Thursday, July 27, 2017

Trash in America


In 2014, in the United States, we threw out about 258 million tons (U.S. short tons) of household trash or more formally municipal solid waste (MSW). Of that trash, more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, 33 million tons (12.8%) of MSW was burned to produce power and 136 million tons (52.7%) was buried in landfills. Our trash, or MSW, is consists of various items that include packaging, food, yard trimmings, furniture, electronics, tires and appliances that Americans commonly throw away. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States for more than 30 years. Municipal solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000. The 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2014 is about the same as in 2013, and is one of the lowest rates since before 1990.
National trend in MSW generation from US EPA
Of the 258 million tons of MSW generated in 2014, containers and packaging made up the largest portion: 29.7%, or over 76 million tons. Non-durable and durable goods each made up about 20% (over 52 million tons) each. Food made up 14.9% (38.4 million tons), yard trimmings made up 13.3% (34.5 million tons) and other wastes made up 1.5% (4 million tons).
Total MSW by material 2014 from US EPA

The percentage of trash we recycle and compost has increased from less than 10 % in 1980 to over 34 % in 2014. Burning trash to produce power increased from less than 2 % of MSW in 1980 to 12.8% in 2014. Landfilling of MSW decreased from 89 % in 1980 less than 53% in 2014. However, that does mean that 134.9 tons of trash were landfilled in 1980 and a slightly higher 136.7 tons of trash were landfilled in 2014. 
US recycling and composting trends from US EPA
Of the 136 million tons of MSW that were landfilled, food was the largest component (over 21 %). Plastics accounted for over 18 %, paper and paperboard made up over 14% and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 10 %. Other material categories accounted for the rest and all were less than 10% each.

Of the more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, almost half was paper and paperboard. This represented more than 64% of the total paper and paperboard generated that was recycled. Over 21 million tons of yard trimmings were composted (almost a five-fold increase since 1990), and in 2014, 34 % of metal was recycled. Recycling and composting these three materials alone kept over 28% of total MSW out of landfills. We are clearly most successful at recycling paper and paperboard.
2014 Recycling and Composting breakdown by material from US EPA


In 2014 total MSW recycling and composting was over 89 million tons. As you can see above paper and paperboard accounted for almost 50% of all recycling, yard trimmings accounted for over 23% while food accounted for another 2%. Metals comprised about nine percent and glass, plastic and wood made up about 3% each. Other miscellaneous materials made up about 6% of MSW recycling and composting.

If mankind is going to keep living on this earth without the planet becoming one giant landfill, we need to reduce our overall trash generation and increase our recycling, and we need to move beyond recycling, composting, combustion for power and landfilling. Manufacturers are developing mixed material products that can be recycled and countries like Japan are requiring manufacturers to take back products they sell at the end of their useful life. 

To assure we have sufficient resources to not only meet today’s needs, but those of the future, we need to build on the familiar concept of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We need to reduce the materials used and the associated environmental impacts over  products' life cycles. Using materials in their most productive way,  reducing materials, products and packaging.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Availability, Quality and Sustainability of Groundwater

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to information from Virginia Tech, the Rural Household Water Quality program and the National Groundwater Association approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. While groundwater is ubiquitous in Virginia it is not unlimited. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

In addition, there is new information that was not previously available. Using their GRACE and GLDAS satellites, NASA can now measure ground water depletion from space, and the news is not good. Over the ten years (2003-2013) all of Virginia’s groundwater aquifers were determined to be under stress- using groundwater faster than it was being recharged. In other words we are using up our groundwater and unless we manage the use and recharge of groundwater better, some day we will run out.

An example of a problem of groundwater availability is in Marshall, where the Fauquier Water and Sanitation Authority (FCWSA) reported a 40 to 60 foot drop in the water levels over the past four years. Diminished water supply has left the town with inadequate water pressure. FCWSA and Fauquier County have invested more than$100 million in water wells, pipes and equipment yet they failed to identify the groundwater recharge areas for the wells and manage their groundwater. They have arrived at the point of not having enough water for Marshall today, let alone supply water for growth. Fauquier has engaged a detailed study designed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and spearheaded by the USGS and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at a cost of $500,000 to understand available water resources to develop and manage the County’s water supply.

A recent example of a groundwater quality problem came in 2010 when total coliform and E. coli bacteria was found in the groundwater from one of the Raspberry Falls community supply water wells. That well was taken out of service and replaced at a cost of $1 million. In the summer of 2014 two of the four wells in Selma Estates and one of the two wells in Raspberry Falls were taken offline after E. coli was detected in those wells. The three remaining wells were inadequate to meet the needs of the communities. Now Loudoun Water is funding the capital costs of a new water treatment system through its general fund ($10-$12 million). The Loudoun Water general fund will be replenished over time through user rate payments collected from all their customers.

Virginia’s Coastal Plain aquifer is a major example of a groundwater sustainability problem. As reported by DEQ, groundwater levels have declined by as much as 200 feet near West Point and Franklin, Virginia. According to the NASA data, Virginia’s Potomac aquifer is under particular stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry and subside. Despite attempts by the DEQ to manage new uses of groundwater Under the Ground Water Management Act of 1992, groundwater levels have continued to fall in the two management areas.

Virginia manages groundwater through regulating withdrawals of groundwater in the Groundwater Management Areas. Currently, there are two Groundwater Management Areas in the state. The groundwater management areas appear in green and yellow on the map. Any person or entity located within a declared groundwater management area must obtain a permit to withdraw 300,000 gallons or more of groundwater in a month. DEQ has not identified the sustainable level of groundwater use in the management areas. As a result the program has been unsuccessful in reducing groundwater withdrawals to sustainable rates.

For these reasons it is now necessary to try managing availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater by the local communities themselves. The people need to understand where their water comes from and how development and use impact water availability, quality and sustainability . I suggest that the comprehensive plans prepared by the counties be used to consider the availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater resources to promote the health and well-being of the 2.45 million Virginia residents who are dependent on groundwater for of their water needs. The availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater needs to be managed and protected on a local level.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sustainable Begins with Water

Water is at the core of a sustainable earth and is critical not only for economic development and healthy ecosystems, but for human survival itself. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs water is at the heart of adaptation to climate change, serving as the crucial link between the climate system, human society and the environment. Water must be managed efficiently and equitably to strengthen the resilience of social, economic and environmental systems under duress of rapid changes.

Water problems are becoming increasingly severe and complex. Interlinkages between water resources management and other environmental, social and economic issues are increasingly becoming more evident as the earth’s population grows and land-use changes. We are seeing the degradation of water quality from both point and non-point sources of pollution and growing impacts from a changing climate. In undisturbed landscapes the land is covered with vegetation that holds the soil on the land and filters rain water and snowmelt through the soil recharging the groundwater table or flowing into streams. An undeveloped watershed provides clean, safe water and groundwater.

