen (Hurrah! [if managed properly]).  However, I noticed that there are teeny tiny insects that seem to be eating it, pelletizing it, and keeping my dirt in aesthetic order.  So, it's time to thank some of our less glamorous brethren in the web of lifeinsect decomposers!

But what is this particular beetle? Can you guess? Here are some pics:

Here is another.
Oh, and you need a scale, so this picture shows the lines of my notebook paper. So here is your scale. Kinda.  I measured them later and they look like they are between 1/8 - 1/4 inches.

And finally, here they are dancing the day away...or eating a most unappetizing lunch, in the mind of this humble heterotroph.

Helpful moving bugs of mystery from TheDirtOnSoil on Vimeo.

A friend of a friend, entomologist Josh Bast, says this bug belongs to the Staphylinidae family, common name Rove Beetle. Now, staphylinidae is a huge family, that includes over 54,000 species, so I'm still not sure exactly who these helpful guys are. However, the University of Florida's Entomology & Nematology Department web page has a few facts about the large family:

  • Most fold their wings up very tightly beneath very small elytra*. They are so small that they almost look like part of the thorax* (via Josh Bast).
  • Although none are truly aquatic, they occupy almost all moist environments throughout the world: under leaf litter, inside mushrooms(!), decaying trees, burrows, caves... seashores.
  • Many help reduce populations of insect pests such as mites, biting flies, mosquitoes, and fleas. 
  • Their presence in carrion can help forensic entomologists. 
  • With one exception (Paederus and its close kinfolk), they are not pests.   But even Paederus have redeeming qualities.  Yes, touching Paederus beetles may cause us dermatitis, but their toxin pederin is used for its therapeutic effects. AND some Paederus species are valuable predators of crop pests. 
  • Finally, Staphylinidae form a substantial part of the world's biodiversity.(source link)

Elytra: The hard outer wings of a beetle or other insect. Elytra help protect the insect.
Thorax: The middle section of an insect's body. The legs and wings attach here. 
Definitions courtesy of Fairfax County Public Schools.

P.S.  Ooh look: a lesson plan on decomposition!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Preparing for "Mi watershed es tu watershed."

I'm preparing for a post on the Forth Branch Watershed in ATX and general watershed management principles.  I'm hoping to meet up with an Austin Watershed expert, Mateo Scoggins.  Do you guys have any questions you'd like to me to ask him?

Here is what I will ask him:
  • What influence does Reagan High School have on the water quality of the Fort Branch watershed?
  • Do different creek segments have different environmental issues (upstream vs. downstream)?
  • What can citizens do to help?
And finally,
  • Why was the creek black during that rainstorm?  My guess? Tar from the roadside.
In the meantime, please have fun with this watershed-related activity.  Make some seed balls.    Planting native plants along creek beds (like the wildflowers in the seed balls) help prevent invasive species from settling here.  Want free seeds? Apply within.
AND (!)...TxDOT says wildflowers help improve water quality! See?  
Helping the environment was never so pretty.

Here are some definitions for you to look up as homework. Hee.

non-point source pollution
point source pollution