Monday, September 25, 2017

SepticSmart

Kimberly Clark, the manufacturer of several brands of personal wipes that they call "flushable" is suing Washington DC over a new city law regulating when a wipe can be labeled "flush-able." The law was passed after DC Water and public utilities found that these wipes were clogging the sewage pipes and treatment plants. They also clog septic systems and reminded me that last week was the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fifth annual SepticSmart Week.

 SepticSmart is a program the EPA uses to encourage the more than 26 million homeowners with septic systems to properly maintain their septic systems; and update homeowners on the latest in best management practices for their home systems.

When homeowners flush and don’t think about their home’s septic system, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows, surfacing sewage in your yard which can be expensive to fix, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment. Yet, Virginia like many states has struggled to get homeowners to consistently maintain their septic systems. A well maintained septic system can last 30 years.

Homeowners fail to see or simply ignore signs that their septic systems may be failing, do not pump their tanks often enough and do not comply with inspection and maintenance regulation for alternative systems. The EPA launched the annual SepticSmart Week, to encourage homeowners to get “SepticSmart”-understand how to properly operate and maintain their septic systems.

The United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our water resources EPA has turned their focus to controlling pollution from diffuse, or non-point, sources. Things like stormwater runoff and septic systems. According to EPA, these non-point source pollution are the largest remaining source of water quality problems. However, these are the most difficult sources of pollution to address, because eliminating them involves changing the behavior of millions of people. We did not do enough to control these small pollution sources from our homes and daily lives. The maintenance and care of their septic systems is the responsibility of homeowners, but failure to maintain their system can impact their neighbors drinking water.

The average household septic system should be inspected at least every three years by a septic service professional. Household septic tanks are typically pumped every three to five years. Alternative systems with electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components should be inspected more often, generally once a year. A service contract is important since alternative systems have mechanized parts.

Taking the steps recommended by the EPA for SepticSmart Week would be a great start at reducing nonpoint pollution of our waters. Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:

1. Protect It and Inspect It: In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
2. Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
3. Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank; also they can clog the piping.
4. Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks, install faucet aerators and water-efficient products, and spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.
5. Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cost of Water in the Washington DC Metro Region

Water bills will be increasing. There is no true “cost” of water, the price charged for water, often does not reflect its value or true cost. WSSC commissioners have been holding a series of meetings open to the public about adopting a new rate structure. WSSC needs to raise rates and increase revenue even as water usage per person fall. WSSC is engaged in a decades long plan repair and restore their water and sewer distribution system. They are currently engaged in a 10 year program to replace over 2,000 miles of water pipe and similar amount or sewer pipes. WSSC needs to fund both ongoing operations and the billions of dollars in capital needed to rehabilitate, upgrade and replace water and wastewater infrastructure.

WSSC will also need to address their water quality. Since the beginning of August, people in the western area of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water system have noticed brown or yellow discolored water. Though, WSSC says that the water is safe to drink, they advise that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry. WSSC says that excessive organic matter required them to make adjustments to their water treatment to hold a primary drinking water standard within EPA limits. This has continued for significantly longer than a month and shows no sign of abatement.

Last winter WSSC experienced discolored water reportedly caused by excessive road salt. No amount of explanation will make it all right that WSSC cannot consistently deliver water that is safe, clean, clear, and good tasting water twelve months a year. Nonetheless, to even approach that goal they need years of increasing water rates.

Recently, Fairfax Water announced its intention to raise their water rates next spring. There will be a public hearing on Thursday, December 14, 2017, on the proposed rate increase held at Fairfax Water’s main office at 8570 Executive Park Avenue in Fairfax. This rate increase is part of their ongoing program to ensure that the water infrastructure in Fairfax County is maintained. The proposed rate increase will go into effect April 1. 2018.

The need for infrastructure replacement is an issue that has caused significant service problems and rate increases in other parts of the Washington Metropolitan region. Fairfax Water Board of Directors have dedicated funding to infrastructure maintenance and replacement for many years, and has forecast future capital needs for replacing water mains in the system. In addition, Fairfax Water is planning for additional water storage within their system by developing the Vulcan Quarry as a reservoir.

As they do every time they propose to raise water rates, Fairfax Water performed a comparison of the water costs throughout the Washington Metropolitan region. This comparison is based on rates as of April 1, 2017 and on 18,000 gallons of residential water use for an established account over a three month period. As you can see below Even with this increase, Fairfax Water’s commodity rates will remain among the lowest in the Washington metropolitan region.


Once more, Manassas Park has the highest water rates in the region. Manassas Park is a small utility system with fewer than 5,000 customers. In addition, tucked into that overhead is debt service for the city’s Enterprise Fund. Manassas Park is responsible for paying City utility bonds, and also to make the annual principal and interest payments on the bonds sold to build the City Schools, Police Station, and Fire Station & Community Center. While diverting water funds to other city needs, Manassas Park failed to properly maintain their water distribution system. Manassas Park distribution system’s water loss is around 25%, of the water purchased.

Monday, September 18, 2017

PA Finally Making Progress on TMDL

The EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

The Chesapeake Bay states and Washington DC together known as the Bay jurisdictions agreed to create state-specific plans to implement 60 percent of their Bay cleanup practices by 2017 and 100% by 2025. These plans are called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs and were designed to help restore the Bay and improve the health of local waterways.

Though EPA approved Pennsylvania's "Phase I" WIP in 2011, EPA cited several deficiencies in Pennsylvania's plan that resulted in EPA imposing "backstops" to assure pollutant reductions in the plan would be achieved. Backstops can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller farm animal operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants. The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials take some “backstop” actions to force the state to meet their goals.

As you can see below Pennsylvania had not meet their goals. In an attempt to get there (and meet EPA requirements), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its “Strategy to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Effort”, pledging renewed commitment to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reductions. Because agriculture dominates much of the landscape of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, it was the focus of the new strategy.


