Thursday, April 29, 2010

Conservation is Smarter than Carbon Offsets

Recently, as we headed towards the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, the Wall Street Journal reviewed carbon offsets in its Cranky Consumer Column. In an article called “Reducing Emissions, and a Guilty Conscience” they reviewed five different companies selling carbon offsets. They evaluated the companies for price and the bells and whistles of their carbon calculators, social media savvy and general feel good aspects of their offerings. I question the actual effectiveness of the programs (not Nancy Matsumoto’s fun article). Many of these so called projects would take place anyway.

The world's biggest carbon offset market, the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism (CDM), is run by the UN, administered by the World Bank, and is intended to reduce emissions by rewarding developing countries that invest in clean technologies. According to David Victor, of Stanford University, as many as two-thirds of the supposed "emission reduction" credits being produced by the CDM from projects in developing countries are not backed by real reductions in pollution. In fact, in the February 2010 Harpers’ Magazine spelled out inconsistencies, questionable practices, and potential fraud in the CDM market raising the possibility emission reductions credits are increasing CO2 emissions behind the guise of promoting sustainable development. Even when a CDM credit does represent an "emission reduction", there is no global benefit because offsetting is a "zero sum" game. Voluntary Carbon Standard or Climate Action Reserve are two of the certifications utilized for carbon offsets. This verification utilizes the CDM standards as the underlying structure to certify that the carbon reductions are“additional and real.”

Buildings, both residential and commercial, account for about 40% of primary U.S. energy consumption, 72% of U.S. electricity consumption, 55% of U.S. natural gas consumption, and significant heating oil and propane consumption in the Northeast. According to the Department of Energy, while industrial use of electricity has been flat for about 15 years, electrical use to power commercial and residential building has grown by more than 50% since 1985. U.S. resources and investment have been deployed to build the infrastructure required to generate, transmit, and distribute electricity to serve that growth. Reducing the peak electricity demands for air conditioning and heating could alleviate peak demand on the electrical grid, potentially without the need for a smarter grid. Buildings present one of the best opportunities to economically reduce energy consumption and reduce green house gas emissions. A recent study by McKinsey & Company study performed for the Department of Energy found that reducing the consumption of energy in buildings is the least costly way to achieve large reductions in carbon emissions.

What I think the United States needs is a new way to think of reducing our nation’s energy use. I propose forming a series of local not for profit corporations to educate and facilitate all homeowners achieving the easiest steps: Installing an energy saving thermostat, replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs and the most effective improving the home insulation. This should be performed according to the guidance from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Building Envelop Research performed for the US DOE Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. This guidance recommends additional insulation in most the attics, crawl spaces, eves, and duct work. In addition, there are recommendations for insulation under floors, of pipes, end caps, knee wall, sump pumps and other areas. The insulation needs to be installed correctly, but is one of the most effective energy saving steps a homeowner can take. If every home and building in the United States were properly insulated and sealed we could significantly reduce the national energy use. These steps reduce energy consumption immediately and more or less permanently. The final steps in home conservation; the replacement of single pane windows or the addition of storm windows, and the replacement of inefficient furnaces and air conditioners and old refrigerators and other appliances with energy efficient models can be accomplished with incentive programs or loan programs. The cash for clunkers program attempted to remove from the roads the oldest and most inefficient cars, and now there is the energy star appliance program, but like many government programs they are blunt instrument and with unintended consequences. Mostly only people intending and able to afford these purchases are encouraged to move forward. Yet the cheapest of the strategies insulation, sealing a home, and installing an energy saving thermostat and compact fluorescent bulbs is the most underutilized.