As a community grows, so does the amount of surface area covered by parking lots, roads and rooftops. When development disturbs more than 10% of the natural land by covering surfaces with roads, driveways, walkways, patios, and homes the natural hydrology of the land is disturbed, irreparably disturbed. Rainfall cannot soak through these hard surfaces; instead the rain water flows across them picking up velocity and pollutants along the way. The storm water flows into ditches or storm drains, which typically dump the water, pollutants and debris carried in the stormwater into our streams and waterways.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has been collecting data since 2003. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space into changes of equivalent water height this was a method developed by Matthew Rodell & James S. Famiglietti in 1999. In 2015 scientists completed the analysis of all the data from January 2003 to December 2013.

The scientists found that more than one third of Earth's 37 largest groundwater basins are using up their groundwater faster than it is being replaced. Though the GRACE satellites can be used to see the rate of net water consumption, there is little accurate data about how much water actually remains stored in the earth for future us. So we know a third of the earth is using up their groundwater, we have no idea when the water will run out.

Throughout most of history surface water (rivers and streams) served as the principal freshwater supply for mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Fresh surface water can no longer support the needs of mankind. Accessing groundwater allowed populations to increase, and provide reliable water as surface water has become less reliable and predictable as weather patterns change and regions experience extended droughts. Groundwater is reported to supply almost half of all drinking water worldwide, and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people [Famiglietti, 2015].

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to Virginia Tech there are approximately 1.7 million Virginians who get their water from a private well. In addition, according to the National Groundwater Association there are almost 750,000 Virginians who get their water from public and private community groundwater wells. In total that means that approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in areas of Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain.

According to the GRACE data, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifers begin to go dry and in vulnerable areas begin to subside. Now is the time to identify, understand and manage our water resources.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Largest Iceberg Ever

Last week it was widely reported that a one trillion tonne (metric ton) iceberg – one of the biggest ever recorded - has broken away or “calved” from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday, July 10th and Wednesday July 12th 2017, when a 2,250 square mile section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg’s volume is twice the volume of Lake Erie.

The development of the rift in the ice shelf was monitored over the past year using data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellites, reported by researchers at the MIDAS project team at Swansea University in Whales who study Antarctica. Though the iceberg weighs more than a trillion tonnes (1,000,000,000,000 metric tons), it has had no immediate impact on sea level because it was already floating before it calved away. The calving of this iceberg leaves the Larsen C Ice Shelf 12% smaller in area. Although the remaining ice shelf will continue naturally to regrow, the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula changed forever, and the Swansea researchers say that the new configuration is potentially less stable. There is a risk that Larsen C may eventually disintegrate as did its neighbor, Larsen B, which disintegrated in 2002 following a calving event in 1995.

The first though we all have is global warming, but Scientists say global warming has caused the ice shelves to thin, but they differ on whether the latest event can be blamed on climate change. Dr Martin O'Leary, a Swansea University glaciologist and member of the MIDAS project team, said of the recent calving:

"Although this is a natural event, and we're not aware of any link to human-induced climate change, this puts the ice shelf in a very vulnerable position. This is the furthest back that the ice front has been in recorded history. We're going to be watching very carefully for signs that the rest of the shelf is becoming unstable."

Other scientists point to global warming. So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius (1.78 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times and last year was was the third year in a row reported to be the warmest year on record. According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, policies that are now being pursued by developed nations, are predicted (by the accepted group of climate models) to produce a long-term average temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (6.5-10 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial conditions), with most of the increase occurring during this century.

Even the Paris Climate Accord signed by 196 nations at the United Nations last year on Earth Day only put the nations on a course to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. The agreement lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain the 2 °C rise limit let alone the 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperature limit. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India representing about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to any reductions. Instead those nation merely project when their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.


President Obama entered into the Paris Climate Accord without Senate ratification. The White House claimed that the president has the legal authority to ratify the accord without the two-thirds Senate vote required for treaties. Saying at the time that the pact negotiated by 196 countries was merely an “executive agreement.” President Trump withdrew from the accord in 2017.

The international efforts to take action to stop or limit climate change began at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and continued with the Kyoto Treaty negotiated at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997 which required that by 2013 the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels. Developing nations (like China and India) were not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the United States, which at the time was the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in 2011. In all only 36 nations were party to the Kyoto Treaty.

Nonetheless, world CO2 emissions have continued to increase, blowing through each “tipping point” identified by the scientists. The first “tipping point” where global temperatures could be held within 2°C above pre-industrial levels was reached when world CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel reached 32.6 billion metric tons of CO2 annually around 2012. The “Tipping Point” was called the 450 Scenario (for the CO2 concentration) which limits global warming to 2 degrees by limiting  the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalents. Current concentration is a bit over 400 ppm depending on season but is expected to continue to rise without significant reductions in CO2 emissions.

Now the hoped for scenario is the 4°C Scenario. This senario takes into account all the pledges to limit emissions and improve energy efficiency made for the Paris Climate Accord and requires significant additional cuts in emissions in the period after 2050. The current worst case scenario, is the 6°C Scenario. This scenarios largely an extension of current trends. Primary energy demand and CO2 emissions would grow by about 60% from 2013 to 2050. In the absence of any further efforts to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2, the average global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is projected to reach almost 5.5°C in the long term and almost 4°C by the end of this century. This month Science ran a map showing the estimated economic costs to the United States if the temperature increases 6°C.  You can look at it here. Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions peaked in 2007 and World CO2 emissions appear to have stabilized.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Kemper Plant and the Death of Clean Coal


Two weeks ago the newly elected members of the Mississippi Public Service Commission stopped the experiment in the commercial use of a kind of carbons capture and sequestration (CCS) technology called Transport Integrated Gasification (TRIG™) technology at a newly built power plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. This TRIG technology was developed by Southern Company (the parent of Mississippi Power) and KBR in conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE).

Last Thursday the Mississippi Public Service Commission issued a formal order saying the gasification technology should be abandoned because of high costs and technical problems and goes on to instruct the Mississippi Power to negotiate a settlement in 45 days.

After spending $7.5 billion and failing the plant will now be converted to run on natural gas. The plant was initially supposed to cost $1.8 billion , but costs kept ballooning. Southern Company and its shareholders have already absorbed $3.1 billion in losses and will probably have to write off an the additional cost overruns expected to total $3.4 billion, because the Mississippi Public Service Commissioners will not allow those costs into the rate base. However, it is expected the Kemper plant will be fully converted to operate on natural gas and Southern Company still hopes to be allowed to put $800 million in the rate base. The Kemper plant has been supplying gas powered electricity since 2014. 

TRIG technology involved turning coal into synthetic gas before burning it to produce electricity and one unit of the plant has been operating on natural gas. The Kemper plant was designed to capture 65% of total CO2 emissions of the plant 3-3.5 million tons per year of captured CO2 and reducing the CO2 emissions per megawatt for the coal plant to under 800 pounds if the plant had performed as designed. The Kemper plant was designed to be the cleanest coal plant ever built.

