Thursday, August 28, 2014

Help the VA Forestry Preserve the Native Tree Stock

This year has been a year of rebuilding in my garden. Now my new White Oaks are under attack. The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) has determined that the hills of western Fauquier County and adjacent Loudoun County along with portions of Prince William, Culpeper, Orange and Rappahannock counties are experiencing defoliation of white oak trees.

VDOF reports that the culprit appears to be a very tiny insect known as a gall wasp. This type of insect injects eggs into plant tissue, which forms a swelling or ‘gall’ around the injection site. Inside a hollow space within the gall, the developing egg hatches into a larva, and ultimately emerges from the gall as an adult wasp. Gall wasps are generally kept under control by other insects. However, in rare instances they can become so abundant that their galls can cause noticeable damage and that appears to be what is happening this year. Though the VDOF tells me that my White Oaks may survive, only time will tell.

The White Oak is one of several species of tree native to Virginia that are endangered. This year, as in years past, the VDOF is asking the public to help in preserving Virginia species by collecting acorns and seeds and delivering them to the nearest forestry department office. Virginians can help preserve native tree species by collecting acorns and seeds from 13 needed species. Acorns and seeds must be received by October 10.

The 13 species of tree most needed are: Alleghany Chinkapin; Chinese Chestnut; Hazelnut; Black Oak; Chestnut Oak; Northern Red Oak; Pin Oak; Swamp Chestnut Oak; Swamp White Oak; White Oak; Willow Oak, and Black Walnut.

The best collection sites are suburban lawns, roads and sidewalks because a single tree located in these areas makes identifying the acorns easier. The VDOF cannot collect from trees in the forest, since it can be difficult to identify acorns when many different species are nearby and they simply do not have the seasonal manpower to do the job. So, they are asking the public to volunteer an hour or two to ensure the survival of the native trees of Virginia.

Joshua McLaughlin from the VDOF reminds anyone who is interested in collecting acorns or seed to: use brown paper bags (no plastic bags) to hold the acorns or seed; identify the tree species on the bag (you might want to include a leaf from the tree), and to not combine acorn or seed from different tree species in the same paper bag. All acorns and seed should go to your nearest VDOF office the VDOF offices nearest me are:

Virginia Department of Forestry
675 Frost Avenue | Map and Directions to this office.
Warrenton, Virginia 20186

Virginia Department of Forestry
12055 Government Center Parkway | Map and Directions to this office.
Suite 904
Fairfax, Virginia 22035

To help identify the trees in your yard there are descriptions and pictures below. All the images are from Virginia Tech.
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Alleghany Chinkapin

The Allegheny Chinkapin is a spreading shrub or small tree that can reach 20 feet. The leaves are similar to the Chinese or American chestnut only smaller and are easily confused. They are 3-6 inches long with pointed teeth. The nuts are enclosed in spiny burs about an inch in diameter and golden in color. The nuts of Allegheny Chinkapin range from chocolate brown to blackish-brown. Nuts typically mature in late September in Virginia.

Chinese Chestnut

The American chestnuts (Castanea dentata), once prominent in the eastern U.S. landscape, all but disappeared in the mid-1900s when chestnut blight eradicated nearly all of hem. Blight resistant varieties of Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) are sought to restore and maintain the chestnut. The  leaf of the Chinese Chestnut is  prominently veined and oblong, 5 to 8 inches long, coarsely serrated (but not as strongly toothed as American chestnut), shiny green above and paler and fuzzy below. The fruit is encased in a large spiny (very sharp) bur 2 to 3 inches in diameter, each containing 2 -3 edible nuts, 1 to 1 ¼ inches in diameter, shiny brown, typically flattened on 1 or 2 sides.

Chestnut Oak
The Chestnut Oak has leaves that are 4-6 inches long, elliptical in shape with a crenate or scalloped edge. The leaves are shiny green above and paler below. The acorns are large, 1 to 1 ½  inches long, oval in shape and separate from the cap when mature. The acorn cap is thin, warty and shaped like a teacup, edges of cap are very thin; matures in one growing season, ripening in the fall.
Swamp Chestnut Oak

The Swamp Chestnut Oak is a well-formed tree that grows up to 80 feet tall, and has a narrow crown. The leaves are oval in shape 4 to 8 inches long, 3 to 5 inches wide, with large round blunt tooth edging. The leaves are dark green and shiny above, pale and downy below. The Swamp Chestnut Oak acorn is 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, chestnut brown, bowl-shaped cup covers about 1/3 of nut, cap is rough scaly and the stalk is short.