With funding provided by the Chesapeake Bay Program and the state, Conservation District and DEP staff visited 1,125 farms from October 2016 through March 2017. Though this was still an inspection rate below what is needed to achieve the annual goal of visiting 10% of farms each year it was a start; and the pace of inspections has quickened now that the process is established.

Most of the farms visited had not previously worked with Conservation Districts, so they were less likely to have conservation plans and nutrient management plans in place than the general farm population. Of farms required to have plans, 70% had manure management plans, and 68% had erosion and sediment control plans. The inspections, however, only assessed whether the required plans exist, not whether they were properly implemented and actually address water-quality concerns—a major shortfall of state efforts to date.

Farmers received a notice before the inspector visited, and noncompliant farms were given time to write their plans and become compliant before enforcement actions were taken. Historically, progress on implementation of the WIP was based on reported data regarding conservation practices established with assistance from public agencies. Many farmers, however, adopt practices on their farms independent of public financing. A recent Penn State survey documented a high volume of previously uncounted conservation practices, including several hundred thousand acres under nutrient management, and nearly 6,000 acres of forested streamside buffers that were previously undocumented. These inspections will serve to inform and engage farmers in conservation practices and document compliance.

In Virginia the Soil and Water Conservation Districts design the plans for our farmers and the state shares in the cost of implementation. We review the plans every few years and verify implementation and functioning of the mitigation.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricanes, the Atlantic Oscillation and Climate Change

When Harvey made landfall along the Middle Texas Coast it was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005 and the first hurricane to make landfall in that area since Celia in 1970. Harvey was epic in the amount of rain that fell on Houston, because the storm stalled over the city. Hurricane Harvey was followed by Irma a hurricane that reached Category 5 storm status before it crashed through the Caribbean. The islands of Barbuda, St. Martin, St Barthelemy (St Barts), Anguilla were crushed by the storm and others like Puerto Rico were impacted before Irma arrived in Florida with storm surge that knocked out power to 15 million people.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had predicted that 2017 would be an above –average year for Atlantic storms and I’m a believer. One of the reasons that NOAA made this prediction is that since 1990 we have been in the warm phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). The AMO is an series of long-duration changes in the sea surface temperature that have been observed in the North Atlantic Ocean, with a difference of about 1°F between the cool and warm phases that may last for 20-40 years at a time.

These temperature changes in the cycle are natural. Scientists first detected the AMO in 1994 using the ocean temperature measurement from the last 150 years; however, studies of paleoclimate proxies, such as tree rings and ice cores, have shown that oscillations similar to those observed have been occurring for at least the last millennium. This is clearly longer than modern man has been affecting climate, so the AMO is probably a natural climate oscillation.

In the 20th century, the climate swings of the AMO have alternately camouflaged and exaggerated the effects of changing climate, and made attribution of global warming more difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless we know that during the warm phase of the AMO, the numbers of tropical storms that mature into severe hurricanes is at least twice the rate than during the cool phase. Since the AMO switched to its warm phase around 1995, severe hurricanes have become much more frequent.

Scientists do not know enough to predict exactly when the AMO will switch to the cooler phase. Computer models are far from being able to do this and the climate models are useless here. What is possible to do at present is to calculate the probability that a change in the AMO will occur within a given future time frame. The AMO affects rainfall in Europe, drought in the Amazon, and Atlantic hurricanes. The warm phase fuels storms by warming the tropical Atlantic and intensifying the West African monsoon. The monsoon spins up low-pressure systems that enter the tropical Atlantic and allows the storms that form there to develop rotation and gain energy.

Reporters have invariably attributed the recent storms to climate change. However, most of the impacts predicted by scientists for climate change are still out in the future and of a much bigger scale. So far, scientists tell us that over the past century the oceans have risen over 7 inches which has caused an increase in the frequency of flooding, but may not have had any other effect. According to some ocean researchers the AMO is now close to neutral or about to switch. However, other scientists believe that factors outside the ocean may also trigger changes in the AMO. Studies of paleoclimate proxies indicate that volcanic eruptions and small changes in the sun’s output may have warmed and cooled the ocean and triggered AMO reversals.

In the last few decades of our planet’s history, humans have added their own influences, such as particulates from burning coal, which reflect sunlight thereby having a cooling effect on the ocean. Some scientists attribute particulates from burning coal in the second half of the 20th century as the primary cause of the most recent cold phase of the AMO, which lasted from 1970 to 1994. Still others propose that increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and declining air pollution might prolong the current warm period of the AMO. We don’t know. We are still learning about our planet even as it changes.

We do know that in the past half century our cities have continue to build and expand into historic flood zones while sea level was rising. This trend has been encouraged by government policy decisions. Since the 1960’s the United Stated government has provide cheap, subsidized flood insurance that has encouraged development in areas of high flood risk that has often resulted in the elimination of the flood plain buffers zones.

It is simply not feasible to protect all of the coastal lands from rising oceans and storm surges or to continually rebuild properties that repeatedly flood. Before Harvey the flood insurance program was already $24 billion in debt. Sooner or later areas of the coast will have to be abandoned, because we will be unable to stop the impacts of a changing climate.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Types of Water Wells- Bored Wells

From Royal Pump and Well VA
There are two main types of modern wells, they can  often be distinguished by the diameter of the bore hole. The two types are bored wells and drilled wells. There has been a shift towards well regulations and drilled wells in the past couple of decades, but in areas of the Appalachian Plateau and other locations where clean low yielding groundwater sources are found relatively close to the surface- usually under 100 feet below grade.