The Obama administration partnered with Southern Company to prove the “clean coal” technology and the viability of the technology is important to the Trump administration’s promise to revive the coal industry. The design did not work and the plant is uneconomical with the price of natural gas under $3. It remains to be seen if there is any future in “clean coal” technology.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Accotink Creek Gets a New TMDL

from DEQ presentation
Last Friday, Will Isenberg of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Office of Watershed Programs ad Ecology presented an update on the development of the sediment and chloride Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek, a 51-square-mile watershed located in the center of Fairfax County that drains southeast to Accotink Bay, then Gunston Cove and finally to the Tidal portion of the Potomac River. Accotink Creek watershed includes Bear Branch, Crook Branch, Daniels Run, Hunters Branch and Long Branch tributaries and Lake Accotink, approximately 70 acres in the central portion of the watershed.

My husband spent summers in the early 1960’s playing on Lake Accotink, so it is featured in family lore and hearts. Though we no longer spend time at Lake Accotink or the nearby park, we pay attention to the health of that watershed and have watched from a distance as the health of the watershed declined. Accotink is an impaired watershed. For the last 20 years the DEQ has developed plans, with public input, to restore impaired streams, lakes, and estuaries. These plans are called "Total Maximum Daily Loads," or TMDLs. Following the U.S. EPA's approval of a TMDL, an Implementation Plan is developed to restore the watershed. This is all done under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act.

The first attempt at a TMDL for Accotink Creek was to use stormwater runoff as a surrogate for sediment loading in the stream. However, Fairfax County and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), sued EPA on the basis that stormwater runoff is not, itself, a pollutant . In January 2010 a federal court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exceeded its authority in establishing a flow-based total maximum daily load (TMDL) for Accotink Creek. The court decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs, Fairfax County and the VDOT. The ruling was based on the view that while EPA can dictate the pollutants attributed to a TMDL, Congress is the body who defines what a pollutant is.

Now the DEQ has developed a new TMDL this time controlling Sediment and Chlorine to restore the health of Accotink Creek. A public comment period will end on 21 July 2017, after which the final report will be prepared, unofficially forwarded to the EPA for their concurrence, and forwarded to the Virginia State Water Control Board for final approval before official submission to the EPA.

The EPA lists sediment as the most common pollutant in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Sediment is the loose sand, clay, silt and other soil particles that settle at the bottom rivers and lakes. Sediment entering stormwater degrades the quality of water for drinking, wildlife and the land surrounding streams. This sediment can come from soil erosion or from the decomposition of plants and animals. Wind, water and ice help carry these particles to rivers, lakes and stream. According to the EPA natural erosion produces 30% of the sediment in our streams and lakes, erosion from human use of land accounts for the remaining 70% - the most significant sediment releases come from construction activities, including relatively minor home-building projects such as room additions and swimming pools, landscape projects.

Chloride while present all year round is increasing average annual concentration. The chloride in Accotink Creek spikes in the winter. Severe winter weather requires an effective and affordable means of de-icing roadways- road salt. Though calcium chloride is also used it is much more expensive sodium chloride (road salt), which is composed of 40% sodium ions (Na+) and 60% chloride ions (Cl-). The sodium, chloride and impurities make their way into our environment through the runoff from rain, melting snow and ice, as well as through splash and spray by vehicles and by wind. They find their way onto vegetation and into the soil, groundwater, storm drains, and surface waters causing significant impact to the environment. Virginia’s freeze and thaw winters produce several spikes of chloride.



Chloride is toxic to aquatic life and impacts vegetation and wildlife. There is no natural process by which chlorides are broken down, metabolized, taken up, or removed from the environment. EPA's threshold of 230 mg/L is the concentration of chloride above which the water is unsafe for wildlife. Chloride runoff from highways has been measured over 20,000 mg/L. However, we can’t just eliminate road salt- it is a public safety issue and Fairfax County and VDOT will have to figure out how to balance environmental needs with public safety. The newest methods of salt application using brine sprayed on roads which are better for the environment and more cost effective, but very corrosive to automobiles.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Emerald Ash Borer


This spring when I walked the woods on the back 7 acres of my land it obvious that the mature hardwoods in the pristine woods that I am the steward for has a lot of Emerald Ash Borer damage. The trees in my wood cannot be saved.
from USDA
The Emerald ash borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis Fairmaire, is an exotic beetle native of Asia that was discovered in southeastern Michigan near Detroit in the summer of 2002. The adult beetles nibble on ash foliage but cause little damage. However, the larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients and ultimately killing the trees. Emerald ash borer probably arrived in the United States on solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes originating in its native Asia. It has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America so far.

from USDA


The Emerald Ash Borer was first found in Prince William County in 2010. In the following years trapping was used to track and monitor the Emerald Ash Borer as it spread across the county. At this point trapping is no longer being conducted and many ash trees in the county show symptoms of infestation; epicormic branching (water sprouts), canopy die back, woodpecker damage, and bark splits. To tell if you have Emerald Ash Borer in your trees look for the 1/8th inch diameter D shaped exit hole and larval galleries that are the signs of Emerald Ash Borer infestation. 
from USDA
Pesticides can be applied to individual trees to protect them against Emerald Ash Borer and my be a way to save single ornamental lawn trees. For the pesticides to work the trees must be healthy and have at least 30% of their leaf canopy remaining. Pesticides must continue to be applied on a scheduled basis for protection. Different pesticides are available to homeowners or state certified pesticide applicators. Many ash trees will not be treated with pesticides; some trees may be too unhealthy, too small, or pesticides may be cost-prohibitive or undesired. I could not possibly apply enough pesticides to save the woods and in truth to protect my groundwater I would not consider doing that. It is just difficult to know that almost all ash trees will continue to decline and die.

While the ash trees in my woods are lost. There is hope for the future. Beginning in 2015 the Prince William Public Works Department became cooperators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Protection and Quarantine EAB Biocontrol Program. Biological control (biocontrol) is the reduction of pest populations through the use of natural enemies such as parasites (stingless wasps), predators, pathogens, antagonists (to control plant diseases), or competitors. USDA research in the Emerals Ash Borer native China identified three potential biological control agents that are stingless wasps—Spathius agrili, Tetrastichus planipennisi, and Oobius agrili.
from Prince William County


Following testing, USDA prepared an environmental assessment that outlined the risks and benefits of releasing the stingless wasps. The wasps specifically hunted Emerald Ash Borer to an acceptable degree and were not expected to attack other insect species except for incidental attacks on other wood-boring species. USDA then prepared a “finding of no significant impact,” and with approval from the State of Michigan, USDA released the wasps in July 2007. Since that time, one or more species of the wasps have been released in 19 States: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The three species of wasps were introduced at two sites in Prince William County in 2015 as the first step in a multi-year process. The release sites were Silver Lake in Haymarket and Davis Tract in Manassas. A total of 34,574 wasps were released in Prince William County (about 3% of the national total). Silver Lake is about 3 miles as the bug flies from my woods. Too far until the population of parasite wasps grows and spreads. In truth, the stingless wasps will not eradicate the Emerald Ash Borer. However, they will be used in an integrated pest management plan to help control the pest.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Waters of the United States