Hazelnut
Though native to North America the common name for this tree “hazel” is from the Old English name for filbert which it resembles.  The leave of the hazelnut are deciduous and broadly oval with a heart-shaped or rounded base, 3-5 inches long and 4 inches wide. They appear serrated and are hairy beneath. The fruit of the tree is a light brown, acorn-like nut under an inch long, wider than long, enclosed in two, leafy, husk-like bracts.


Black Oak

Black oak leaves are alternate, simple, 5 to 9 inches long and have 5 to 7 irregular bristle tipped lobes. The leaves are lustrous and dark green in color on the upper surface and paler or coppery below. The bark is thick, nearly black in color and deeply furrowed. The acorns are 1/2 to 3/4 inch in length, red-brown in color, and enclosed for 1/3 to 1/2 its length by the acorn cup. The Black Oak is often confused with the Red oak which has shallower and more evenly lobed leaves, reddish inner bark, smaller buds and a larger acorn enclosed less than 1/4 of its length by the acorn cup.

Swamp White Oak

The leaves of the swamp white Oak are oblong, 3 to 7 inches long, 2-4 ½ inches with large irregular blunt tooth edging, the leaves are a shiny dark green above, very pale below. The acorn of this tree is 1 inch long, tan, borne singly or double on a long stalk (2 inches); bowl-shaped cap covers about 1/3 of nut.


Northern Red Oak

The leaves of the Northern Red Oak are oblong and 5 to 8 inches long with 7 to 11 bristle-tipped scalloped lobes, and are a dull green to blue-green above and paler below. The a corns are 3/4 to 1 inch long and nearly round; cap is flat and thick, covering about 1/4 or less of the acorn, resembling a beret; matures in 2 growing seasons, in late summer and fall. The Northern Red Oak is a medium sized to large tree that reaches up to 90 feet tall, develops a short trunk and round crown

Pin Oak

The Pin Oak a medium sized tree that is very pyramidal in shape. The leaves are 3 to 6 inches long, oval in outline with 5 to 9 bristle-tipped lobes and irregularly deep sinuses and the major lobes form a U-shape. The leaves are bright green above and pale below. The Acorns are 1/2 inch long, striated, round (but flattened at the cap); thin and saucer-like cap covered with red-brown scales; matures after 2 years, and fall to the ground in the late fall.

Willow Oak

The Willow Oak is a medium sized tree up to 80 feet tall that forms a dense oblong crown. Often the lower branches need to be pruned off. The leaves are a simple and linear shape (willow-like) 2-5 inches long. The acorns are tiny and easy to miss in a lawn, 1/4 to 1/2 inch across, nearly round and yellow-green, turning tan when older; caps are thin, saucer-like and cover only 1/4 of acorn.

White Oak
One of my favorites is the White Oak, a very large tree with a rugged, irregular crown that is wide spreading.  The leaves of the White Oak is oblong to ovate in shape, 4 to 7 inches long with 7 to 10 rounded, finger-like lobes that are characteristic of many oaks. The tip of this leaf is rounded and the base is wedge-shaped. The color is green to blue-green above and whitish below. The White Oak has an oblong acorn with a cap that  is warty and bowl-shaped and  covers 1/4 of the fruit; cap always detaches at maturity; matures in one growing season in the early fall

Black Walnut

The Black Walnut is a medium to large tree up to 100 feet in height and the bane of my existence because of the toxicity to other plants. There are plants that grow well in proximity to black walnut, there are certain plant species whose growth is hindered by this tree and it cost me a frustrating few years until Roger Flint the local NRCS Conservationist told me my problem was probably the Black Walnuts to the east. The leaves are compounded, 12 to 24 inches long with 10 to 24 leaflets which are poorly formed and  finely serrated, and each about 3 to 3 1/2 inches long. They are yellow-green to green above, slightly paler below. The fruit is 2 to 2 1/2 inches across, with a thick, green husk beloved by squirrels. The husk contains an irregularly furrowed, hard nut that contains sweet, oily meat (edible) that matures in late summer to fall. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Old /New California Water Bond

from CA PUC
To great fanfare only available during a drought, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a compromise $7.5 billion dollar water bill that will face the voters in the fall. California is in the throes of the worst drought on record with 82% of the state in extreme drought conditions and mandatory water restrictions in place. Only the desert in the southeastern corner of California has seen rainfall during the last few weeks. Thought that rain was extremely heavy, rainfall in this arid region will have no impact on the water shortages and seriously low reservoir levels reported throughout the rest of the state.

