The Montezuma County Board of Commissioners and Cortez Sanitation District struck an intergovernmental agreement this week to let the county landfill handle and process biosolids into compost, starting May 1.
While the landfill has for years accepted biosolids - treated sewage with liquids extracted - for disposal, manager Deborah Barton said the agreement would let human waste be put to more constructive use.
"Instead of disposing of it, we're making it into a beneficial soil amendment. Eventually it will be available for sale," she said.
Under a pilot project clearance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the landfill will be labeled a Class I composting facility.
Class I entails rigorous management and monitoring procedures, with frequent turnover and testing for bacteria like fecal coliform. As long as the compost meets safety standards, it can be sold on the market to agricultural producers.
Compost, a mixture of decayed organic material like leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, food scraps, and yes, excrement, is used by backyard gardeners and large farms alike to boost soil nutrient levels.
Sanitation District Manager Tim Krebs, Jr. said that upon delivery to the landfill, the biosolid sludge is considered Class B by CHPHE. After folding in the other organic elements and letting it heat up to kill any pathogens, it becomes Class A and can be sold legally to the public.
The landfill charges $8.98 per cubic yard to process compact waste products - like biosolids and soils - and $33.63 per ton to process loose, bulky items like branches.
Krebs said, on average, 14.5 metric tons (16 tons) of biosolid material is dropped off at the landfill each month.
"The idea here is to improve soil and rangeland health," Barton said. "After applying the compost, farmers can use less water on their crops. It also makes (synthetic) herbicides and pesticides more effective and lets you low-till."
The presence of sewage by-product in compost is a psychological barrier many people must overcome, Barton added. Most can handle the idea of using livestock manure as a natural fertilizer, but crossing the line to human waste makes people squeamish. But with proper treatment and testing, it poses no public health or safety risk.
"There's a preconceived notion that manure, poop, feces, whatever you want to call it, is gross and disgusting," she said. "We all have cultural baggage, if you will, that makes us perceive things a certain way and fear things we may not need to (fear). You can look at the science or you can look at it emotionally."
Barton was hoping to secure the Class I permit from CDPHE by now, but negotiating the bureaucratic maze has been slow. In the interim, the landfill will operate as a "pilot project" while the official permit conditions are ironed out.
"This also gives us time to decide if (selling compost) is something we really want to pursue (long-term)," Barton said, adding that she believes agriculture producers in Montezuma County have a pent-up demand for compost the landfill will eventually generate.
It won't be ready for sale this growing season, however. The landfill can't start composting biosolids until May 1, and even then the mixture takes three or four months to cure. Barton is targeting mid-to-late fall, when many farmers cover their fields in nutrient-rich compost to rejuvenate the soil before snowfall, to begin selling.
"That's the goal," Barton said. "Will we meet the goal? That remains to be seen. Composting is not something you do overnight."