As Ms. Matsumoto points out it is difficult to assess the quality of projects funded by these carbon offset firms as well as determine with any consistency the size of a personal carbon footprint which in the case of Ms Matsumoto ranged from 7 to 23 tons depending on whose tool she was using and what assumptions the models used. All the carbon offset retailers evaluated in the article were verified by a third-party either the Voluntary Carbon Standard or Climate Action Reserve. This verification helps ensure that the initiatives are "additional," meaning the carbon reduction would not have occurred without the project, and are "real," meaning the emissions reductions are properly quantified and audited, however, these certifying organizations suffer from the same problems as the CDM since they use the CDM as the underlying structure to determine the assumed carbon savings based on various models and assumptions. What you are doing with your carbon offset dollars is making these projects more profitable for the project owners, paying fees to brokers, project auditors and marketing people. Really, I would rather my money and efforts go to supplying education and low or no interest loans to homeowners to reduce their energy consumption. Insulation projects have a very short payback period and could be financed by a not for profit who takes half the energy savings until the project is paid for. The homeowner gets part of the savings, a more comfortable home and we all reduce our national energy consumption. Instead of paying for farm and landfill methane capture projects with our carbon offsets we would be better served to spend our dollars to reach down to make home insulation desirable and affordable to all homeowners. Let the large farm and landfill projects which would probably get done anyway, find other sources of financing and lets tackle educating and funding through loans and grants the insulation and sealing of all homes in the United States.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Who is Going to Control Your Water?

Water shortages are nothing new a consistent and clean supply of water has been problematic throughout human history. Climate does change, the Sahara Dessert had adequate surface water only 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. There were lakes and rivers and the Sahara was green. Water supply will not just be a problem in developing countries and does not even require the climate to change. Today the combination of inadequate supply of water in some locations, mismanagement of resources and the pollution of fresh water supplies with endocrine disruptors and trace chemicals from recycled water and runoff will grow into an outcry. Non-point source pollution and water ownership will become the issues in the United States and the developed world. After reducing point source pollution over the past 40 years, we are faced with the more difficult problem of non=point source pollution, Suddenly, everyone will be aware that the fresh water in some locations has annual limits (in truth we have impacted the recharge rate of our fresh water resources) and that the water supplied to their tap by public water companies includes the output stream of the waste treatment plant, urban and agricultural runoff still containing all the trace elements not tested for in our water supplies. There are limits to this renewable resource and it needs to be managed. Political influence is the recipe for mismanagement of water resources. There will be rationing in critical locations and ownership of water rights will become contested. Groundwater and surface water are tied in ways that are not yet fully understood. Changes, diversions, pumping can effect quantity of the water supply.

Non-point source (NPS) pollution is a major factor impacting the quality of the water supply in the United States today. These pollutants are transported to surface water bodies by runoff, which results from precipitation or snow melt (Leeds et al., 1993). Storm water is part of the natural hydrologic process; however, human activities, especially urban development and agriculture, cause significant changes in patterns of storm water flow and infiltration and the type and quantity of contaminants carried from land into receiving waters. The Federal Clean Water Act gives regulatory authority to restrict pollutants discharged into rivers from point sources, such as waste water treatment plants. When the regulations were created 40 years ago, they were intended to address the 85% of pollution believed to be caused by large industrial polluters. Recently William Ruckelshaus (first administrator of the EPA) wrote in the Wall Street Journal “The current generation of (environmental) problems that we are facing, though, is much more subtle, much less visible to the naked eye- and often not nearly as susceptible to a top-down, command-and-control approach.”

Federal authority does not extend to non-point sources, such as farms and septic systems, and in truth Mr. Ruckelshaus is right those problems could not be solved by federal or state regulation. The states need to address these non-point sources using other approaches. Reductions in discharge of contaminants can be achieved through the implementation of “agricultural best management practices” operations and good environmental stewardship practices; however there is building support for direct control of non-point source contaminants and control of water supplies. The suggestions for regulation made by advocacy groups are invasive and far reaching including ownership of the water itself. This will never work. A citizen collaboration between farmers and citizens needs to be created that will encourage and enable prosperous farms, safe drinking water, healthy fish and estuaries and sustainable development. These collaborations are slow to form and function and must begin with knowledge.

Water regulation movements are moving quickly, but they are of the command-and-control variety. Virginia is one of the 40 states with water ownership always assumed to pass with the land. Water is wealth and having the government assume control of water allocations either in a permitting process or direct allocation is frightening, but that is what is happening. The Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992 mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. In the past year there were two proposed changes to the regulations. It was proposed that the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area be expanded to include area beyond the eastern shore and even the confines of the Tidewater, west of the fall zone, into other groundwater basins. The second proposed change was ambiguous and seemingly ambitious in its reach: the Board and DEQ propose “to consider amending the Ground Water Withdrawal Regulation, 9 VAC 25 610 to address the increasing demand on limited groundwater resources, changes to the administrative review process, and regulatory changes necessitated by new information on the coastal plain aquifer system.” Towards that goal the Commonwealth is forming a State Water Plan Advisory Committee without any citizenship/landowner representation. Who is going to control your water?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Virginia Region 2 Envirothon Groundwater Questions and Answers

1. What is groundwater?
A mass of water store /flowing through pores and or cracks below the earth’s surface. It is widely distributed and renewable.