Bored wells get their name from the way they are constructed. Bored wells are constructed using a rotary bucket auger. They are usually completed by installing a perforated casing (also called cribbing) or using a sand screen with continuous slot. One advantage of bored wells is the large diameter of the casing, from 18-36 inched. It provides a water storage reservoir for use during peak demand periods. A disadvantage of utilizing a shallow groundwater aquifer is that it generally relies on annual precipitation for recharge. So these systems are often installed with an additional cistern to ride out water shortages may occur following long dry periods in summer and extended freeze up during winter months. It can also be more susceptible to contamination from surface land-use activities.


As opposed to the 6 inch diameter drilled wells, bored wells are generally used where the groundwater aquifers are both shallow and low-yielding. Typically, I see bored wells with between 0.5-1.0 gallon per minute yield. Though, I have heard of bored wells in Goochland with up to 5 gallons a minute. A well that yields only 0.5 gallon per minute will provide 720 gallons per day which is more than enough for a household. Bored wells range in depth from 30 feet to 100 feet. To compensate for the low-yield of the aquifer, large diameter bored wells serve as storage reservoirs to provide water during periods of high demand. A bored well with a diameter of 3 feet provides 53 gallons of water storage per foot of depth.

Because they are shallow, bored wells are susceptible to both contamination and drought. This is why they are falling out of favor. A large protected land area and proper location of the well reduces the possibility of contamination. A well should be higher than the surrounding ground surface for good drainage. All possible sources of contamination should be at a lower elevation than the well, and the distances to those contamination sources must comply with local Water Well Construction Codes but should be 100 feet from septic tanks and leach fields to be safe. Tests performed in the past have shown that bacterial contamination is usually eliminated after water has filtered through 10 feet of normal soil. Therefore, the well must be constructed to ensure that at least the top 10 feet of casing is watertight.

There is more than one approach to boring a well and several design variations. Bored wells can be completed with either jet or submersible pumps. They can also be completed with a technique called buried slab. With this method, there is a smaller upper well casing that is 4-8 inches in diameter and may or may not be exposed. This smaller well casing extends 10 feet or more feet below the ground surface and is embedded in a hole that is formed when the reinforced concrete buried slab is manufactured, or connected to a pipe cast in the concrete slab. This type of well can be confused with a drilled well. In other designs the concrete casing that ranges in diameter from 18 inches to 3 feet extends to the surface and the lining is sealed with grouting to at least 10 feet below grade and the pitless adapter is below that as seen above.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Legionnaire’s Disease Risk in Texas

All the stagnant water in Houston is a breeding ground for bacteria warns the Texas Department of State Health Services. Flood waters may contain Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and Shigella, which both can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain and dehydration; however, the bigger risk is Legionnaires’ disease. The disease is caused by Legionella, bacteria found in in freshwater that easily spreads easily o municipal, business and home water systems during floods. Exposure to the bacteria occurs through inhalation of airborne moisture droplets.

Legionnaires’ disease causes pneumonia and can be lethal. Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling airborne water droplets containing viable Legionella bacteria. Such droplets can be created, by the spray from hot and cold water taps; atomisers; wet air conditioning systems, showers; and whirlpool or hydrotherapy baths. Anyone can develop Legionnaires’ disease, but the elderly, smokers, alcoholics and those with cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory or kidney disease are at more risk.

Recent research has found that Legionella bacteria not only thrive in stagnant water, but also thrive on rust from water pipes and corroding taps and plumbing components. Though most reported cases of Legionnaires’ Disease come from cooling towers and large buildings such as hotels and hospitals, studies have shown that about 20% of the patients with Legionnaires’ disease contacted the legionella bacteria in their homes.

The risk Legionnaire disease of is particularly high when water is restored after a flood. To reduce the risk you should flush out plumbing systems that have not been used for some time, (including showerheads and taps), clean and de-scale shower heads and hoses. Cold-water storage tanks should be cleaned and disinfected and water should be drained from hot water heaters, the tanks refilled and heater to 140 degrees Fahrenheit the and to check for debris or signs of corrosion. Cold water should be stored below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Legionella bacteria thrives between 68-115 degrees Fahrenheit and cannot survive above 140 degrees.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Your Septic Systems needs Time to Recover after the Storm

Septic systems should not be used immediately after floods. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines may have broken during the flood. Whenever the water table is high or your septic drain field has been flooded, there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less- so not pump your tank until the soils dry out. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait, do not use the system if the soil is saturated and flooded. The wastewater will not be treated and will become a source of pollution, if it does not back up into your house, it will bubble up into your yard. Conserve water as much as possible while the system restores itself and the water table fails.

Do not return to your home until flood waters have receded. If there was significant flooding in your yard, water will have flooded into your septic tank through the top. The tops of septic tanks are not water tight. Flood waters entering the septic tank will have lifted the floating crust of fats and grease in the septic tank. Some of this scum may have floated and/or partially plugged the outlet tee. If the septic system backs up into the house check the tank first for outlet blockage. Remember, that septic tanks can be dangerous, methane from the bacterial digestion of waste and lack of oxygen can overwhelm you. Hire someone with the right tools to clear your outlet tee.

Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Furthermore, pumping out a tank that is in saturated soil may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. (Likewise, recently installed systems may “pop out” of the ground more readily than older systems because the soil has not had enough time to settle and compact.) Call a septic service company (not just a tank pumping company) and schedule an appointment in a few days. Do not use the septic system for a few days (I know) have the service company clear any outlet blockage, or blockage to the drain field, check pumps and valves and partially pump down the tank if your soils are not dry enough or fully pump the tank if the soil has drained enough. The available volume in the tank will give you several days of plumbing use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. Go easy the septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that have been battered by the storm. 

