It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an aerial hydromulcher
Many area residents have seen planes drop slurry to put out fires – especially this summer. But a popular new technology catching the eyes of many, called hydromulching, is helping federal land officials to help area residents dodge mudslides. A mixture of seeds, mulch and other components – created especially for the Glenwood Springs ecosystem – is being dropped from planes onto mudslide-prone areas. It will help stabilize soil in the short-term and help revegetate it in the future.”They’re going to be doing it all day long for the next five days,” said Dan Sokal, planning and environmental coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management, on Wednesday. “They expect to finish by Saturday or Sunday.”The slurry drops are part of the overall Coal Seam Fire Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, or BAER, plan. The process starts when ground workers mix up a brew of ingredients formulated to stop mud and debris in their tracks. The compound consists of a wood fiber that looks like pencil shavings; tack to bind the soil; biosol, a natural, slow-releasing fertilizer; and a 50-pound-per-acre seed mix that includes mountain brome, streambank wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass, Western wheatgrass and annual ryegrass.The ingredients are combined with water and a natural green dye that turns the mix into a pasty amalgamation reminiscent of guacamole. The green coloration disappears two or three days after the slurry is dropped, but the other ingredients remain. “The green allows the pilots to see where the stuff has been dropped,” Sokal said. “The purpose of this is to spread mulch to help stop runoff.”The hydromulching operation is performed by Boise, Idaho-based Aerotech. Workers start by mixing around 3,600 gallons of the melange – enough for four aircraft drops – in a large hydromulch unit, then loading up four planes. They take off, make their drops, and the whole process begins again. In all, there will be more than 1,000 flights. Most of the seeds won’t germinate until next year, but the mulch immediately helps with debris flow problems by absorbing water and helping to slow mudslides. The aerial hydromulching is but one part of a three-phase project aimed at slowing down water, mud and debris as it slides down area drainages. It also helps the slopes recover over the long term by introducing seeds. The green can be seen from the Colorado River valley floor in West Glenwood, both on the north and south side of the river. The statistics connected with the hydromulching project are impressive:-In all, 2.3 acre-feet of water – around 750,000 gallons – will be used in the mixture.-Around 500 acres will receive the hydromulch treatment.-The project will cost around $1 million, and will be paid for by Federal Emergency Management Administration funds. -The planes, 802 Turboprop “Air Tractors,” will fly two to three trips per hour from Garfield County Airport near Rifle to Glenwood Springs, eventually completing more than 1,000 sorties. -The planes drop about 800 gallons of hydromulch mixture per drop, with each drop covering about a half acre.
Aside from the air-dropped hydromulching, the other two rehabilitation measures are going on in SOB Canyon, which drains from the western flank of Red Mountain, and on the slope above Mitchell Creek Fish Hatchery. Straw from bales is being spread over the upper SOB drainage. The bales are dropped by helicopter and spread by workers on the ground. Another phase includes the use of straw “wattles,” which are long, tube-shaped bodies of straw placed horizontally in a small trench to give them stability. They catch mud and debris as it rolls down the surface of a mountain, slowing it all down. “It was just so impressive what the straw wattles did,” Sokal said, referring to wattles placed on steep slopes above Mitchell Creek. Above the wattles, a large net was spread to catch the mud flows as they first start running down the hill. The cost of the straw wattle and hay bale treatments comes to about $450,000. “This stuff is not cheap, especially due to the immediate nature of it,” Sokal said. “I’ve talked to a lot of folks from Mitchell Creek, and they’re all appreciative we’re doing it.”These projects also will be paid for by Federal Emergency Management Administration funds, Sokal said. “These three projects have all complemented each other,” Sokal said. “We’re pretty satisfied that (it’s) doing its job.
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