2. Why is groundwater important?
Groundwater represents the nation’s and the worlds principal reserve of fresh water and supplies on average 40% of the nations public water supply and all of the private water wells for a total of about half the fresh water Americans use. In VA 35% of the public water supply comes from groundwater and about 15% of residents are supplied with water from private gw wells. Nationally about 85 billion gallons of groundwater are pumped daily supplying drinking water, irrigation water, water for manufacturing and other uses.

3. Explain the relationship of groundwater to surface water.
Groundwater is a major contributor to the flow of streams and river and has a strong influence on rivers and wetland habitats. Areal recharge from precipitation percolates through the unsaturated zone to the water table and becomes groundwater where it is stored. Losses of water from streams and other water bodies of surface water such as lakes and wetlands can also recharge groundwater. The water goes both ways as groundwater can feed the streams, lakes and wetlands.

4. Briefly explain the hydraulic cycle?
The sun, causes surface water to evaporates as vapor into the air. Ice and snow can sublimate directly into water vapor. The vapor rises into the air where cooler temperatures cause it to condense into clouds. Air currents move clouds around the globe, cloud particles collide, grow, and fall out of the sky as precipitation. Some precipitation falls as snow and can accumulate as ice caps and glaciers, but most precipitation falls back into the oceans or onto land (where melts or falls as rain), where, due to gravity, the precipitation flows over the ground as surface runoff. A portion of runoff enters rivers in valleys in the landscape, with streamflow moving water towards the oceans. Much of the runnoff soaks into the ground as infiltration. Some water infiltrates deep into the ground and replenishes aquifers (saturated subsurface rock), which store huge amounts of freshwater for long periods of time. Some infiltration stays close to the land surface and can seep back into surface-water bodies (and the ocean) as ground-water discharge, and some ground water finds openings in the land surface and emerges as freshwater springs. Over time, though, all of this water keeps moving, some to reenter the ocean, and the cycle continues.

5. Groundwater may exist in underground rivers that run through caves and caverns. This may occur in eroded limestone area know as ___karst___ topography.

6. The Vadose zone is also knows as the _unsaturated_ zone.

7. The phreatic zone is also know as the ___saturated__ zone.

8. List the three main types of groundwater .
Confined, Unconfined and perched. The difference between a confined and unconfined aquifer is not clear in a fractured bedrock system. Unconfined aquifers are generally shallower because the water table is their upper boundary. Artesian aquifers are always confined.

9. If too much groundwater is pumper near the coast or if sea level rises, then saltwater intrusion__ would occur.

10.How is groundwater recharged?
Groundwater is recharged by precipitation infiltration. It can also be recharged by seepage from rivers and lakes in the upland areas.

11.What is the “fall zone” and why is it geologically important?
The fall zone is an imaginary north-south line that passes through Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg and Empona. The fall zone or line crosses Virginia’s rivers at the points where they descend from the uplands. The fall zone is where the artesian aquifer recharges. The fall zone is the recharge area for the coastal artesian confined aquifer in VA.

12.What is the relationship of development to our groundwater resources?
Development usually involves increase in the amount of water withdrawls from the groundwater system. In addition, development covers more of the land space reducing recharge areas and increase density of impact from septic system and AOSS as well as application of pesticides and fertilizers. If a centralized waste treatment system us used the discharge location could impact the recharge and seawater infiltration as happened on Long Island.

13.Excessive pumping of groundwater in arid locations where the groundwater confining layer is compressible silt or clay this can result in ___subsidence_____ . A famous example of this effect is in the central valley of California.
Groundwater pumping can result in reduced river flows, lower lake levels, reduced discharges to wet lands and springs causing concerns about drinking water supplies, riparian areas and critical aquatic habitats.

14.What are the arguments to expand control of the groundwater in the tidewater costal plain?
Groundwater withdrawls have increased as population has increased. The artesian aquifer water level is declining. The recharge to the artesian layer may have been reduced. The lowering of pressure in the artesian layer is increasing saltwater intrusion.

