Any irrigation district with open canals has to deal with weeds, algae, and moss. Removing these obstacles to water flow can be expensive, time-consuming, and environmentally hazardous. This is the problem that Craig Gyselinck, environmental assistant manager at Washington’s Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District, is seeking to solve with his research into weed-resistant concrete.
In this interview, Mr. Gyselinck speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the research grant he recently received and what he aims to accomplish with it.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Craig Gyselinck: I am the environmental assistant manager for the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s of business administration. I worked for about 3 years at a small environmental laboratory before moving on to a job as water quality manager at the irrigation district.
Joshua Dill: For those who might not know about it, would you give an overview of Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District?
Craig Gyselinck: We’re located in central Washington. We serve water to a little over 255,000 acres of farmland. We have about 2,000 miles of flowing waterways, which include canals, laterals, drains, wasteways, and pipes.
Joshua Dill: You recently received a grant to develop weed-resistant concrete. What is the problem that you are seeking to solve with this innovation?
Craig Gyselinck: The majority of our waterways are open canals, not pipes, and we get quite a bit of weed, algae, and moss growth in them. Plants inside of canals take up capacity, meaning that they act like barriers to the water flowing downstream. That causes the water to stack up and rise in elevation. At our district, we spend around a million dollars a year in aquatic weed control using herbicides. Those are just the chemical costs. A lot of work goes into it, too. Our staff are out there applying these products. We also have to pay for all the safety equipment, the training, and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits from the State of Washington. There are a lot of costs involved in all that. Currently, we’re using Bureau of Reclamation programs such as WaterSMART to line a lot of unlined canals and to repair and replace our aging infrastructure. I came up with the idea of inventing a new kind of concrete that we can use to line and repair our canals to reduce the amount of pesticides that we use in our district. We want to create a product that is environmentally friendly and fiscally responsible that also fits into our system improvement program.
Joshua Dill: Was this grant also from the WaterSMART program?
Craig Gyselinck: No. In this case, I reached out to Reclamation’s Technical Service Center in Denver, because I knew that it had some of the world’s experts on concrete—Reclamation has got a lot of canals and dams. I told them the idea, and they said that it sounded great, but that they’d need some money to work with me. I partnered with them and applied for a science and technology grant through Reclamation. We received a little over $200,000 to cover 3 years of research. I also reached out to partners including other irrigation districts and Reclamation offices and secured an additional $150,000, mostly in in-kind work, to help with this project.
Joshua Dill: How would the weed-resistant concrete work?
Craig Gyselinck: There are a lot of unknowns at this point, but what we’re looking at is finding a product that we can incorporate into the mortar of the concrete. Perhaps we can put copper in the concrete when we mix it up. It might have some weed- and algae-resistant properties. The product could also fight invasive species. We have some biologists on board, and they’re interested in how the work we’re doing might relate to quagga mussels. There’s a lot of research that needs to be done.
Joshua Dill: You mentioned that this would be used to patch existing canals. Would it also be used to build new canals?
Craig Gyselinck: That’s correct. It would be used to replace broken concrete panels in any of our water delivery structures. It would also be used to line new canals and to build and repair structures such as check gates and turnouts.
Joshua Dill: Are there examples of similar technologies that have already proven successful?
Craig Gyselinck: We just started this 3-year project, and the first task that we’re working on is a literature review. We’re trying to find out if there has been any work in this field already, but we’re not finding a lot specifically for this idea. There has been some work done with coatings that would be painted onto the surface of the concrete, but we’ve decided not to pursue that route, because the coatings that are available are incredibly expensive and don’t last for long periods of time, so they need constant upkeep and maintenance.
Joshua Dill: How would you keep your product more affordable?
Craig Gyselinck: The products that we’re looking at mixing into the concrete, such as copper and perhaps zinc, are cheap. The cost of adding them to the concrete would be minimal.
The other big question is whether adding something to the concrete affects its structural soundness. Is it safe? Is it going to collapse or last 50 years? That’s where Reclamation’s Technical Service Center will come into play. It has the tools to do concrete analysis and testing.
Joshua Dill: What work are you doing to make sure that the product is environmentally friendly?
Craig Gyselinck: The project will include an analysis of environmental impact. Leaching is something we specifically talked about when we designed this project. Overall, we are not concerned about that, because any small effect would be much smaller than that of the herbicides that are currently being used. Right now, we use about 60,000 pounds of copper every year in our irrigation canals to control aquatic weeds. If we find that copper is successful in this new product, it would be a significantly smaller amount than we are using in our weed programs now.
Joshua Dill: What advice do you have for other agencies or districts that are looking to apply for grants?
Craig Gyselinck: My advice for other agencies looking to apply for grants is to reach out and use the resources around them. There’s a lot of available funding that people don’t know about and that doesn’t really get taken advantage of. At Quincy, we have been incredibly successful in getting grants. I attribute that to developing sound partnerships and becoming aware of available grants and working with the staff of those grant-giving agencies to provide the materials necessary for a successful application.
Before going into this project, I went out and got support from the Washington State Water Resources Association and the Oregon and Idaho Water Associations. I also got a lot of support from irrigation districts on the West Coast. I plan to present our findings as we develop them and to keep all those individuals and organizations informed as we go through this process. I don’t believe that this grant would have been as successful without all the support we received from our partners.