Emergency Disinfection of Your Well after the Flooding

Severe flooding can cause septic waste and even chemicals from cars and factories can enter groundwater making it unsafe to drink for days or even months depending on the extent of contamination and flow rate of groundwater. Essentially, the water will have to clear itself through natural attenuation (filtering by the soil and the contamination moving with the flow of the groundwater). A well may not be a safe source of water after the flood, but in all likelihood it will recover. Often all you need to do is flush the well then disinfect it.
Be aware that waste water from malfunctioning septic tanks or chemicals seeping into the ground can contaminate the groundwater for several weeks if there was significant flooding.  The first thing you need to do is respond to any immediate problems and then test the water periodically to verify the continued safety of drinking water.

Unless your well was submerged near a trucking depot, gas station or other industrial or commercial source of chemicals it is likely that torrential rains or flood waters have infiltrated your well and you have “dirty or brownish” water from surface infiltration. This is especially true if you do not have a sanitary cap on your well or have a well pit. Historically, it was common practice to construct a large diameter pit around a small diameter well. The pit was intended to provide convenient access to underground water line connections below the frost line. Unfortunately, wells pits tend to be unsanitary because they literally invite drainage into the well creating a contamination hazard to the water well system. It is most likely if your yard was flooded or your well submerged that you have some surface infiltration of water. In that case, chlorine shocking your well should disinfect your well and last at least 7-10 days.

If your water is brown, the first thing you should do is run your hoses (away from your septic system and down slope from your well) to clear the well. Run it for an hour or so and see if it runs clear. If not let it rest for 8-12 hours and run the hoses again. Several cycles should clear the well. What we are doing is pumping out any infiltration in the well area and letting the groundwater carry any contamination away from your well. In all likelihood the well will clear of obvious discoloration. Then it is time to disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days.
After 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe. Testing the well for bacteria would determine if the water were safe to drink. A bacteria test checks for the presence of total coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria. These bacteria are not normally present in deeper groundwater sources. They are associated with warm-blooded animals, so they are normally found in surface water and in shallow groundwater (less than 20-40 feet deep). Most bacteria (with the exception of fecal and e-coli) are not harmful to humans, but are used as indicators of the safety of the water.

To disinfect a well you will need common unscented household bleach.  For a typical 6 inch diameter well you need 2 cups of regular laundry bleach for each 100 foot of well depth to achieve about 200 parts per million chlorine concentration. You will also need rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes, and don't forget a bucket to mix  bleach with water to wash the well cap.
  •        Put on the old clothes and safety glasses
  •        Run your hoses from the house to the well
  •        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
  •        After 45 minutes test the well to make sure that the chlorine is well mixed
  •        Use the hose to wash down the inside of the well casing
  •        Turn off the hose
  •        Carefully bolt the well cap back in place
  •        Now go back into the house
  •        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 do not use the 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 take longer. If you cannot run your well dry and it recharges faster than the hoses use water you will need to keep diluting the chlorine. If you can run your well dry, you might have to let it recharge and run the water off again to clear 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.
  •        Drain the hot water heater again, open the valve to 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. 

It is important not to drink, cook, bath or wash with this water during the time period it contains high amounts of chlorine whose by products are a carcinogen. Run the water until there is no longer a chlorine odor. Turn the water off. The system should now be disinfected, and you can now use the water for 7 to 10 days when the effects of the disinfection wear off. Hopefully, a single disinfection will be enough. 

Unlike public water systems, private systems are entirely unregulated; consequently, the well testing, and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner. Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON). volunteers can help simplify understanding the components of a well and private drinking water system. The VAMWON volunteers and agents can provide information and resource links for private well owners and inform Virginians dependent on private water systems about water testing, water treatment, and system maintenance. You can find help in Virginia  or my contact information through this link by entering Prince William County or my name in the search box. I am happy to answer emails.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Researchers Study the Dilution of Scotch

I am not a Scotch whisky drinker, but I happened to sign up for a Scotch tasting “seminar” at our Temple. I was the only woman in the room and sadly report that my affection for Scotch whisky did not improve by participating in the program. However, my shopping for Scotch to serve to guests is greatly improved and I learned one other thing- add a splash of water to enhance the distinctive smoky flavor of Scotch. I wondered if water truly enhanced the flavor, or it was just part of the Scotch lore.

Now, two researchers at Linnaeus University in Sweden using computer simulations of ethanol, water and an guaiacol to understand how diluting whisky with water affects its taste. Apart from water and alcohols, whiskies contain different organic compounds that contribute to their taste. Apparently, scientists have studied this extensively. Many whiskies, especially those that are made on the Scottish island of Isley, have a smoky taste that develops when malted barley is smoked on peat fire.

The scientists tell us that chemically that distinctive scotch flavor is attributed phenols, and in particular one called guaiacol, which their research found is much more common in Scottish whiskies than other whiskies. The concentration of guaiacol was found to be 3.7–4.1 parts per million in two unnamed Scottish whiskies that were previously studied. Such a small concentration of guaiacol can be smelled and tasted by us.

Guaiacol is a small and mostly hydrophobic molecule that is able to interact with water by hydrogen-bonding and polar-aromatic interactions. Scotch whisky is distilled to around 70% alcohol by volume then diluted to about 40 % when bottled. The scientists carried out molecular simulations of guaiacol-water-alcohol solutions at various ethanol concentrations to understand why the taste of whisky changes upon the addition of water. They simulations revealed that ethanol and water mix non-ideally generating clusters of ethanol molecules.

The scientists found that water and ethanol do not mix completely. They observed a microscopic phase separation occurs in the mixture, and at lower ethanol concentrations they found that guaiacol was more likely to be present in the liquid air interface. In a glass of Scotch whisky, which typically exhibits alcohol concentrations of 45%- 27% alcohol, guaiacol will be found near the liquid surface, where it greatly contributes to both smell and taste of the Scotch. At cask-strength concentrations of 59% or higher, ethanol interacts more strongly with the guaiacol and guaiacol is therefore driven into the solution.