On June 27th 2017 the EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, along with Mr. Douglas Lamont, senior official performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, signed the following proposed rule intended to review and revise the definition of “waters of the United States” consistent with the Executive Order signed on February 28, 2017, “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States’ Rule.”
The definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act promulgated by the U.S. EPA in 2015, intended to expand protection and regulation under the 1972 Clean Water Act to include streams and wetlands and any body of water that the EPA previously needed to determine to be a “significant Nexus” to the “navigable waters of the United States” on a case by case basis. According to that version of the waters of the United States definition included navigable waterways and their tributaries. The rule greatly expanded the waters included in regulation to include:    Streams, regardless of their size of frequency of flow.  Wetlands and open waters in riparian areas and the 100 year floodplains

The 2015 version of the Water of the United States rule unleashed a torrent of Federal litigation. Thirty-one states, many local governments, and private industry filed suite asserting that the rule unconstitutionally expanded the Clean Water Act’s reach and misapplied several Supreme Court decisions and long standing practice. Various Courts of Appeal challenges had been consolidated before the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, which granted a nationwide wide stay in November 2015.
With that stay in place the definition of "waters of the United States" currently in effect is the definition promulgated in 1986/1988, implemented consistent with subsequent Supreme Court decisions and guidance documents. Under the new rule promulgated last week that definition will stay in place.

40 CFR 230.3(s) The term waters of the United States means:
  1. All waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  2. All interstate waters including interstate wetlands;
  3. All other waters such as intrastate lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, or natural ponds, the use, degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate or foreign commerce including any such waters:
    1. Which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or
    2. (From which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or
    3. Which are used or could be used for industrial purposes by industries in interstate commerce;
  4. All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under this definition;
  5. Tributaries of waters identified in paragraphs (s)(1) through (4) of this section;
  6. The territorial sea;
  7. Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified in paragraphs (s)(1) through (6) of this section; waste treatment systems, including treatment ponds or lagoons designed to meet the requirements of CWA (other than cooling ponds as defined in 40 CFR 423.11(m) which also meet the criteria of this definition) are not waters of the United States.
The EPA is now proposing to re-codify the regulations that existed before the 2015 Clean Water Rule stating that it will provide continuity and certainty for regulated entities, the States, agency staff, and the public. The agency will also pursue notice-and-comment rulemaking in which the agencies will conduct a substantive re-evaluation of the definition of “waters of the United States.”

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Privatize the Washington Aqueduct

As reported earlier this month by the Washington Post buried in in the more than 1,200 pages of the President’s budget proposal are a few lines stating that the Administration wants to privatize the Washington Aqueduct, selling the assets for $119 million. The current Administration has stated they have plans to privatize public assets, such as the aqueduct, roads and bridges, intending to use the proceeds from the sales of the assets to fund new infrastructure projects.

Already some officials in the District instead want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the aqueduct, to turn the facility over to D.C. Water, a public utility, but D.C. Water wants to pay the federal government far less than the $119 million the administration wants from the sale. In addition, Washington DC has not demonstrated an ability to properly run a utility. The Washington D.C. government answers to current political forces not the long term good of the region. It is essential that whoever ends up the owner of the Washington Aqueduct is rigorous in maintaining water quality and the ability to quickly respond to the variable water quality of the Potomac River and is prepared and capable of proactively addressing spills into the Potomac River and emerging contaminants in the water. Flint, Michigan demonstrated that operating a water treatment plant on a river is far more complicated and less forgiving than operating a water distribution system.

By 1996 when the Washington DC government initiated the creation of what would be rechristened DC Water in 2010, some portions of the water delivery system were already 100 years old. The water and rates in place in the Washington DC set by politicians covered the costs to deliver the water and treat and replace 0.33% of the system each year. This was an unrealistic and irresponsible repair and replacement rate. The city was sacrificing the future for the benefit of the current water rate payers. In the spring of 2012 DC Water announced that they have tripled the replacement rate to 1% (with of course the increase in water rates) so that in 100 years the system will be replaced.

In truth, according to an interview the General Manager, George Hawkins, gave on National Public Radio a few years ago, DC Water has gotten so far behind in water pipe repair and replacement that they cannot to catch up at that replacement rate- it will take more than decades and an increased repair and replacement rate to catch up. It is likely, given the age of the water system in Washington DC the increase in replacement rate was probably necessary to address just what was failing each year. One hundred years is longer than the predicated life of a water distribution system, piping systems are rated at 80 years and the average water main in Washington DC was 78 years old at the time. The water pipes in DC are old. They leak. DC Water is trying to use a predictive modeling to determine which pipes need to replace first to keep the good quality water they are buying from the Washington Aqueduct flowing to the homes and businesses in the District. Now they want the government to give them the Aqueduct. It is essential that the drinking water quality be maintained.

The Washington Aqueduct dates back to 1853 when congress appropriated $5,000 to develop the first portion of the system that consisted of the Dalecarlia Reservoir and Georgetown distribution reservoir. That portion of the system was designed to run on gravity, so that the system did not require pumps until much later when the system and the city expanded and demand for water required the expansion of the system. Even today the energy used by the system is reduced because they used the natural elevations in the design of the system. The Aqueduct first began delivering water in 1862. The Lydecker Tunnel and McMillian Reservoir and water treatment plant were added in 1905. The McMillian slow sand water treatment plant was the first treatment plant in the system and was built to address the increasing outbreaks of typhoid fever that were caused by contaminated drinking water. This was followed by a rapid sand filtration system at Dalecarlia to address the continued population growth after World War I.

Today, the Aqueduct draws water from the Potomac River at the Great Falls and Little Falls intakes and treats the water at two treatment plants, Dalecarlia and McMillan. The Aqueduct filters and disinfects water from the Potomac River to meet current safe drinking water standards. The treatment process includes sedimentation, filtration, fluoridation, pH adjustment, primary disinfection using free chlorine, secondary disinfection with chloramine through the addition of ammonia, and corrosion control with orthophosphate. Water quality is tested continually at various points in the process. The EPA sets national limits on residual disinfectant levels in drinking water to reduce the risk of exposure to disinfection byproducts formed when public water systems add chemical disinfectant for either primary or residual treatment. The EPA also sets EPA sets limits on the contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption. Ensuring that the limits are not exceeded is the job of the owner and operator of the Aqueduct.

The Washington Aqueduct is a federally owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers, though the General Manager, Mr. Jacobus, and all employees of the Washington Aqueduct are civilian employees of the Army Corp of Engineers. The Aqueduct was initially built with federal funds, but since 1927 the operating budget and capital budget have been paid for by the Aqueduct’s customers. Today, the operating budget is around $46 million that is supplied by the wholesale water rates charged for the water delivered. The Aqueduct produces an average of 155 million gallons of water per day and sells that water to the District of Columbia (about 75% of the finished water), Arlington County, Virginia (about 15%), and the City of Falls Church, Virginia (10%). In total about one million people a day use water supplied by the Aqueduct.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Rules for Backyard Chickens in Prince William County

By vote of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors back in 2011 a zoning change was made to allow backyard chickens in some parts of Prince William County. The Supervisors voted to create a Domestic Fowl Overlay District in the county where residents can keep a limited number of chickens and other domestic fowl.