In the spirit of never letting any disaster go to political waste the California legislature and Governor has shaken the dust off the 2009 water bond proposal and come to an agreement on the new bill with lots of little gifts for every water interest. $7.1 billion of the bill is new spending; the remaining $400 million is redirected from older bonds to new purposes. This is a reduction in the $11 billion for the 2009 and 2001 versions and an increase from the $6 billion originally proposed by the Governor. The water bill which can be read in its entirety at this link includes:
  • $1.495 billion for ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration- repair and restore streams, wetlands and fish habitats. 
  • $ 810 million for projects to improve regional water self-reliance, security and adapt to the effects on water supply from climate change.
  • $725 million for grants or loans for water recycling for sewage and installation of advanced treatment technology projects for sewage treatment plants. 
  • $900 million for projects to restore or protect groundwater that serves as or has served as a drinking water supply.
  • $2.7 billion for water storage projects that improve the operation of the state water system, are cost effective, and provide a net improvement in ecosystem and water quality conditions as determined by the California Water Commission, a nine member board appointed by the Governor. Seven members of the Commission are chosen for their general expertise related to the control, storage, and beneficial use of water and two are chosen for their knowledge of the environment. 
The state legislators from the central valley expect that $2.7 billion for water storage will go to build two new dams. However, the hoped for dams face tremendous opposition from environmental groups. In addition, the life of old dams in California is limited and cannot reasonably be prolonged due to the eroding geology. The reservoirs on Lake Meade, Hetch Hetchy and the Stanislaus River are slowly becoming silted and will be in my lifetime vast bodies of mud. California might use this money to ensure the continued supply of water from the regions or those reservoirs.

Even in “normal” years, the water resources in California have become stretched. Water deliveries from some key water projects have been permanently reduced due to environmental restrictions, while other systems struggle with leaking pipes, and canals, aging infrastructure and other challenges. Sporadic wet years have encouraged the expansion of lands under cultivation even as the population has grown and all the slack in the system is gone. California appears to be experiencing longer periods of drought and needs to adjust to a future of changing rain and snowfall patterns.

California needs a rational management of all water resources available within the state to ensure water supplies for necessary human consumption (not green lawns) and appropriate agriculture that employs smart irrigation – shifting a large portion of the crops irrigated using flood irrigation to sprinkler and drip systems. It may not be reasonable to have rice farmers in California no matter how senior their water rights. Water cannot be used beyond what is sustainable and hard choices must be made. In addition California must manage its groundwater resources. Proper management and use of groundwater as nature’s reservoir used in a sustainable way is essential in developing a sustainable California.

USGS Poland 1977

California, water rights have generally been allocated on the basis of seniority. Senior rights-holders have more reliable and thus more valuable water supplies. Legally, some of these water rights holders actually hold long-term “contract entitlements” rather than “rights” to surface water; in these cases, they have contracts with federal or state agencies that run large water projects and hold the associated water rights. The federally-owned Central Valley Project (CVP) is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) that grants and negotiates contracts and most of the contracts will expire in the next 15 years. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) “owns” for the California state-owned State Water Project (SWP). However, what California does about their water crisis will impact the rest of the United States.

California grows $45 billion dollars of food a year. Some of the nuts and fruits they grow are only grown in California. Without irrigation, crops could never be grown in the arid and semi-arid lands of California where irrigation consumes more than 75% of the consumed water supply. The water rights system as conceived and administered in the western states was not designed to conserve water or to be sustainable. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be plentiful and development and growth was to be encouraged. This water rights scheme has resulted in non-sustainable use of groundwater and unsustainable agricultural practices in a state that no longer has any connection to their water resources. All the water comes from somewhere else, unseen. However, it may not be too late, but keep your eyes on Iran to see how this might play out. Well wishes to those in Napa recovering from the earthquake..

Sunday, August 24, 2014

6.0 Napa Earthquake


At 3:21 am, Sunday morning an earthquake struck about six miles south of Napa and lasted 10 to 20 seconds depending on proximity to the epicenter. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) the earthquake occurred near the north shore of San Pablo Bay and measured 6.0 on the Richter scale. The bayshore areas in the San Francisco Bay region are underlain by landfill and bay mud and have experienced disproportionately greater damage during historic earthquakes. Such damage is caused by soil failure in the fills and amplification of ground shaking by the soft bay mud and magnified the damage of this moderate earthquake. (The Richter scale is logarithmic.) The earthquake occurred near the north shore of San Pablo Bay an area underlain by landfill and bay mud and have experienced disproportionately greater damage during historic earthquakes. Such damage is caused by liquefaction, soil failure in the fills and amplification of ground shaking by the soft bay mud.