Thus, the taste of guaiacol and similar phenol compounds will be more pronounced when whisky is diluted in the glass from the 40% alcohol content of the bottle. This taste-enhancement is counteracted by the dilution of guaiacol’s concentration. Overall, there is a fine balance between diluting the whisky to enhance the taste and diluting the Scotch whisky too much. This balance will depend on the concentration and types of taste compounds that are characteristic for each whisky; though the scientists found that 27% ethanol by volume was the limit of dilution before the guaiacol was too dilute to be appreciated.


  Karlsson, Bjorn C. G., Friedman, Ran, 2017/08/17; Dilution of whisky - the molecular perspective, Scientific Reports, 6489.

Monday, August 28, 2017

DC Water Markets its Biosolids as Bloom

DC Water is marketing its EPA-certified “Exceptional Quality” Class A Biosolids as a retail soil additive called Bloom. Biosolids are merely the sludge that comes out of a waste water treatment plant. DC Water is not the first wastewater utility or DC area utility to turn its wastewater biosolids into a soil additive for home gardeners and crops for human consumption. AlexRenew sells their Class A Exceptional Quality bio-solids to farmers in Virginia; and some of the Class A Biosolids are combined with wood fines, creating a soil amendment product that they are calling “George’s Old Town Blend.”

At Blue Plains and other sewer treatment plants primary treatment uses screens to remove large solids from wastewater which then sits in settling tanks, which are designed to hold the wastewater for several hours. During that time, most of the heavier solids fall to the bottom of the tank, where they become a thick slurry known as primary sludge.

The sludge is separated from the wastewater during the primary treatment is further screened and allowed to gravity thicken in a tank. Then the sludge is mixed with the solids collected from the secondary and denitrification units. The combined solids are pumped to tanks where they are heated to destroy pathogens and further reduce the volume of solids. With treatment sludge is transformed (at least in name) to Biosolids.

In 2015 DC Water unveiled the newly completed and operational sludge treatment system. Blue Plaines now has Cambi thermal hydrolysis trains, four digesters, dewatering equipment and a combined heat and power plant that cost $470 million. The new digestor system uses thermal hydrolysis (heating to over 160 degrees under high pressure) followed by anaerobic digestors.

The system produces methane gas which is captured and used to run turbines to produce power that supplies over one third of the electric power at Blue Plains (about $10 million in electric costs) and the digestion process destroys nearly one half of the Biosolids and producing Class A Biosolids reducing the chemical treatment costs and the transportation costs to get rid of the Biosolids.

Though this processing of Biosolids into Class A will save DC Water $13 million in chemical treatment and transportation costs a year, the project has a payback of over 20 years. This was not about savings, but rather better sewage treatment in an urban environment and better management of nutrients. Class A Biosolids are safer and easier to use in agriculture. Bloom, the name DC Water gave to the Class A Biosolids product, can increase organic content in the soil, increase drought resistance in plants, and provide essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. DC Water intends to sell a substantial portion of the residual Biosolids product as a soil just as Milwaukee’s waste water treatment plant sells their Class A Biosolids called “Milorganite” in bags at garden centers.

To ensure that Biosolids applied to the land as fertilizer do not threaten public health, the EPA created the 40 CFR Part 503 Rule in 1989 that is still in effect today. It categorizes Biosolids as Class A or B, depending on the level of fecal coliform and salmonella bacteria in the material and restricts the use based on classification. The Biosolids are tested for fecal coliform and salmonella and composite sampling is done for heavy metals and hydrocarbons; the presence of other emerging contaminants in the Biosolids is not tracked.

The land application of Class B Biosolids has been a growing area of concern. Research at the University of Virginia found that organic chemicals persist in the Class B Biosolids and can be introduced into the food chain; however, Class A Biosolids have been found to be safe. According to Dr. Greg Evanylo, a Professor at Virginia Tech, there are well recognized processes to kill pathogens. In addition DC Water states that trace contaminants in Biosolids are not a threat to public health and the environment, and Bloom saves energy and reduces our carbon footprint when compared to conventional petroleum based fertilizers.

Currently, there are two types of Bloom: Fresh and Cured. Fresh is cheaper and contains more moisture. Because it contains more moisture, it is heavier and the price difference is partially paying for water weight. Cured has less moisture. Because it is dryer it is lighter.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Plastics in the Ocean and Food Chain

The ubiquitous use of plastic in our modern world and inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuary and marine environments. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that in between 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons (tonnes) of plastic waste finds it way into our oceans each year. This represents 1.5%-4% of all non-fiber plastic manufactured and that number continues to grow each year.

Much of that waste is micro-plastic, defined as plastic items measuring less than 5 mm in their longest dimension. Plastic items may be manufactured within this size range (primary micro-plastics) or result from the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items (secondary micro-plastics). In 2009 an Australian study found the majority of facial cleansers, many tooth pastes, hand creams, body wash contained exfoliating beads made of polyethylene. These bits of polyethylene plastic ranging in size from roughly 5μm to 1mm do not biodegrade out in nature.

These microbeads are used in hundreds of products including cosmetics, sunscreen, body wash, toothpaste, skincare, and industrial and household cleaning products, and are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants filtration systems that were not designed to address such small contaminants. So, these microplastics beads flow down the drain and through waste water treatment plant and end up in our rivers, bays and oceans, where they may become a hazard to marine life. The polyethylene beads float and their scrubbing surfaces pick up contaminants which are consumed by marine life.

Scientists now believe that microplastics are consumed by marine life and can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces including priority pollutants under the US EPA Clean Water Act. This mixture of plastic and chemicals can accumulate in animals that eat them causing liver toxicity and disruption in the endocrine system, and possibly contributing to the intersexed fish that have appeared in rivers.

A new cleverly designed study for his dissertation Matthew Savoca a 2017 PhD from the University of California, Davis and now of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California found that ocean-born plastic has a smell that marine animals finds appealing and are consumed preferentially.

