Biosolids Application and Long-Term Noxious Weed Dominance in the Western United States


R. K. Borden, email


Vegetation characteristics were assessed on three sets of 10-year-old test plots and one set of 5-year-old plots that received 0, 34, 45, and 67 tons/ha (0, 15, 20, and 30 short tons/acre) of biosolids at a semiarid mine reclamation site in Utah. On average, noxious weed species such as Bromus tectorum L. (cheatgrass) provided two-thirds of the cover on the biosolids test plots, but only one-tenth of the cover on adjacent control plots that received no biosolids. Cheatgrass provided more than half of the total cover on every biosolids test plot. Seeded species provided about two times more cover at the control plots than at the biosolids plots. Surfaces treated with 45 tons/ha composted biosolids (one part biosolids and two parts wood chips) had a much lower percentage of noxious weed cover compared to biosolids alone. The relatively heavy initial nitrogen load associated with biosolids application may have promoted cheatgrass dominance. Although the available nitrogen eventually declines, once cheatgrass is established it may maintain its dominance indefinitely. Given the risk of weed invasion, heavy biosolids applications should be used with caution for reclamation projects in semiarid climates if perennial species establishment is desired. Consideration should instead be given to light applications (<45 tons/ha) of biosolids/wood chip compost or forgoing the use of biosolids entirely. The underapplication of nutrients may provide a slower, but ultimately more reliable, strategy for the establishment of a healthy, native perennial vegetation community.