This was the largest earthquake recorded in the San Francisco Bay Area since the magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta quake struck in 1989,collapsing part of the Bay Bridge roadway and killing more than 60 peopleAccording to Richard Allen, director of the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, an earthquake early warning system currently being tested issued a 10-second warning before the quake struck. Though in 10 seconds I would not have been able to even wake up..

According to a study done in 1999 the Hayward-Rodgers Creek Fault system has a 32 % probability of generating a large earthquake (magniture 6.7 to 7.4) by the year 2030, and the Concord-Green Valley Fault system has a 6 % chance of generating a large earthquake (magnitide ≥6.7) in the same time period.

Earthquakes are know to impact groundwater wells. The most common ground-water response is an instantaneous water-level fall or rise. This response can both near and far from the epicenter of the quake without significant change to the rock formation. Recovery to the pre-earthquake water level can be so rapid as to be almost unnoticeable, or it may take as long as several days or months. Water level changes can be large enough to have the well flow to the land surface, or render a well dry.

Well water can also become cloudy or take on a different color, smell and feel. The water can become contaminated with dirt, minerals and other solids, as well as bacteria due to damage to the casing and grouting. To see if your well has been impacted, you will have to empty your pressure tank and see what pumps out of the well. Turbidity could move through the system and pass in a short period or not depending on the specific geology, soil type and hydro geology. For more information see "Your Water Well After the Earthquake."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Radionuclides in My Well Water- Now What Do I Do

A radionuclide is an atom with an unstable nucleus that emits its excess energy in the form of rays or high speed particles. Radioactivity, the release of the excess energy as gamma rays and high energy alpha and beta particles occurs when unstable elements give off the excess energy and particles to form more stable elements. The process by which an element changes from an unstable state to a more stable state by emitting radiation is called radioactive decay.
Gamma rays, alpha particles, and beta particles, which are given off by radioactive decay, have very different properties but are all ionizing radiation. Each form of ionizing radiations contains enough energy to break chemical bonds. The radiation can break bonds in DNA and RNA disrupting its function and potentially damage or destroy living cells. Alpha particles do not penetrate the skin but enter the body when alpha-emitters are in food, water, or air. While some beta particles are capable of penetrating the skin, beta emitters are more hazardous when they enter the body through food and water.

Radioactive elements are naturally present in rocks, soil, and water from trace amounts to dangerous concentrations depending on where you are. The occurrence of radionuclides in ground water is controlled primarily by the local geology and geochemistry of rock and the flow and age of the water. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that the over time the concentration of a one radioactive element varied significantly from the same well. Migration and concentration of radionuclides depends on the amount of radioactive material in the bedrock, the moisture levels in the soil, groundwater circulation, and atmospheric pressure. Uranium, thorium, and radium can be highly mobile in groundwater and can move considerable distances and be re-deposited in soils or carried in the groundwater to the well. The isotopes of radium can enter the body through water, and some may be deposited in the bones and may over many years can result in an increased risk of getting cancer. Exposure to uranium in drinking water may result in toxic effects to the kidneys. Some people who drink water containing uranium over many years have an increased risk of getting cancer.
Variation in Radon concentrations over time from USGS
When dissolved in water, radionuclides are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and typically cannot be detected by our senses, unlike many well water contaminants that cause an undesirable color, odor, or taste. Natural radioactivity in drinking water and its effect on human health have become a greater concern in recent years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has primary drinking water standards for gross alpha emitters, beta particles, radium and uranium under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, the EPA also recommends that based solely on possible health risks and exposure over a lifetime that the goal should be to drink water containing a zero concentration of alpha emitters, beta particles, radium 226 and 228 and Uranium.

The EPA does not yet have a recommended drinking water standard for radon because the primary source of radon exposure is from breathing contaminated air in the home or office. EPA has focused on concentration of radon in the air. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the radioactive decay of radium, which in turn was formed by the decay of uranium. There is a correlation of elevated concentrations of radon in the inside air with elevated concentrations of radionuclidies in groundwater and groundwater can carry radon into the house.