In areas of the overlay district (pink area) that are zoned A-1 and consisting of more than one acre, chickens and domestic fowl are permitted “by right” subject only to any restrictions that may exist in the HOA Covenants and Restrictions. In areas of the Domestic Fowl Overlay District that are zoned SR-1, SR-3 or SR-5  that have more than one acre and not restricted by HOA Covenants and Restrictions, chickens and domestic fowl are permitted after a Special Use Permit is obtained from the County.

To obtain the Special Use Permit for those in areas zoned SR-1, SR-3, SR-5 within the Domestic Fowl Overlay District, you first fill out an application. Then the Special Use Permit applications are submitted to the Planning Office for staff review. The planning staff will then prepare an analysis and recommendation for consideration by the Planning Commission at a public hearing. The Planning Commission will then submit its recommendation to the Board of County Supervisors, and at a subsequent public hearing the Board will consider the case and the Planning Commission recommendation and either approve or deny the application. The Board action is final.

The maximum number of chicken or domestic fowl permitted is proportional to the size of the lot. One "bird unit" per acre is allowed for properties of 1 to less than 5 acres, three bird units per acre for properties of 5 to less than 10 acres. There is no limit on the number of bird units allowed on properties greater than 10 acres other than restrictions by HOA Covenants and Restrictions. A bird unit is:
10 chickens (though only one rooster per acre) or
6 ducks or
4 turkeys, geese or pea fowl or
1 ostrich or emu
20 pigeons, doves, or quail

Note: Only domestic fowl six weeks and older are allowed under the regulation. Also, only one rooster or guinea fowl are allowed per acre. Roosters and guinea fowl must be confined between sunset and sunrise within a caged area on any lot less than ten acres, and the caged area must be more than 150 feet from neighbor’s homes.

The domestic fowl regulations require coops or cages and runs on any lot with less than five acres and specifies construction standards and humane areas for each bird, distance from Resource Protected Areas (RPA) under the Chesapeake Bay Act, distance from well heads. The required coops, cages or runs must be enclosed with a minimum four feet high chicken wire fence and must be kept clean and free from excess feed, excrement, and such substances that may attract rodents or other predators.

Runs and cages for chickens must have a maximum density of four square feet per bird. For larger fowl, such as geese or turkey, the maximum run or cage density per bird is 15 square feet. For emus, ostriches and similar large birds, the maximum run or cage density is 100 square feet per bird.

Coops and runs must be located only in the rear or side yard and shall adhere to the same setbacks as non-commercial kennels. Such structures shall also be set back at least five feet from the principal dwelling on the property and at least 100 feet from an RPA stream (Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Bay Act) and 50 feet from all other streams. A zoning permit must be obtained for these structures.

Cages, coops and runs on properties not served by public water must be separated from the well head on the property. If the well is a class 3A or B with grouting then the minimum separation distance is 50 feet. If the well is a class 3C or class 4 well, then the minimum separation distance is 100 feet. If the chicken coop is enclosed, has a concrete floor and the chicken manure is removed and placed for trash pickup, or other best management practices are applied, then the separation distance for a class 3C or 4 well can be reduced to 50 feet. Waste management guidelines for surface and groundwater protection were established using Prince William Soil and Water Conservation district guidance. You can get the specifics from the District.

Prince William also regulates how the chicken and domestic fowl can be used. Fowl raised on properties less than five acres in size may only be used for producing eggs. No "dispatch" of fowl may take place on the premises. Chickens and domestic fowl raised on properties five acres or larger but less than ten acres may be dispatched for domestic use only. Fowl raised on parcels of ten acres or larger shall be under the same provisions for dispatch as any other livestock. Got it?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Five Indicted for Involuntary Manslaughter in Flint Water Crisis

Last week the Michigan State Attorney General, Bill Schuette, announced charges for six state and local officials in connection to the Flint water crisis. Five people have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the case relating to deaths from Legionella, a type of bacteria commonly found in the environment that grows best in warm water, such as hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, potable water systems, and decorative fountains. When people are exposed to the bacteria, it can cause Legionellosis, a respiratory disease that can infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. Legionella cannot spread from one person to another person. 

The charges are the latest in the Attorney General's investigation that has lasted more than a year and seen 15 people facing 51 charges for various offenses relating to the Flint Michigan water crisis. Charged with involuntary manslaughter last week were:
  • Nick Lyon, the Director of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Mr. Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.
  • Darnell Earley, the Flint emergency manager from September 2013-January 2015. Mr. Earley is charged with false pretenses and conspiracy, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
  • Howard Croft, former City of Flint public works superintendent is charged with involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy and false pretenses.
  • Liane Shekter-Smith, the fired head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water Division is charged with involuntary manslaughter and previously with misconduct in office, and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Stephen Busch, the Lansing district coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Previously, he had been charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, two counts of violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. 
Others charged:
  • Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer. Dr. Wells is charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a police officer. 
  • Gerald Ambrose, the Flint emergency manger from January to April 2015. He is charged with false pretenses, conspiracy, misconduct in office and will neglect of duty.
  • Daugherty Johnson the former Flints utilities administrator is charged with conspiracy and false pretenses.
  • Adam Rosenthal a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality analyst is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Patrick Cook a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality specialist is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Nancy Peeler, the director of the DHHS program for maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty. 
  • Mike Prysby a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water offical is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, two violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Robert Scott, the data manager for the DHHS Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and willful neglect of duty.
  • Corinne Miller, the former state epidemiologist was charged with misconduct in office, conspiracy and neglect of duty. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation last fall on the understanding that the felony charges would be dropped. 
  • Mike Glasgow, the City of Flint’s laboratory and water quality supervisor whas charged with two counts of tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation last fall on the understanding that the felony charges would be dropped. 
This all began in 2013 when the Flint city council decided to join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept rising. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

The use of the Flint River was approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in 2014. Here is where the problems began. Though the Flint Water Treatment staff, LAN engineering consultants and the DEQ understood that the Flint River would be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and would have higher organic carbon levels than Lake Huron water and would be more difficulty to treat, they thought that Flint had the equipment (after a Water Treatment Plant upgrade) and the capacity to meet the demands of treating river water, after all, the Flint River had been the emergency backup water supply for the city. They were wrong.

Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. The first problems were with of increased levels of trihalomethanes (disinfection by-products formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter in drinking water) next were increased levels of total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria levels. Just when they were convinced that the finished water from the plant was within Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, there began to appear problems at the tap. Lead levels became highly elevated.

Over the summers of 2014 and 2015 the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease with 10 associated fatalities in Genesee County. Of the confirmed cases in 2014, the source of water at the primary residence was City of Flint water for 47% of cases. Health Department officials haven't definitely linked the water switch to the disease, but Mr. Schuette has come close to doing so in public statements and documents related to the criminal charges filed last week. Still, prosecutors likely have to prove a direct link of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak to improperly treated Flint water and the negligence of state officials. Though the message is clear that regulators and state employees have duty to perform their jobs to protect the public health.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Hard Water

In many parts of the country (including mine) the water contains high levels of dissolved minerals and is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium and magnesium ions. In the water clinics we run here in Prince William county, we have found almost 38% of homes tested in the 2012-2015 water clinics had water softeners, many of these systems unnecessary. Water softening systems have been oversold. Before considering treating your water test it to get a full picture of the nature of your water supply. While these hard water minerals are harmless to human health, but they do cause household problems. However, no treatment is without consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems.

