A Howard EcoWorks demonstration burn at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City yielded a large quantity of biochar that is being used in private gardens and the church’s rain garden. (Photo submitted by Lori Lilly)

The Center for Watershed Protection in Fulton is working to accelerate the rate and scale at which biochar — a “super charcoal” —  is being used in the urban landscape.

Obtained by burning biomass under controlled conditions, biochar is being incorporated in soil amendment, bioretention, and pre-planting projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed to support runoff reduction and improve water quality.

In December 2022, CWP received $699,500 through the Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grants program to support projects under its Scaling Up Biochar Applications for Accelerated Stormwater Runoff in the Chesapeake Bay initiative.

Working in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation solicited the INSR proposals through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.

CWP’s grant is bolstered with matching funds amounting to $1,039,800 and will target municipal and highway projects in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

“One of the major thrusts of this grant is to secure a source of biochar that we can distribute to our partners for use in their projects,” said Carol Wong, CWP’s Senior Water Resources Engineer. “There are different types of biochar, so part of the grant is outreach and education work to create a hub where people who have questions about its uses and applications can get answers from knowledgeable experts.”

Chuck Hegberg, owner of Pennsylvania-based Infinite Solutions, is serving as CWP’s supplier expert to locate suppliers of specific types of biochar best suited to each project.

“We’re hoping to start delivering biochar by summertime for some of the easier projects,” Wong said. “Construction schedules are always moving, and the grant ends in March 2025, so we have two years for scheduling.”

Sequestration, with benefits

Howard EcoWorks of Columbia, which provides eco-friendly landscaping services and consultation, has a small contract under CWP’s grant.

Part of this organization’s past advocacy has included a study conducted with the University of Delaware to assess the effectiveness of stormwater runoff reduction using biochar amendment in the soils of Ellicott City’s Tiber watershed.

“Making biochar inactivates carbon that would be released into the atmosphere when a biomass dies,” explained Lori Lilly, executive director of Howard EcoWorks. “Putting it into the soil locks it up for hundreds or thousands of years, helps filter pollutants out of water, and improves soil health and plant growth, so it has a lot of agricultural applications as well.”

In February, Howard EcoWorks conducted its second demonstration burn at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City to help manage some of the brush and wood piles on the church’s property and educate the community about biochar.

“We had a great response, and several volunteers came back to get biochar to use in their gardens,” said Julianne Danna, who helped the church organize the event. “We gave a good amount away to the community to battle overly wet spaces created by development and poor drainage, and plan to use some to reinvigorate the church’s rain garden, which was originally installed by Howard EcoWorks.”

The contract that Howard EcoWorks has through the CWP will allow additional monitoring of the field trial plots it maintains at Howard Community College, Lilly said, and can support the research and educational components of its work with the University of Delaware.

Unique applications

As it turns out, biochar could be a good option for state highway entities looking to meet obligations in managing runoff under their stormwater permits.

“Highways are minimally landscaped and road right of way doesn’t typically have the space to install large-scale stormwater management practices,” Lilly said. “Using biochar as a soil amendment in these linear landscapes turns out to be a really cost effective way to manage stormwater runoff.”

A still unresolved piece of this puzzle will be to figure out how different entities can get Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System or Total Maximum Daily Load permit credits for using biochar.

The hitch, Lilly said, lies in getting the practice fully and properly credited through the Chesapeake Bay Program, a process that’s currently underway with a scientific and technical advisory committee.

Pushing the agenda

At the moment, Howard EcoWorks is working on building new services related to biochar that may include value-added products like biochar or compost socks, kiln rental or potential purchase, and private and public workshops. More information will be made available at the organization’s first annual Soak It Up! fundraiser event on June 8 in Old Ellicott City.

At CWP, “We plan to set up community of practice meetings with anyone interested in our biochar program,” Wong said.

CWP’s potential partners can run the gamut, she said, but the Center is particularly interested in working with solar farms and municipalities.

“They’re the ones who want the credit,” Wong said. “Their support in utilizing biochar will help us support the Chesapeake Bay Program, which will in turn help us push that side of the regulation process.”