Scientists believe that microplastics consumed by marine life can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces. Though, these adverse effects of microplastics ingestion have only been observed under laboratory conditions, usually at very high exposure concentrations that exceed present environmental concentrations by several orders of magnitude. In wild aquatic organisms microplastics have only been observed within the gastrointestinal tract, usually in small numbers, and at present there is no evidence that microplastics ingestion has had negative effects on populations of wild and farmed fish and shell fish.

Microplastics contain a mixture of chemicals added during manufacture. These additives efficiently sorb (leach or absorb) persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic contaminants from the environment. The ingestion of microplastics by fish and marine life and the accumulation of persistent bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals are the main perceived hazard and risk of micro-plastics in the marine environment. It is not known how much, if any, of the chemicals in the plastic leach out of the plastic and enter the food chain.

In humans the risk of micro-plastic ingestion is reduced by the removal of the gastrointestinal tract in most species of seafood consumed. However, most species of bivalves and several species of small fish are consumed whole, which may lead to micro-plastic exposure. The U.N. FAO calculated a worst case estimate of exposure to microplastics after consumption of a portion of mussels (225 g) would lead to ingestion of 7 micrograms (µg) of plastic, which would have a negligible effect (less than 0.1 percent of total dietary intake) on chemical exposure to certain persistent bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals and plastic additives. The operative word is bio-accumulate.

Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) by passing the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The new law bans tiny beads of plastic known as microbeads that have been added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. Under the law, companies will have to stop selling products containing plastic micro-beads in their products by July 2019, but the first phase went into effect this past July.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Brown Water in Maryland, Again

Since the beginning of August, people in the western area of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) water system have noticed brown or yellow discolored water. Last week WSSC held a news conference on the banks of the Potomac River, the source of drinking water for the majority of WSSC’s 1.8 million customers, to explain the cause of the brown water and reassure customers that the water is safe to drink. However, WSSC advises that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry; and WSSC believes the discolored water may persist for several more weeks. The Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax Water are not having difficulty delivering safe and clear water to their customers.

At the press conference WSSC General Manager Carla A. Reid , WSSC’s Director of Production J.C. Langley, Deputy Heath Officer for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services Mark Hodge, and “WSSC water quality experts” outlined the cause of the discolored water customers were receiving in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. According to their press release and streamed news conference, for the past few weeks there has been an increase in organic material in the Potomac River, possibly caused by recent severe rain storms. Organic material comes from decayed leaves, tree debris and vegetation that are washed into the river.

During the treatment process, WSSC uses chlorine to not only disinfect the water , but also as an oxidizing agent. The chlorine controls manganese and other contaminants levels to make the water both clear and safe for drinking. Manganese is a natural mineral also found in waterways and groundwater. The problem is that chlorine is a very good oxidizing agent and also interacts with natural organic matter present in rivers and streams to form what are called disinfection by-products that increase the incidence of cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates 11 of the disinfection by products that are formed when chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter and that have been positively linked to health impacts. The EPA established maximum contaminant levels for these 11 disinfection by products: four trihalomethanes (THMs), five haloacetic acids (HAAs), bromate, and chlorite in order to protect public health.

The rule making and implementation for these Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules , part of the group of Microbial and Disinfection Byproducts Rules took place between 1998 and 2006. Part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, these rules are a series of interrelated regulations that address risks from microbial pathogens and disinfectants/disinfection byproducts. In reaction to these rules,
many water utilities changed their method of disinfection to comply with EPA limits on disinfection by-products. This resulted in many water utilities moving away from chlorine disinfection to alternatives such as chloramine, chlorine dioxide, and ozone. WSSC stayed with chlorine as their primary disinfectant.

With an increase in organic matter, WSSC had to cut the amount of chlorine they were using to meet the limits of the Disinfection Byproducts Rules. Excess disinfection by products in the system would require the WSSC to stop delivering water. However, the brown water is “safe.” Manganese is not a health hazard and is not regulated by the EPA as a drinking water contaminant. EPA considers manganese a secondary contaminant for aesthetic reasons only. The EPA level for manganese, for aesthetic purposes, is 0.05 mg/l. WSSC’s current manganese levels are around 0.01 mg/l to 0.02 mg/l. Although below EPA’s aesthetic level, it can still cause discoloration.

At the news conference WSSC emphasized that they performs more than 100 water quality tests every day, and all current test results indicate that the water is safe to drink. WSSC does warn that the discolored water should not be used to wash laundry as the staining it causes is permanent. The presence of manganese in a water supply can lead to a buildup of in pipelines, household water pipes, water heaters, and water softeners (though water softeners can remove some manganese it is not their primary purpose and there are better and cheaper in-home systems to treat water for excess manganese).

Last winter WSSC experienced discolored water reportedly caused by excessive road salt. I assume they made adjustments to hold a primary drinking water standard within EPA limits. Now excessive organic matter has caused this episode. The similarity here is that WSSC has not been able to effectively treat the variations in the Potomac River throughout the year. No amount of explanation will make it all right that WSSC cannot consistently deliver safe, clean, clear, and good tasting water twelve months a year. First world nations can deliver safe and clear water 24/7 throughout the year. Nothing less is acceptable.

Manganese can cause a variety of nuisance problems, affecting both the taste and color of the water and food prepared with the water. Manganese may react with the tannins in tea, coffee and some alcoholic beverages to produce a black sludge, which will affect both taste and appearance. Manganese will cause brown staining of laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils and glassware. These stains are generally not easily removed by soaps and detergents; in fact, using chlorine bleach and alkaline cleaners (such as sodium and carbonate) may intensify the stains. You might want to consider installing an oxidizing water filer (sometimes called an iron or greensand filter) in you water supply line to remove the manganese.

The Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax water use chloramine and are not experiencing these problems. As the WSSC always states at the bottom of their press releases: Established in 1918, today WSSC is among the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Sun

On Monday, August 21, 2017, all of North America will be able to see an eclipse of the sun. Anyone within the path of totality from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina can see a total solar eclipse. The path of totality is where the moon will completely cover the sun making the sun’s corona visible.

The shadow of the moon enters the United States near Lincoln City, Oregon, at 9:05 a.m. PDT. Totality begins in Lincoln City, Oregon, at 10:16 am PDT. The total eclipse will end and hour and 2 minutes later in Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:48 p.m. EDT, though the lunar shadow will linger in the United States until 4:09 p.m. EDT. A partial eclipse will be visible throughout the United States. Here in Virginia we will see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers about 85% of the sun's disk.

Looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief total phase of a solar eclipse (“totality”), when the moon entirely blocks the sun’s bright face, which will happen only within the narrow path of totality and only during the window of complete coverage which is about 2 minutes 40 seconds. Otherwise you must protect your eyes and vision. The only safe way to look directly at a partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers.

Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even  dark ones, are NOT SAFE for looking at the sun; they transmit thousands of times too much sunlight. Eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers must be verified to be compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for such products. However, there have been reports in the news of large numbers of fake solar glasses. It's not enough today to just look for the ISO 12312-2  certification, as many vendors have started printing fake glasses with ISO 12312-2  certifications. At this point, if your have not purchased solar glasses from a vendor from the approved list of the American Academy of Ophthalmology or NASA it’s probably too late and you should protect your eyes and view the eclipse on NASA’s web site or through a pinhole projector as we did when we were kids.

As described on NASA’s web site, a convenient method for safe viewing of the partially eclipsed Sun is pinhole projection. You simply pass sunlight through a small opening (for example, a hole punched in an index card) and project an image of the Sun onto a nearby surface (for example a piece of printer paper). See the NASA website for full instructions. I will be inside viewing the eclipse on-line. There is also lots of fun information about science data gathering that will take place during the eclipse.

Do not look at the  partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device- even if you are wearing eclipse glasses. The magnification will damage the eclipse glasses and damage your eyes. Be safe.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Conowingo Dam and the Chesapeake Bay

Last week Governor Hogan of Maryland announced that Maryland will request bids to test dredging and reuse of the dredged material from the Conowingo Dam reservoir. The test will involve removing about 25,000 cubic yards of sediment and is estimated to cost $4 million. This is the first step to remove 31 million cubic yard of sediment that have almost filled the reservoir which Maryland has estimated will cost $250 million to dredge. Dredging the reservoir is essential to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The Conowingo Dam is a large hydroelectric dam on the Lower Susquehanna River about 10 miles upstream from where the river flows into the Chesapeake Bay at Havre De Grace, Maryland. The three dams at the downstream end of the Susquehanna River have been important in mitigating the downstream transport of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment from the Susquehanna River watershed to the Chesapeake Bay. The Conowingo, the last dam in a series of three traps polluted sediment from the Susquehanna River in its 9,000 acre reservoir.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) on all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The TMDL sets a total limit for the entire watershed of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year that represents a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

When the EPA allocated the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions among the Chesapeake Bay states, the EPA believed that the Conowingo Dam would continue to trap polluted sediment for an additional quarter of a century and counted the sediment and nutrient removal of the Conowingo Dam in the design of the nutrient and sediment reductions. Subsequent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers found that sediment was gathering at the dam at a faster rate than assumed by the EPA’s model.

The three dams on the lower Susquehanna River (Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo) and their associated reservoirs (Lake Clarke, Lake Aldred, and Conowingo Reservoir) have been the topic of a number of studies (Langland, 2009; Langland, 1998; Langland and Hainly, 1997), all of which generally conclude that the pools behind the dams were on a long-term trajectory to becoming filled. Recently, the USGS has concluded that the dam’s sediment reservoir is almost full. There are nearly 200 million tons of sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants from the Susquehanna River trapped behind the dam.

Analysis of water-quality data collected during the large flood in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee (September 2011), as well as high flows that occurred in March 2011, indicate a significant decrease in the effectiveness of the reservoir system at trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Rather than reaching capacity in 2030 to 2035 as originally projected by the EPA, the Conowingo Dam is already 95% full and will be full and cease protecting the bay from sediment within the next three years.

The Conowingo Dam will no longer be able to trap sediment in the Susquehanna River and prevent them from entering the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River flows 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York to Havre De Grace, Maryland collecting sediment and nutrient runoff along the way. The Susquehanna drains an area of more than 27,000 square miles and is the single largest source of fresh water flowing into Chesapeake Bay. The river currently provides nearly half of the Bay’s freshwater, 41% of its nitrogen, 25% of its phosphorus and 27% of its sediment load. Without the Conowingo removing sediments containing nitrogen and phosphorus before the waters reach the Chesapeake Bay that contamination load will increase.

EPA can’t just assign increased reductions to Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The sources of most of this sediment is non-point source in origin. To meet the long term goals of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL needs the Conowingo Dam to trap excess sediment from the river –it is the cheapest way to meet the goals.

Also, the Conowingo Dam cannot be left full. It will not exist in some gentle equilibrium. The Conowingo and its sister reservoirs will not be constantly filled to capacity with sediments because of short-term changes from severe storms that cause scour and a subsequent reduction in exported sediments until the scoured amount is refilled. Therefore, the amount of sediment transported out of the reservoirs will not always be in equilibrium with the amount of sediment transported into the reservoirs.

After large storm events there will be plumes of sediment and nutrients released into the river and the Chesapeake bay damaging any progress made by the TMDL program. However Governor Hogan works out who will contribute to the costs, the Conowingo Dam needs to be dredged.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Climate Change, Rain and Nutrient Pollution

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) global temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times. Last year, reported to be the warmest year on record, was also the year that representatives from more than 175 countries gathered at the United Nations on Earth Day to sign the Paris Climate Accord.