Water hardness are either reported in milligrams per liter(mg/L) or grains per gallon (gpg). Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, magnesium and iron per liter of water or 7 grains per gallon can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. Concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter or 10.5 grains per gallon is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs impacts become noticeable. These minerals combine with soap in the laundry and bath soap to form a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks, and doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car (though commercial car washes use recycled water and are more environmentally friendly). When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, hot water pipes, and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and appliances have work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life. 
from VAMWON


There are a number of simple things you can do to reduce the effects of hard water in your home, without having to resort to treating your water, so called softening. My water has elevated levels of calcium and magnesium 170 milligrams per liter yet I do not have a whole house water softener. The simple things to do to address hard water are:
  • Choose a detergent based laundry product. Some laundry detergents/soaps do not produce as many suds in hard water, these are likely to be soap-based products and do not work as well in hard-water as detergent based products. These days, there are laundering powders and liquids available for a wide range of water hardness. Occasionally running your washing machine with vinegar and hot water will clear out the buildup of lime scale.
  • Reduce the temperature of your hot water heater. When water temperature increases, more mineral deposits will appear in your dishwasher, hot water tank and pipes. By reducing the temperature, you will save money and will reduce the amount of mineral build-up in your pipes and tank. Use rinse agents to remove mineral deposits. There are low pH (acidic) products available to remove mineral deposits from pots and pans and dishwasher. 
  • Alternatively, you can use plain white vinegar by using the dishwasher dispenser or placing a cup of vinegar on the dishwasher rack. Boil some white vinegar in your kettle to remove hard water deposits. Drain and rinse your hot water heater annually.

In days past, at the first sign of hard water, domestic water supplies were commonly softened by using a salt based conventional water softening system. Water softening is basically an ion exchange system. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The water supply pipe is connected to the mineral tank so that water coming into the house must pass through the tank before it can be used. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions are positively charged and are attracted to the negatively charged beads. This attraction makes the minerals stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. Sodium is often used to charge the resin beads. As the water is softened, the sodium ions are replaced and small quantities of sodium are released into the softened water, thus the taste.

Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank. Sodium is typically used and is cheap, but potassium can also be used. The salt ions also have a positive electrical charge, just not quite as strong as that of calcium and magnesium, but the high concentration of salt ions overpowers the calcium and magnesium ions and drives them off of the beads and into the solution. The excess sodium solution carrying the calcium and magnesium is flushed to the septic system and into the environment. Some sodium ions remain in the tank attached to the surfaces of the beads and the resin is now regenerated and ready to continue softening the water.

The amount of sodium in water conditioning systems is a real problem for humans and the environment. All of the salt is released into the septic system and ultimately the leach field and groundwater, and these conventional salt-based water softening systems contribute to three problems:
  1. The brine backwash can cause salt buildup in groundwater and other aquatic environments. Water softeners release sodium chloride and other chloride salts into the environment. This can adversely affect groundwater aquifers, streams and rivers. This can add to problems in areas that are already suffering from high concentrations of salts due to road salt application.
  2. Brine backwash in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and reduced scum layer development, carryover of solids and grease to the distribution system.
  3. The brine back wash system uses water to flush itself out regularly. The EPA estimates in that a conventional softener can use up to 10,000 gallons per year for the backwash cycle. This could be a significant increase in water use for well owners. 
In addition softened water should not be used to water house plants, the salt build up will eventually kill them and they will not thrive. Softened water should also not be used in steam irons or evaporators like evaporative coolers. In addition, while some studies have shown that sodium does not interfere with bacterial action in ATU tanks in alternative septic systems, David Pask, Senior Engineering Scientist of the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. He felt the brine in the conventional septic tank had interfered with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and might be carried over into the septic systems drain field. Field practitioners reported to the Small Flows Clearinghouse negative impact from water softening regeneration brine.

Terry Bounds, an engineer, in an article published in the summer 1994 issue of Small Flows (the precursor of the Small Flows Quarterly magazine) states that in his work he has seen noticeable differences between septic tanks with and without water softener brine discharges. Mr. Bounds said that in the tanks with added water softener discharge, he saw reduced scum layer development, carryover of solids and grease to the distribution system, and a less distinguishable "clear zone" that might mean solids remain suspended instead of settling in the tank.

Personally, I do not care to add all that sodium to my diet while removing calcium carbonate and magnesium (something that is also sold in pill form for stronger bones). If you are on public water, you should not need to soften your water. If you must soften your water there may be other options- which I will discuss in a future post.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Contaminants found in Deep Groundwater

All the water that ever was or will be on earth is here right now. More than 97% of the Earth’s water is within the in oceans. The remaining 2.8% is the fresh water on the planet most of which is contained in the icecaps and glaciers with the remaining fresh water is stored primarily as groundwater with a tiny fraction stored as rivers and lakes. Groundwater forms the invisible, subsurface part of the natural water cycle, in which rivers and streams are the visible components. The “visible” components are all strongly affected by weather and climate, and although they can be contaminated quickly, they generally recover quickly too. By contrast, the subsurface processes of groundwater percolation and seepage are much slower ranging from weeks to years to millennia.

There is groundwater everywhere on earth, but our ability to pump it and use it varies from place to place, depending on rainfall and geology- the rock and sand layers within whose pore spaces the groundwater sits. Generally, groundwater is renewed only during a part of each year through precipitation, but can be withdrawn year-round serving as a natural reservoir. Provided that the withdrawal rate does not exceed the rate at which groundwater is replenished, and that the source is protected from pollution, groundwater can be abstracted indefinitely.

The groundwater cycle in humid and arid regions differ fundamentally from each other. In humid climates like ours, with high rainfall, large volumes of water seep into the groundwater, which contributes actively to the water cycle feeding streams, springs and wetlands during periods when the rainfall is lower. In semi-arid and arid climates, there is by contrast practically extremely limited exchange between the surface water and groundwater because the small volume of seepage from the occasional rainfall only rarely penetrates the thick and dry (unsaturated) soils. The groundwater is much deeper and isolated from surface contact. In these areas groundwater resources are only minimally recharged. Our understanding of the complete water cycle is still only rudimentary.

We do know that groundwater availability varies by location. Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually, and the volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. Groundwater may be present today even in places with very dry climates because of the nature of the local geology and the historic climate cycles that have occurred through time. Giant groundwater deposits of limited recharge are thought to exist on nearly all continents, but the amount of groundwater that can be pumped out is unknown. Scientists are just beginning to study deeper sources of groundwater.