Geological exploration has identified more than 55 locations within the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions of Virginia where uranium is found. Uranium occurs in the Lovingston rock formation at a fraction of a percent, but radionuclides are known to be present in the groundwater in the regions thanks to sampling done at community water wells. About a decade ago, the USGS found that naturally occurring radionuclides in the ground water of southeastern Pennsylvania may pose a health hazard to some drinking water from wells drilled in the Chickies Quartzite. Counties in Maryland also have high radionuclides in water, just to name a few locations. You can find out more about the likelihood of radionuclides in your groundwater by inquiring at your state’s department of environmental quality or protection or by reading the community disclosure of nearby community water supply wells. That’s how I found out about local water quality and what to test for when I moved to this region.

If you are one of the 15% of U.S. households who obtain your water from a private well, you need to test your well. Every year you should test your well for bacteria and every few years for other substances including radionuclides. The radionuclides tests are expensive the cheapest way to go is to have a state and federal qualified and certified laboratory sample your well water for short-term GAPA, and GBPA. This screening test is less expensive than direct analysis for specific radionuclides. Testing for GAPA and GBPA may cost between $100 and $200, while testing for radium isotopes may cost between $200 and $300. Testing for total uranium may cost between $100 and $200. Call your local department of health to locate a qualified laboratory. Areas with known elevated levels of radionuclides tend to have a list of qualified laboratories. For a fee some health departments can sample your well. Nobody has the budget to test your well for free.

Once you identify the problem, solving the problem of radionuclides is very direct. The only real concern is drinking water and the possibility of radon carried in the water being released into the home. Reverse osmosis systems installed in the kitchen can be used to remove up to 99% of radionuclides in drinking water with selection of the correct membrane according to the EPA. Removal effectiveness depends on membrane selected, the water pressure and proper installation. Proper selection of the membrane and pressure is essential when selecting a reverse osmosis system. Hard water will cause scaling on the membrane so buy extra membranes and know how to change them. When the water pressure in the sink drops, the membrane is fouled and needs to be changed. The reverse osmosis systems require regular maintenance and monitoring to continue to function properly over an extended period of time.


Though I am not a fan of these systems in many applications, they are the best available technology for radionuclides. Reverse osmosis systems use a lot of water. They recover only 5% to 15% of the water entering the system, so they should only be used for the drinking and food preparation water. Waste water is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system-it’s like adding an extra person to the septic load. A reverse osmosis system delivering 5 gallons of treated water per day may discharge 40 to 90 gallons of waste water per day to the septic system. This is a significant additional load and could impact the life and functioning of your septic system. You might want to look into other methods to dispose of the waste water.

Effectiveness of reverse osmosis system depends on initial levels of contamination, membrane size and type and water pressure. The application of pressure reverses the natural flow of the flow of water in osmosis from high concentration so that water passes from a more concentrated solution to a more dilute solution through a semi-permeable membrane. Reverse osmosis systems incorporate pre and post-filters along with the membrane itself in order for a reverse osmosis system to function properly. It is common to have a whole house filter system utilizing activated carbon installed in series with the reverse osmosis system. When addressing radionuclides the activated carbon filter can reduce the radon levels carried in the water, solving that problem.

Reverse osmosis units on the market range in cost from $200 to $3000 and vary in quality and effectiveness. Homes on well water need to purchase low pressure units. The size and membrane type are one of the factors that will determine cost. Replacement membranes cost $100 to $200 and filter cartridges around $50 (there are usually several)- it’s like a printer, the money is in selling the supplies. Reverse osmosis is a proven technology that has been used successfully on a commercial basis most famously for removing salt from seawater. Household reverse osmosis systems typically deliver small amounts (2 to 10 gallons per day) of treated water and waste 7 to 20 times the amount of water treated. Reverse osmosis systems can also remove many inorganic contaminants from household drinking water supplies including arsenic, sodium and nitrate. The removal effectiveness depends on the contaminant and its concentration, the membrane selected, the water pressure and proper installation and maintenance.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Great Nations have 24/7 Water


In the news recently was a rather spectacular water main break in Los Angeles. It made the national news because California is in the throes of the worst drought in recorded history and the image of 50 million gallons of wasted drinking water was new worthy. What did not make the news were water main failures in Washington DC, Maryland or elsewhere. There are about 240,000 water main failures annually in the United States- almost 660 water mains break a day. These water main failures disrupt traffic and are expensive to fix, but also pose a health hazard. The positive pressure in water pipes is what keeps bacteria from the failing and leaking sewer systems out of the failing and leaking water pipes. Clean water and water water pipes were generally run together in our cities and suburbs are crumbling and contributing to disease outbreaks and water supply disruptions.The National Institute of Health (NIH) believes that 36,700 infections and 18,400 illnesses occur each year due to contamination in public water systems; 2,200 infections and 1,100 illnesses occur each year from private wells.