15.List three sources of groundwater pollution and one likely contaminant from each source.
Underground storage tanks –gasoline or fuel oil.
Hazardous waste dumps, solvents and hazardous waste.
Landfills- contaminated leachate
Agriculture runoff containing pesticides or animal waste containing nitrates
Septic systems- bacteria, nitrogen, household chemicals
Mines acid runoff

16.The ability of water to travel through the rock or soil is known as __permeability (could also answer percolation or infiltration)___.

17.When a well is pumped faster than it is recharged then a ___cone of depression or drawdown_ occurs.

18.The level of water in a well that is not being affected by with drawl is the __static__ water level.

19.The water table is the ___top of the phreatic or saturated zone_____.

20.The downward flow of water through the pores or spaces of unsaturated rock or soil is called __percolation____.

21.All land and water with in a geologically defined drainage area is called the _groundwater system or basin_.

22.Should landowners have water rights? Why?
Yes. What value is the land without water? Or anything along those line. Public or non-local private ownership of water has resulted in vast diversions for both political and short sighted economic purposes. Problems faced have included allocations that exceed 100% of the supply, failure to maintain infrastructure for the water diversion system, destruction of natural habitats. Land without water rights has repeatedly become land without water and a desert wasteland as all natural occurring water is removed.

23.When you pump a groundwater well the groundwater system can respond in one or a combination of three ways. Name two.
Increased recharge or more water entering the system
Decreased discharge or less water leaving the system
Mining of the groundwater or removal of water that was stored in the system

24.List two aspects of a sustainable groundwater system:
Sustainable yield
Effective use
Preservation of quality
Preservation of the aquatic environment
Integration of groundwater and surface water

Monday, April 19, 2010

Water, The Next Big Thing

While I know that spring arrives with a large list of work to be done to resolve moisture issues, repair damage and repair our gardens, I would like to draw your attention back to larger environmental issues on a rainy afternoon. Interest in the Cap and Trade is waning, especially as California struggles to come to terms with AB 32. Global Warming lost much of its urgency when it became Climate change and will continue to lose urgency as the coalition of believers breaks apart into its underlying camps. Nonetheless, Al Gore was incredibly effective in convincing a generation that carbon footprint was the key to saving the earth. Don’t get me wrong, the climate of earth does change. Energy use matters. The earth’s resources should not be squandered or mismanaged. However, carbon offsets are shell game.

Water is real. Our quality of life and life itself is dependent on our access to water. Mankind cannot survive without water. One of the world’s most critical problems is a lack of quality water. More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and at least 1.5 million deaths, mostly among children underage five, are attributed to unsafe drinking water each year. The World Bank attributes 12 million deaths annually to the combination of foul water and poor sanitary conditions. People are dying today for lack of clean water. The projections for 2030 are for significant and potentially life threatening water shortages in certain parts of the world despite the fact that the earth as a whole has adequate fresh water supplies. Mankind expands and builds and fouls until he has surpassed the carrying capacity of the location. We do not stop when we should. Though I tend to distrust all long term modeling efforts for their simplifications and straight line projections; water planning ten and twenty years out is a standard practice in the US west and other water critical areas of the world. Water supply projection a decade or two out is a much simpler model than say climate projections, but still are impacted by non-correlated variables and limited knowledge of groundwater recharge and reserves that would make it difficult to accurately project water demand and availability. Nonetheless, water is a real issue and its importance will grow as continuing mismanagement of water resources is highlighted by growing populations. I point out the National Geographic Special Water Issue and the WWF glossy on Sustainable life for evidence of this.

In California, the combined demand for irrigated agriculture, expanding suburban footprint, habitat protection, and drought have stressed the water supply to the breaking point only pulled back from the brink of disaster by the heavy rains that came late this past winter. For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. However, irrigation uses about 80% of California water and there is no longer enough water to survive the seasonal and climatic variability that threatens a reliable water supply. On less than 1% of the total farmland in the U.S. the Central Valley produces 8% of the agricultural output (as measured by value). This is all made possible by a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley (USGS, 2000). Though California has adequate water for human consumption, it is likely that this irrigated agricultural model is not sustainable since California is clearly mining their groundwater and has diminished the storage capacity of the central valley due to subsidence. The California papers have been filled with water issues, opinions, and arguments.