Groundwater is usually cleaner than surface water. Groundwater is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer, and until now, the scientific community has believed that this fossil groundwater was safe from modern contamination, but a recent study has challenged this belief. University of Calgary hydro-geologist Dr. Scott Jasechko led a team that discovered ancient groundwater is not immune to modern-day pollution. This study was recently published in Nature Geoscience.

Dr. Jasechko and his co-researchers measured the amount of radioactive carbon in the water to determine the age of the groundwater from more than 6,000 groundwater wells around the globe. Based on their findings they estimated that the majority of the earth's groundwater is likely fossil groundwater, derived from rain and snow that fell more than 12,000 years ago. Dr. Jasechko and his team estimated that this fossil groundwater accounts for between 42%- 85% of available fresh water within a kilometer of the earth's crust. However, they discovered that half of the groundwater wells in the study also contained detectable levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope that was spread around the globe as a result of thermonuclear bomb testing.

Rain and snow that fell on earth after the 1950s contains tritium. Disturbingly, traces of tritium were found in deep well waters, which indicate that contaminated rain and snow melt of today may be able to mix in with deep fossil groundwater and, in turn, potentially contaminate that ancient water until now scientists believed to be pure. This suggests that contemporary contaminants- chemicals of our modern world may be able to reach deep wells that tap fossil aquifers. "The unfortunate finding is that even though deep wells pump mostly fossil groundwater, many still contain some recent rain and snow melt, which is vulnerable to modern contamination," says Jasechko. "Our results imply that water quality in deep wells can be impacted by the land management decisions we make today."

Groundwater is the only available clean drinking water in many parts of the world, and now we find out it may not be as clean as we assumed. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and often after removal of contaminated plumes only long term abandonment of use to allow for natural attenuation is the only possible course of action. Precious groundwater resources increasingly need to be protected and well managed to allow for sustainable long-term use.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Check List for Chlorine Shocking a Well

You disinfect a well and plumbing system by circulating a concentrated chlorine solution throughout the system. The level of chlorine to use is between 50 ppm and 200 ppm (parts per million) depending on which University extension office is asked. I typically use about 200 ppm as recommended by The Virginia Cooperative Extension where I volunteer unless I am addressing a significant iron bacteria problem in which case a much higher concentration of chlorine is necessary. Be aware that too concentrated a solution or too weak a solution will not be effective. Do it once the right way.

Why disinfect a well, there are several reasons, the most common reason is because coliform bacteria was found in the well water. In that case, standard protocol is:
  1. Carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination. Make sure you have a sound and secured sanitary well cap and that the soil around the well is packed to drain water away from the well. 
  2. Then treat the well and plumbing system with chlorine for 12-24 hours to disinfect system (thet 12-24 hours is essential). Then flush the chlorine from the system.
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks. If coliform bacteria is “absent” you’re done. If not, then it is time to install a long term disinfection system.
Chlorine shocking a well is also used to knock back iron bacteria which can foul a well, damage pumps, stain plumbing fixtures, clog pipes, faucets, showerheads, and produce unpleasant tastes and odors in drinking water. There are no drinking water standards for iron bacteria so water is very rarely tested for it. Confirmation is usually based on visual symptoms in the water, including the slimy brown/red appearance (often most noticeable in the toilet tank) and an unpleasant musty odor. Over time as iron bacteria takes over the system the perceived quality of the well water declines as iron bacteria produce unpleasant tastes and odors commonly reported as: "swampy," "oily or petroleum," "cucumber," "sewage," "rotten vegetation," or "musty." There is often a discoloration of the water with the iron bacteria causing a slight yellow, orange, red or brown tint to the water. The standard protocol for treating iron bacteria is to chlorine shock the well at a recommended chlorine concentration of 500-1,000 parts per million unless the well is already fouled then the pumping equipment in the well must be removed and cleaned, which is usually a job for a well contractor or pump installer.

I have had iron bacteria problems and coliform bacteria in the past. I chlorine shock my well every couple of years simply to maintain water quality and knock back the iron bacteria. This practice was until recently fairly radical in the private well sector, but is common in small public supply wells.

This past weekend I helped someone who attended our Prince William County Drinking Water Clinic chlorine shock his well. He is someone who sought help from VAMWON where I volunteer and then came to the water clinic. He is a professional, bright and capable, but not an engineer and wanted help with the project. I know there is nowhere to turn to get your well done right, so when he pressed I agreed to show up and provide guidance on how to do it. Given my arthritic hands I am fairly useless with a wrench, but I can walk you through it and lend a hand and it is really an easier job with to people. Here is how you do it:

First you need to know how deep your well is to calculate how much chlorine to use. Also, the flow rate on the well will give you an idea on how long it will take to clear the well of chlorine. Get a copy of the Well Completion Report from the county. They will make a copy for you, but if you ask nicely they will just email it to you saving you a trip to the department of health.

Depth of well tells you how much water is stored in the well boring. The typical 6 inch diameter well stores 1.47 gallons per foot, so you multiply your well depth by 1.47 and then add about 110 gallons for the hot water heater and household plumbing . You will need about 3 pints of chlorine per 100 gallons. If you have a very large hot water heater and lots of treatment equipment you will need to add another half a gallon of chlorine. Buy extra- you might need it.


A few days before disinfecting your well you need to purchase all your supplies. You will need:
  • a plastic tarp, 
  • 3 -5 gallons of plain unscented Clorox bleach (you need 3 pints for every 100 gallons of water with standard bleach), 
  • an 8” diameter funnel, 
  • rubber gloves
  • a relatively new scrub brush 
  • a white 3 gallon bucket (I can’t easily lift a 5 gallon filled with water and chlorine), 
  • lots of chlorine test strips 
  • a clean and relatively new hose or hoses at least long enough to reach the well from the spigot
  • a pair of safety glasses or goggles
In addition, you will want to purchase 6 gallons (or more) of bottled water (to carry you while we have no water to use and make sure that our coffee and tea do not have any chlorine residue to spoil the taste), new refrigerator filters, and coliform home test kits for use in a couple of weeks.

When you are ready to disinfect your well, you need to have about 24-30 hours when you will not be able to use the water. Shock chlorinating a water supply system can potentially damage  pressure tanks, water softeners, filters and filter media, and other treatment devices, but the only way to kill the bacteria is to run the chlorinated water into the components and let it sit in the system. Virginia Cooperative Extension always recommends that you check with component manufacturers before shock chlorinating your water supply system to determine how to bypass or protect this equipment if necessary. With my components I consider this wear and tear. 


I began by filling my bucket with some water and chlorine then go into the basement and turn off the power to the well. Then turn off the power or gas to the hot water heater and drain it, and close the water intake valve. Once the well is fully chlorinated you will refill the hot water heater, but keep it cold (and turned off) during the hold time.

Now it is time to unbolt and remove the well cap. Examine the well cap to make sure it is in good condition and the screen on the base is sound. Next take your brush and clean off the well cap using the chlorinated water from your bucket. Once the well cap is good and clean place it on the plastic tarp or wrap it in a clean plastic bag. Next scrub the edger of the well casing to remove any dirt and take a rag dipped in chlorine water and wipe down the wires in the well examining them for any damage. Get the wiring nice and clean and push them aside.