The last U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment was done in 2011 and released in 2013. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe unlimited drinking water 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week to the 297 million Americans who depend on them. (It is estimated that 16 million households depend on private water supplies. Getting households to properly test and maintain their wells and septic systems is also a problem.)

The lion’s share of the costs estimated by the EPA is for treatment ($72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination) and distribution ($247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains). The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and essential repairs for all those water main failures. There seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water. As a matter of fact there were public protests over having to pay delinquent water bills in Detroit this summer. Protestors claimed clean water as a right that should be free.

In Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio the entire cities were without water when the treatment plant could not treat the source water for an “unexpected” contaminant. The first steps towards a clean water supply and public health was to disinfect drinking water in the cities (and develop sewer systems). Treating drinking water with either Chloramine or chlorine lowered microbial densities of coliform bacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, Legionella bacteria preventing disease and death. However, these bacteria and the other substances on the primary drinking water list are not the whole story, nor are they the only substances in our water today. Our water treatment plants should be more robust as more and more contaminants begin to appear in our national water supplies. Our modern world is filled with chemicals, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials).

All the water on Earth has been here since shortly after the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago (or so). There is no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water, the water here continually cycles through the water cycle. The water we’ve got is what's been here, literally, forever and contaminants are building up. In their study of surface water used for drinking water supplies the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found a diverse group of contaminants in the source water used by our cities and towns. The concentrations were low, but the contaminants were ubiquitous. This would indicate a variety of different sources and pathways for these contaminants to reach our drinking water supplies. The concentrations were low, (about 95% of the concentrations were less than one-part per billion); nonetheless, the most commonly detected contaminants in source water were generally detected in finished drinking water at about the same frequency and concentration. Our drinking water treatment systems do not remove these contaminants and we need to change that.

The USGS found that as the amount of urban and agricultural lands increased within the water shed, the numbers of contaminants in the rivers also increased. Rivers receiving municipal and industrial discharge, as well as discharges from other point and non-point sources from stormwater runoff are impacted by man-made organic contaminants, most of which are unregulated. Only about 40 of the 260 substances the USGS tested for are regulated the rest are unregulated. The USGS groundwater testing was a little better. It found trace levels of an herbicide (atrazine or simazine) or an herbicide degradate (deethylatrazine), and the solvents perchlorethene or trichloroethene widely distributed in samples from shallow unconfined aquifers without a confining geological layer, though the deeper confined groundwater aquifers remained mostly free of man-made contamination. Only about 1% of the groundwater tested had 10 contaminants detected at concentrations greater than human-health recommended levels. Groundwater remains cleaner than surface water for now.

USGS led research published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment this summer found two fish species, smallmouth bass and white sucker, exhibiting intersex characteristics (male fish with immature eggs) caused by hormones and hormone-mimicking compounds. Intersex fish have been found in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio River basins, indicating that the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals are more widespread than previously known. Previously, sampling within the Chesapeake Bay watershed found signs of reproductive endocrine disruption in the Potomac River basin. Our regional drinking water comes from the Potomac River. Our water treatment plants do not address these contaminants. Our water treatment systems are taken for granted and forgotten. We as a nation need to continually improve and maintain our water infrastructure. However, we do not seem to have the discipline or political will to do it.

As an alternative to maintaining and improving our water treatment and distribution system, a recent article in the New Scientist magazine by Naomi Lubick suggests that the future of water is “off-grid” water treatment where homes and businesses would do the final finishing of the water. The failing water systems in our cities would continue to deliver water in the volumes we demand or when the system has supplies and the water mains are functional and local final treatment would bring it up to drinking water standards. This local treatment would happen in buildings with self-contained treatment systems or suburban neighborhoods that would also have local treatment systems. This is a frightening suggestion. What would evolve from that plan is a better and safer water supply for the affluent who could afford to live in buildings and gated communities with advanced water storage and treatment systems while others would have an inferior system as the main supply system deteriorated. Welcome to the future of water in America-life in India.
This image is actually from Peru

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Be Afraid -Though It’s Not Flesh Eating Bacteria