Suddenly, Bolinas, California is looking more prudent and less fringe with their limit on the absolute number of water meters for the town. (For the record it has been 580 meters for 30 years.) The town’s water supply comes from Arroyo Honda. The town has two backup reservoirs, but by late last winter, before the late season rains, it appeared as if Bolinas might run out of water before the next rainy season. In a rational attempt to live within their available resources, mandatory rationing went into effect last February, but was lifted after the rains restored the reservoir reserves. The rationing plan required that every household (or water hook up) use 150 gallons a day or less, regardless of how many people it supported. All businesses and the town's school were told to cut usage by 25 percent. To enforce this plan home meters were checked randomly every day. Exceed the limit and you got a written notice. Residents were allowed only two notices. The third time, a household’s water could be shut off. The town is a very closed community and succeeded in having 98% compliance with the rationing plan. The town is viewed in parts of California as a leader in water conservation and an indication of the future of the state. The water movement is forming. Mismanagement of water resources will set the stage for this movement.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New Septic Regulations for Alternative Septic Systems in Virginia

The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Regulations published on November 16, 2009 by the Virginia Department of Health were approved by Governor McDonnell on April 6, 2010, and are now in effect.

The emergency regulations implement the 2007 legislation and require professional operators certified by DPOR to operate and maintain all alternative on site septic systems, AOSS, including those of single family homes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. While I object to routine sampling requirements for functioning single family AOSSs, and I feel there should be provisions within DPOR regulations for homeowners to become qualified to operate and maintain their own systems; overall I believe that these regulations are good and will ensure the proper functioning and operation of existing and future AOSSs in Virginia, The Emergency Alternative Onsite Sewage System Regulations despite their flaws will serve to protect the waters of the state and public health, and will set a higher standard of performance for these on site systems.

Single family homeowners with alternative systems need to comply with these new regulations. Every owner of an AOSS must hire a licensed operator to operate and maintain their system as evidenced by a contract. This portion of the regulations should ensure that these systems are properly operating and protecting the waters of the state. The other requirements of the regulations will all be handled by the licensed operator so the most important step is to hire a licensed, and qualified operator. Since there are no provisions in the regulation for a homeowner to become qualified to maintain their own system even homeowners who work for the Department of Health, are Professional Engineers or in other ways might be capable of and interested in operating or maintaining their own system, there is little a homeowner can do to reduce the costs associated with this regulation. Perhaps when the final regulations are developed they will be less burdensome for the single family homeowner and allow for a homeowner to become licensed to operate their own systems.

Effective July 1, 2009, Virginia law required that soil evaluators, installers, and operators of on site sewage systems must be licensed by the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals at the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR). The new regulations require the same operation, maintenance, sampling, record keeping behavior in single family home owners as required of clustered systems of up to 39,999 gallons per day. These regulations require that for single family homes, in addition to being operated and maintained by a licensed operator, have samples and taken by a licensed operator every five years (or at the operator’s discretion after an incident) and analyzed at the homeowner’s expense and maintain an operating manual and records on site.

Here are the basics of the new regulations:
Owner responsibilities. The owner of an AOSS must:

Maintain a relationship with a licensed operator as evidenced by a contract.

Have the AOSS operated by a licensed operator;

Have a licensed operator visit the AOSS at the frequency outlined below;

Minimum Operator visit frequency for AOSS up to 1,000 gallons per day of average daily flow:
Initial Visit must take place within 180 calendar days of the issuance of the operation permit Regular Visit after Initial Visit -Every 12 Months

Have the licensed operator collect all samples required by the regulation and have the analysis performed by an accredited laboratory;

SAMPLING REQUIREMENTS FOR AOSS under 1,000 gallons per day :
1. The Flow must be Estimated (The basis for this estimation is unknown since the licensed operator is only on site one day a year unless there is an incident)
2. BOD and TSS- a Grab sample must be taken every 5 years
3. TRC, Contact Tank (if there is one)- a Grab sample must be taken every 5 years
4. Fecal Coliform- a Grab sample must be taken every 5 years

Keep a copy of the log provided by the operator on the property where the AOSS is located, make the log available to the Department of Health upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the log to any future owner;

Keep a copy of the Operation and Maintenance Manual (O&M Manual) on the property where the AOSS is located, make the manual available to the Department of Health upon request, and make a reasonable effort to transfer the O&M Manual to any future owner. For existing systems they will have to have their licensed operator create an O&M Manual.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Non-Point Source Pollution and Best Management Practices

Non-point source (NPS) pollution is a major factor impacting the quality of the water supply. The rate at which diffuse sources of pollution are generated and delivered to water resources is greatly affected by human activities and natural processes. These pollutants are transported to surface water bodies by runoff, which results from precipitation or snowmelt (Leeds et al., 1993). Storm water is part of the natural hydrologic process; however, human activities, especially urban development and agriculture, cause significant changes in patterns of storm water flow and infiltration and the type and quantity of contaminants carried from land into receiving waters.