  • Put on old clothes and safety glasses
  • Run your nice new hoses from the house to the well and place on the tarp
  • Fill bucket with half water and half chlorine. 
  • Turn off power to the well
  • Drain the hot water tank
  • Remove well cap
  • Clean well cap with chlorine and water solution and place in clean plastic bag
  • Clean well casing top and well cap base using brush dipped in chlorine water
  • Pull wires in the well aside if they are blocking the top of the well and clean them with a rag dipped in chlorine water mixture. Make sure there are no nicks or cuts in the wires. 
  • Put the funnel in the well top and pour in the chlorine and water mixture
  • Now pour in the rest of the chlorine SLOWLY to minimize splashing
  • Go back to the basement and turn the power to the well back on
  • Turn on the hose and put it in the well 
  • Sit down and wait for about 45 minutes or an hour

What you are doing is recirculating the water. It is running from the well to the pressure tank to the hose and back again. This effectively is mixing the chlorine into the well water. The deeper your well the longer this takes. Also, if you have any treatment tanks installed ahead of the pressure tank they are also being included in this cycle. After about 45 minutes the water should look orange and test strongly for chlorine. 

  • Use the hose to wash down the inside of the well casing
  • Turn off the hose
  • Carefully bolt the well cap back in place
  • Fill your hot water heater with water
  • Draw water to every faucet in the house until it tests positive for chlorine then flush all your toilets. Turn off your ice maker. 
  • Then it was no water for 12-24 hours 
  • Set up your hoses to run to a gravel area or non-sensitive drainage area. The chlorine will damage plants 

After 16 hours turn on the hoses leave them to run for the next 6-12 hours. The time is dependent on the depth of the well and the recharge rate. Deeper wells with a faster recharge rate takes longer. If you cannot run your well dry-it recharges faster than I can pump you need to keep diluting the chlorine.
  • After about 6 hours of running the hoses begin testing the water coming out of the hose for chlorine. Keep running the hose and testing the chlorine until the chlorine tests below about 1 ppm.
  • Now it is time to drain the hot water heater again, refill it and turn it back on
  • Open each faucet in the house (one at a time) and let run it until the water tested free of chlorine. Be aware the hot water will sputter- big time- until all the air is out of the system. Flush all the toilets
  • Change the refrigerator filter cartridge and dump all your ice and turn your ice maker back on. 
  • You are done. 
There are a few twists and turns that can come up. If you have iron bacteria in your well, your will see gunk in the water when you are re-circulating the water in the well. In that case I typically run off some water for an hour or so to get some of the gunk out. Then add an additional gallon of chlorine to the system and recirculate for another half an hour before I close up the well. Also if you have treatment tanks in your basement, you also want to drain after the chlorine has been flushed out of the system. Do not drain them into your septic system. Good luck.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Using Iron Filters for your Well Water

Iron and manganese are naturally occurring elements commonly found in groundwater in many part of the country were the underlying geology is igneous rocks. At naturally occurring levels iron and manganese do not present a health hazard. However, their presence in well water can cause unpleasant taste, staining and accumulation of mineral solids that can clog water treatment equipment and plumbing and discolored water. The standard Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron is 0.3 milligrams per liter (mg/L or ppm) and 0.05 mg/L for manganese. This level of iron and manganese are easily detected by taste, smell or appearance. In addition, some types of bacteria react with soluble forms of iron and manganese and form persistent bacterial contamination in a well, water system and any treatment systems. These organisms change the iron and manganese from a soluble form into a less soluble form, thus causing precipitation and accumulation of black or reddish brown gelatinous material (slime). Masses of mucous, iron, and/or manganese can clog plumbing and water treatment equipment.

The key to iron and manganese removal is oxidation. An oxygen molecule must be supplied to change the minerals from the soluble bicarbonate to the insoluble hydroxide form so it can be filtered from the water. Four methods are typically used to deliver oxygen: aeration, ion exchange (a water softener), a greensand or iron filter, or chlorination.

If you have an iron problem, a manganese greensand filter often referred to as oxidizing, iron or red water filter might be a good solution for you. Like most home model water filters the typical manganese greensand filter is a pressure filter, a fully enclosed tank type filters that operates at the same pressure as the water delivery system so that you do not need to buy a booster pump. These devices are used for a variety of water treatment processes such as taste and odor improvement, iron and manganese removal and removal of suspended matter (turbidity) in water. The water treatment performed by a pressure filter is determined by the filter media that is inside the tank. Most companies that sell pressure filters use the same tank for all treatments but change the inside filter media depending on the type of treatment needed.

Iron filters contain a resin designed to remove iron and manganese that is in solution. It will also act as a filter and catch iron and manganese precipitates that have been oxidized before reaching the filter. Typically these filters are effective for iron and manganese removal concentrations up to 10 ppm. However, this type of filter will not tolerate iron bacteria, because the slimy material that is produced coats the greensand and fouls it. The greensand filter must be regenerated with a new solution of potassium permanganate when the oxygen is depleted. This process is similar to regenerating a softener. The filter must be backwashed every so often based on the size of the filter. The typical cycle is weekly.

The iron filters have been less successful in actual practice. Before you install any treatment system test your water thoroughly. An iron filter will not function if there is iron bacteria present in the well, because the slimy material that is produced by the iron bacteria coats the greensand and fouls it. Next, the functioning of the filter is pH dependent. Iron filters can remove iron when the pH is about 7.5 or higher, but manganese is very difficult to remove at pH values below 8.5. So to install a greensand or iron filter you first must adjust the pH of the water to the appropriate level. The final problem is iron breakthrough.

For the iron filter to work properly the correct flow rate is the secret to effective iron removal. Adequate flow is required to clear the filter bed of sediment before it becomes too dirty. Most well pumps used for private drinking water wells supply 10 to 15 gallons per minute (gpm) of flow. The size filter that can be used is limited by the backwash water available. That is why many of the home pressure filters are tall thin “bottle-type” units that are only 8 inches in diameter. This size filter can be backwashed with 8 to 10 gpm flow. However, the low surface area only provides treatment for a limited water flow of about 2 gpm on average or about 5 gpm for short peak flows. Use of higher volumes of water would result in iron breakthrough. At first the water will appear clear then often become brown or rusty after a few minutes. The chemical coating on a greensand or iron filter has limited oxidizing capabilities, but they can all be made more effective with the addition of a pre- oxidant step using air, chlorine, or peroxide in a first tank followed by the filtration step.

Before you select a treatment method for an iron and manganese problem you might want to consider all your options. Another approach for iron and manganese removal is chlorination. Chlorination and filtration can remove high concentrations of iron, iron bacteria, and hydrogen sulfide gas. The iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide gas is oxidized by the chlorine. A sediment filter is used to remove the rust particles followed by an activated carbon filter is used to remove excess chlorine and other impurities. The resulting water has an excellent taste. For this system to work the pH of the water must be above 7. No other method of home water treatment has as many benefits as chlorination- disinfection and oxidizing agent.