Local headlines this summer have reported that 6 cases of “flesh eating” bacterial infections have been reported from swimmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Maryland and Washington DC. These are not the true necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating) caused by group A streptococcus, they’re worse. These are cases of infection with the vibrio vulnificus bacteria. The difference is that in necrotizing fasciitis the A streptococcus attack the bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels. Vibrio vulnificus, on the other hand, gets into the blood stream from either a cut or skin abrasion or through the intestinal tract, and can damage organs (especially the liver) and cause skin lesions, that can result in hospitalization, amputation and death. Vibrio vulnificus has a higher death rate than flesh eating bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera . It normally lives in warm seawater and ocean estuaries because they require warmer waters and low to moderate salt levels. Most vibrio vulnificus infections reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have historically been from the Gulf Coast states, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas; however Maryland and Virginia have reported increasing incidence of the infections since 1999. It is unclear if there has been an increase in the incidence of infections or better reporting. So far this year 4 infections have been reported in Texas, 13 in Florida, 6 in Maryland and 10 in Mississippi.

Typically, Maryland and Virginia report and average of 25-30 infections a year that occur primarily in in the warmer months of May to October. However, last year Maryland reported 57 cases. The CDC states that vibrio vulnificus infections are rare, on average there are 95 vibrio vulnificus cases each year, 85 require hospitalizations and 35 result in deaths. However, vibrio vulnificus is also under reported, only in 2007 did infections caused by vibrio vulnificus and other vibrio species became nationally notifiable.

In response to the public alarm the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) reissued its 2009 report that documented the rise in such infections. In this report they state: “Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause severe skin ulcers, gangrene, and deadly blood infections in people who expose cuts to warm saltwater containing the bacteria, as well as gastrointestinal illnesses in people who eat tainted shellfish.”

Dr. Rita Colwell of University of Maryland and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and her colleagues demonstrated that vibrio vulnificus, comma-shaped bacteria, are natural inhabitants of most of the world’s warm bays and oceans. Dr. Colwell “discovered that Vibrio is carried by microscopic, crab-like animals called copepods. These floating crustaceans—a form of zooplankton common in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. Nutrient pollution stimulates the growth of algae, especially during warm-weather conditions. And algal blooms fuel the multiplication of copepods. Research has suggested that intense algal blooms have the potential to support “explosive growth” of Vibrio. When copepods die, Vibrio are shed into the water. And if the bacteria are in very dense concentrations, people can get sick if they drink the water or expose an open cut.”

From the Texas Department of Health and the CDC here are general recommendations for avoiding wound infections:
  • Do not handle raw seafood of any kind if you have a pre-existing wound, cuts, scrapes or scabs.
  • Wear gloves when handling raw seafood.
  • Avoid bay waters, estuary waters or brackish (sea/ocean) water if you have any pre-existing cuts scrapes, scabs or other wounds.
  • If you sustain a wound or injury while exposed to salty seawater or while handling seafood, thoroughly clean and disinfect the area immediately and seek medical attention if the area becomes inflamed. 
  • Prompt and immediate treatment is likely to have the most positive outcome. 
General recommendations for avoiding infection by consumption of live Vibrio bacteria
  • Only eat seafood or shellfish that has been thoroughly cooked until steaming hot.
  • Eat shellfish immediately after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.
  • Avoid cross contaminating raw juices from seafood with other foods, and immediately cleanup any spills with hot water and soap and clean rinsing water.
  • Keep raw seafood separate from other food.
  • Thoroughly wash hands, utensils and surfaces after preparing or handling raw seafood.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Mystery of Mountain Lake in Virginia

In last Sunday’s Washington Post was a Travel section article about the Mountain Lake Lodge and how that vacation Lodge is faring since the Mountain Lake levels have fallen, went dry in 2008, and recovered moderately. The Travel article was written by Becky Krystal. Mountain Lake is really an amazing and mysterious geological and hydraulic wonder. It is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia and the only natural lake in the Southern Appalachians where there were no glaciers in the last ice age. Mountain Lake is in southwest Virginia only about 15 miles from Blacksburg, the home of Virginia Tech.
From Radford University


The first records of Mountain Lake were from a British surveyor named Christopher Gist who in 1751 surveyed the area and noted a lake that was ¾ of a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. In 1768 settlers to the area found only a spring and a grassy meadow. The settlers called the area Salt Pond Mountain and questioned the accuracy and ability of the surveyor, Mr. Gist. Recent analysis of sediments by scientists and pulled together by in the PhD dissertation of Jon C. Cawley in 1999 found that Mountain Lake had either been at very low levels or completely dried up at least six times since the lake was formed about 6,000 years ago.