Urban storm water runoff includes all flows discharged from urban land uses into the storm water systems and receiving waters. Urban runoff includes runoff from landscape irrigation, dewatering, and water line and hydrant flushing as well as the wet-weather storm water runoff. Water quality can also be affected when runoff carries sediment and other pollutants such as oil and grease, pesticides, paints, cleaners and other products associated with modern life into streams, wetlands, lakes, estuarine and marine waters, or groundwater.

Agricultural activities that cause NPS pollution include confined animal facilities, grazing, plowing, pesticide spraying, irrigation, fertilizing, planting, and harvesting. The major agricultural NPS pollutants that result from these activities are sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, and salts. Agricultural activities also can damage habitat and stream channels. Agricultural impacts on surface water and ground water can be minimized by properly managing activities that can cause NPS pollution, by utilizing good environmental stewardship.

Good environmental stewardship means using land and animals in a way that protects and improves the environment. Environmental stewardship begins by evaluating the farm to identify likely pollution sources and their possible effect on the surrounding environment. Overgrazing pastures; applying too much manure; giving animals free access to streams, ponds, wetlands, or marshes; mismanaging manure; and allowing excessive erosion can reduce water quality. The type, size, and numbers of animals affect the amount of management required for your farm. Kate Norris of Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District has put together a series of articles outlining the basic techniques to use to minimize environmental impact from a horse property. Many of these techniques can be used with any small scale livestock farm or hobby horse farm.

Overstocking causes most of the water quality damage on small-scale livestock farms and hobby horsefarms. It occurs when too many animals are kept on too few acres. Overstocking can strip areas of pasture, increasing polluted runoff. On farms where animals are confined and manure is collected, overstocking often leads to large amounts of manure that must be managed. So called Best Management Practices, BMPs, range from making simple changes to building structures that hold manure, but they in total add up to less run-off of pollution. They can be comprehensive and consider how the parts of the farm are related. BMPs are meant to be practical and easy to implement. They are intended to be modified to fit the type of operation, and the environmental and geological factors specific to the site. Unbelievably enough, the Soil and Conservation Districts throughout the nation are there to help you manage your properties for free.
BMPs minimize inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, labor, etc. to achieve a desired level of course performance and quality while protecting the environment. BMPs are designed to benefit water quality while maintaining or even enhancing agricultural production.Agricultural BMPs are practical, cost-effective actions that agricultural producers can take to reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants entering our water resources. The most recent National Water Quality Inventory reports that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts to surveyed rivers and lakes, the third largest source of impairments to surveyed estuaries, and also a major contributor to ground water contamination and wetlands degradation. Good environmental stewardship of these properties can go a long way in making agriculture sustainable.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Your Chemical Exposure

Chemicals are everywhere, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. According to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory of chemicals there are more than 84,000 chemical substances, as defined in TSCA today. These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials). According to poll of 2,016 British women by deodorant-maker Bionsen, the typical woman applies 515 chemicals daily to her body between perfume, soaps, shampoos, styling lotion, skin lotions, face creams, makeup, and the list goes on. This may or may not be alarming, because these chemicals are applied to the skin and need to pass the barrier to become bioavailable, but it is certainly an indication of how pervasive chemicals are in our lives.

In December the Center for Disease Control released their most recent National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Thought the report was incomplete at the time of release, it is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the exposure of the U.S. population to chemicals in our environment. CDC measured 212 chemicals in the blood and/or urine of the participants. The samples were collected from participants in CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is an ongoing survey that samples the U.S. population every two years. Each two year sample consists of about 2,400 people. What the report found was Widespread Exposure to Some Industrial Chemicals throughout the population tested. The implications of this ubiquitous exposure are unknown, but of concern. The detection of a chemical in people's blood or urine does not mean that it will cause health effects or disease. It has been believed for hundreds of years that the toxicity of a chemical is related to its dose, in addition to a person's individual susceptibility. The philosophy that small amounts were of no health consequence has been the cornerstone of toxicology and regulation, but that has recently come into question. For most of the environmental chemicals included in the CDC Report, more research is needed to determine whether exposure at the low levels reported is a cause for health concern.

Findings in the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals indicate widespread exposure to some commonly used industrial chemicals. This exposure may not be new, per sea but our ability to identify parts per trillion has opened the door to a raft of concerns and questions. Though you might want to read the entire report or just the executive summary, I’ve included some highlights.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are fire retardants that accumulate in the environment and in human fat tissue. One type of polybrominated diphenyl ether, BDE-47, was found in the serum of nearly all of the NHANES participants.
Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of epoxy resins and polycarbonates, and a potential endocrine disruptor was found in more than 90% of the urine samples of the participants.
Another example of widespread human exposure included several of the perfluorinated chemicals. One of these chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is a byproduct from the manufacture of polytetrafluoroethylene, which is used to create non-stick coatings in cookware. Most participants had measurable levels of this contaminant.
The gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) has been eliminated in gasoline formulations, but a high percentage of the NHANES participants showed detectable levels of MTBE.
The chemical perchlorate is both naturally occurring and manmade and is used to manufacture fireworks, explosives, flares, and rocket propellant. For decades, scientists have known that large doses of perchlorate affect thyroid function. Low-level exposure to perchlorate from the environment has been under investigation in recent years. All NHANES participants were found to have detectable perchlorate in their urine.
Total blood mercury levels, primarily composed of methyl mercury, which enters the body mainly from dietary seafood sources. Findings show that total blood mercury levels increase with age for all groups and begin to decline after the fifth decade of life.
A big bright spot in the report was the continued decline in Lead levels in blood.

Many questions were raised by the CDC data, one that has not been fully addressed is the route of exposure. The CDC believes that for most chemicals, people are exposed to low levels through foods or by breathing in air that contains the chemical or consuming water, plants or animals that contain the chemical. The CDC suggests that MBTE could have potentially contaminated water sources. I have seen perchlorate as a groundwater contaminant all over California during site investigations. People can also be exposed by using products with chemicals in them or which have been stored in containers made with the chemicals. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsor research that addresses sources and effects of chemical exposures. The EPA has recently launched investigations into BPA and other endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that can mimic, block, or otherwise alter animal hormone responses, sometimes affecting their reproduction, development, and behavior, this is actually, how some pest control treatments are designed to work. A diverse group of chemicals called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) come from a variety of sources. These chemical have diverse molecular structures. BPA is just one of these chemicals. These chemicals become of great concern when they are discovered to be potential human endocrine disruptors as DDT, dioxin, the drug DES and PCBs were in the past. Traces of endocrine disrupting chemicals are seemingly found in every part of our world, including dust, soil, water, air, food, manufactured products, wildlife, and even ourselves. So, as congress considers revising the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA and NIEHS begin their investigations into endocrine disruptors.

Monday, April 5, 2010

More Thoughts on Groundwater Management in Virginia

In its most recent session the General Assembly of Virginia passed senate bill 569 which creates a State Water Supply Plan Advisory Committee as an advisors to assist the Department of Environmental Quality in developing and implementing the state water resources plan. The committee will meet twice a year and be composed of citizen representatives of most of the water stakeholders. The committee is not compensated and will consist of citizen members representing industrial and municipal water users; public and private water providers; agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations; state and federal agencies; and university faculty with expertise in water resources-related issues.
Who on this committee will represent me. I am one of the 1,000,000 Virginians dependent on a private well. I am a landowner and a stakeholder in any resource allocation plan because I own my water resources. I do not think that the State Water Control Board can adequately develop a state water resources plan; without the input of the citizens of Virginia any water plan will impact sustainability of our way of life, property value, personal freedom and economic opportunity. There is no life without water. The beauty of Virginia the quality of our environment is dependent on water. The Director of the Department of Environmental Quality needs to consider the citizen in planning of water supply and water resources planning in Virginia.