In 1932 G. E. Hutchinson and Grace Pickford were the first to study the lake. They suggested that Mountain Lake was formed from a landslide damming of the valley. Other methods of formation have been suggested over the past century, but all were reviewed and rejected by research done in 1975 by Dr. Parker, who returned to a variation of the landslide hypothesis. This hypothesis is reasonable, but does not fully explain Mountain Lake’s existence, or why there is no residual of the canyon that is thought to have been the source of the landslide. Current thinking is that a seismic or storm event caused the landslide.

Salt Pond Drain, a small stream that flows to the northwest provides drainage from the lake. The stream is very small where it presently leaves the lake. Less than half of the 600-700 gallons per minute that drains from the lake can be accounted for by flow from Salt Pond Drain. Mountain Lake leaks. There are a series of natural holes in the bottom of Mountain Lake. When silt, grave and organic material carried into the holes, they serve to plug the holes, rainfall that averages 55 inches a year exceeds the loss of water through evaporation and reduced leakage and the lake level rises. Once the lake reaches the level of the outlet to Pond Drain, any excess inflow from rain and springs will just flow over the top and down into the New River. In drought years, the level of the lake typically falls, but drought alone does not explain the lake's dramatic and intermittent shrinkage.

In the mid and late 1950s the lake was low enough that the lake-bottom springs were exposed and the lake was a fraction of its “full” size. The lake returned to normal full levels after a local earthquake that registered as 6 on the Richter scale in April of 1959. Mountain Lake is located in a seismically active area of Virginia and the underground loss of water may be a contributing factor to seismic events. After 1959 the Lake remained relatively full dropping only seasonally at an unusually rapid rate during dry portions of the late summer. In 1997 and 1998, largely due to drought conditions throughout the summer, Mountain Lake was nearly 10 feet below the rim. Such a drop was more than three times the water loss expected from evapo-transpiration alone and would be the warning that the lake water loss had increased.

Mountain Lake formed over a fault line and though silt and debris is continually washing into the lake, occasional earthquakes and the scrubbing action of the water continually erode away the silt and debris plug. When the cracks at the bottom are opened wider through earthquake and or scrubbing, drainage through the cracks and holes exceeds the inflow, and the surface level of Mountain Lake drops. Occasionally, the lake dries up completely. This happened in the late 1700’s and in 2008 when the half full lake drained completely in a period of about 6 months.

Southwest Virginia had experienced several years of drought by 2002, when water levels at Mountain Lake had fallen 15 feet from the top and the surface area of the lake decreased from 50 acres in 1997 to just 25 acres. By 2003, the lake was full again. In July of 2008, water levels were 51' feet below full depth of over 100 feet. Even though the area received more rain than normal that year, by October of 2008, the lake was almost completely gone and was reportedly completely dry for several days. Despite heavy rains that restored part of the lake the rate of water loss was too high to refill the lake the drainage had somehow increased. The lake recovered somewhat in the next year.
image from Radford University


In 2011 researchers from Virginia Tech identified four piping holes in the deeper end of what remained of the lake. Scientists and the Mary Moody Northen Endowment that has owned Mountain Lake, the surrounding 2,600 acres and the Mountain Lake Lodge since 1986 decided to investigate where the water was going. One pound of fluorescein dye was placed into each of the four piping holes and then the scientists searched over the course of a year for the dye to appear. By April, 2013, there was still no sign of the dye in the various nearby streams, though there was some trace of the dye in Pond Drain. The dye trace experiment did not determine where Mountain Lake's "leak" is going. The dye may still be coursing through the underground, who knows.

Even if they could not identify conclusively where the water was going, maybe they could “plug the holes.” Radford University engineering geologist Skip Watts, believed that there was a good chance of slowing the leaks enough to allow the lake to refill itself. So with a grant from the Mary Moody Northen Endowment, Dr. Watts and his team filled in the four pipe holes, first with chunks of larger rock, and then with gravel, sand and finally fine clay. All the materials were excavated from the lake bottom to mimic the natural processes. While Dr. Watts was very confident” the lake would rise to full within a year or two, so far there has been only a partial recovery of the lake. However, sooner or later it is presumed that a minor earthquake will restore the lake (I hope). Nonetheless, Mountain Lake is a geological and hydraulic wonder located a short drive from the Jefferson National Forest that is part of the 1.8 million acres that comprise the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Staying at the Mountain Lake Lodge supports the Mountain Lake Conservancy which acts as a steward for the Lake and surrounding environment.
image from Radford University