Though the focus of the concern has been the two groundwater management areas, one on the Eastern Shore and another covering the James-York Peninsula and Southside Virginia, Fairfax County is vulnerable to running out of water in the next drought. Our freshwater resources need to be managed as a whole. The utilization of groundwater resources in an unsustainable manner can result in impacts to the entire region, including the decrease in water level and aquifer storage, reductions in stream flow and lake levels, loss of wetland and riparian ecosystems, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion and changes in groundwater quality. Each groundwater system or basin is unique and must be managed individually, and the data necessary to understand and manage water resources must be gathered locally over time to track and respond to changes in groundwater quantity and quality as well as stream flow. All groundwater is not equal and there a consequences of withdrawing water from an aquifer beyond its recharge rate.

I personally sit on the northeastern most portion of the Culpeper Basin. Fairfax county is only a couple of miles away and when they run out of water, I fear they will look to Prince William and I recall that Los Angeles destroyed the Owens Valley when it took the water rights to the entire Owens River. Owens Lake and the surrounding area became a desert dust bowl. The water and its wealth were taken elsewhere.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Thoughts on Groundwater Management in Virginia

The Department of Environmental Quality regulates ground water withdrawals of 1,000 gallons a day or more in designated ground water management areas. Virginia has used a ground water flow model developed over thirty years ago to evaluate the impact of groundwater withdrawals on the aquifers in its attempts to manage groundwater withdrawals. Virginia has recently admitted that this model over predicts impacts in some locations and under predicts impacts in others. Over the past thirty years scientific understanding of hydraulics and the coastal aquifer system in particular has expanded exponentially, including the discovery of the Chesapeake Bay impact crater, the presence of land subsidence, and discover of inter aquifer impact. The groundwater model reflects none of these features.

Virginia DEQ has initiated an effort to merge the various sources of historical and new well information into one statewide database that can be used for regional analysis of groundwater aquifer systems. Though I tend to distrust all long term modeling efforts for their simplifications and straight line projections; however, water planning ten and twenty years out is a standard practice in the US west and other water critical areas of the world and should continue in Virginia. Water supply projections a decade or two out is a much simpler model than say climate projections, but still are impacted by non-correlated variables and limited knowledge of groundwater recharge and reserves that would make it difficult to accurately projects water demand and availability. Nonetheless to avoid the over use of a critical resource we need to manage it.

In 1992 the State Water Control Board established two groundwater management areas, one on the Eastern Shore and another covering the James-York Peninsula and Southside Virginia. It has been observed from monitoring data that artesian groundwater levels of the Northern Neck have been declining at a rate of 1.2 to 3.0 feet per year. It is likely that groundwater levels will continue to fall and several citizen’s groups have pressured the State Water Control Board to extend the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area to the portion of the Coastal Plain aquifer system that underlies the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Groundwater and surface water supply are not fully understood, but are limited by nature. Groundwater can only be withdrawn indefinitely at sustainable levels without irreparably damaging our water supply. The question is not should we manage our groundwater use, but how. A Regulatory Advisory Panel (RAP) was created to discuss the Notices of Intended Regulatory Action (NOIRA) to expand the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area. The last meeting of the RAP will be on April 1, 2010. I look forward to reading their report.

Virginia’s water supply must be sustainable. Excessive groundwater pumping can result in reduced river flows, lower lake levels, reduced discharge to wetlands and springs and saltwater infiltration and subsidence. Overuse of groundwater can impact drinking water supplies, riparian areas and critical aquatic habitats. (See California for how to mismanage water resources.) Groundwater sustainability is achieved when recharge rate equals the pumping rate. The recharge rate is impacted by precipitation and ground surface coverage. Though we can have some impact on the recharge rate by protecting areas like the Fall Line and decisions about waste disposal we cannot directly control precipitation which is the major source of recharge in Virginia.

Our laws and regulations do not reflect a coherent concept of what water is about. Though laws create some tools for managing water on the state and county level the tools are being used in various ways and the result is a disorganized approach to each element of zoning and permitting that do not reflect a coherent concept of water management. We need a clearer concept of what we need to do to have sustainable water and then develop the legislative framework for a water budget that will allow for periodic droughts. There are many ways to approach this problem. A top down permit system is one method. Like most Virginians I abhor central control. Live Free or Die. However, there are other methods to achieve water sustainability. A market based system with tradable permits would allow optimal economic development, but may have undesirable social consequences. A combination of approaches needs to be worked out. The first step is to determine who owns the water rights in Virginia. Do water rights belong to the land?