The current administration has withdrawn the United States from the agreement. Even with the United States the Paris Accord lacked any clear path on how the nations would meet the goal to maintain global temperatures within 2 °C increase above pre-industrial temperatures. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are woefully inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India who combined represent about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to any reductions. Instead those two nations are merely projecting when (not even at what level) their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.

If climate change progress, (and really, there are no realistic plans to stop it) most climate models are forecasting a significant increase in precipitation in the northeastern corridor of the United States including Virginia. At least we’ll have water, but all that rainfall can bring other problems. Rainfall and other precipitation washes nutrients from human activities like agriculture, lawns, septic systems and other activities into rivers and lakes. When these nutrients overload waterways, a process called eutrophication occurs. The results of this process can be dangerous to water quality when toxin-producing algae blooms develop and low-oxygen dead zones develop. We are all familiar with the annual dead zones and algae blooms in coastal regions including the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and Florida.

In a recent study published in Science magazine Dr. Sinha and Dr. Michalak used models to predict how climate change might affect eutrophication. The two build on their earlier work where they found that, while land use and land management control the supply of nitrogen, precipitation controls how much of that nitrogen flows from the land into waterways. More rain more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution flows into waterways and estuaries.

In the current study, the scientists used these insights to predict how future changes to precipitation caused by climate change will, in and of themselves, affect nitrogen runoff and thereby increase the risk of water quality impairment in the United States.

Their modeling found that the mean projected increase in nitrogen loading within the continental United States is projected to be 19% with the Northeast projected to increase 28% and the Upper Mississippi Atchafalya River Basin project to increase 24%. In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the EPA has mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The TMDL sets a total limit for the entire watershed of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen per year which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen from 2011 levels. Increased rainfall will make meeting and maintaining those goals more challenging.

So far Virginia is on track to meet the midpoint goals for nitrogen reduction set by the EPA. We did it by having spent about $2 billion from 1998-2017 to upgrade the waste water treatment plants in the watershed. That was expensive, but easy to achieve reductions- we knew how to do it.

The remaining areas for reducing nitrogen for the midpoint evaluation and the 2025 goals are in the agricultural, suburban and urban storm water management. These are harder targets to hit because the sources of pollution in these areas are non-point source pollution (NPS), diffuse sources of pollutionthat are carried to streams and rivers by runoff of rain and snowmelt.

The way to reduce non-point source pollution in the environment is to control stormwater and implement what is called “best management practices” (BMPs). BMPs have mostly been used in the agricultural sector. Virginia made great progress towards the EPA goal in management of livestock. A huge program carried out by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to induce all animal operations to fence all pastures to exclude all livestock from rivers and streams and provide alternate sources of water for the animals away from rivers and streams. There are also BMP to slow storm water, limit fertilizer use and limit or eliminate tilling.

To protect our waters with the forecast increase in precipitation the Soil and Water Conservation Districts will have to introduce programs for suburban neighborhoods and communities and keep improving and expanding those programs. We can’t stop the rain, but we can prepare for it.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Montgomery Pesticide Ban Struck Down

Last week the Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann struck down the county's ban of nonessential pesticide usage on private and public property. The Judge issued a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs; lawn care companies and private property owners who opposed the 2015 county measure. The ban, Bill 52-14 would have gone into effect Jan. 1, 2018 and would have banned the ornamental use of pesticides including Roundup and 2,4 D as well as hundreds of others.

Bill 52-14 restricted the application of pesticides on County-owned and private lawns down to 100 square feet. The law included all pesticides classified as "Carcinogenic to Humans" or "Likely to Be Carcinogenic to Humans" by the U.S. EPA; all pesticides classified by the U.S. EPA as "Restricted Use Products;" all pesticides classified as "Class 9" pesticides by the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of the Environment; all pesticides classified as "Category 1 Endocrine Disruptors" by the European Commission; and any other pesticides that are determined not to be critical to pest management in the County. Pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, used to simply prevent blemishes and other imperfections on private and public lands are banned.

In his opinion Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann said the county ordinance conflicted with state laws regarding pesticides, which would have pre-empted the county’s ability to pass pesticide regulations. Stating in the opinion: “The Ordinance prohibits the use of registered pesticide products that Maryland law permits, and in doing so, it simultaneously undermines the express purpose of State law to promote uniformity between Maryland pesticide requirements and those adopted by EPA and other states. The Ordinance prohibits and frustrates an activity intended to be permitted by State law.”

Judge McGann ORDERED that Plaintiffs’ Motions for Summary Judgment GRANTED; and further ORDERED that Bill 52-14 as it regards the use of pesticides on private property, shall not take effect, and Plaintiffs are entitled to permanent injunctive relief from the enforcement of these sections.

The Montgomery County ban on cosmetic use of herbicides and pesticides was intended to protect children based on their belief that children may be more at risk of developing health problems from pesticides because:
• Their activities lead to more exposure e.g., playing in the grass, putting their hands or toys in their mouths.
• They are closer to the ground and breathe in higher amounts of pesticides.
• Proportional to their weight, they breathe in more air and consume more food and drink than do adults.
• Their immature metabolic systems cannot break down toxins as effectively as adults.
• Their bodies are rapidly growing and developing and potentially impacted more strongly by endocrine disruptor effects.

With the exception of nitrogen, there has been no direct evidence linking pesticides to diseases in humans. Though, an increasing number of health and environmental groups are claiming that these chemicals do indeed impact human health. A wide range of chemicals are used to treat everything from pests to mold in household gardens. One of those is 2, 4-D, used by cereal crop producers and commonly found in household weed killers. It has been the subject of an extensive study by Health Canada which determined that, when used properly, it is safe. Organizations like the Sierra Club and the Canadian Cancer Society, which strongly support a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides and herbicides, disagree. However, no specific research linking the currently used ornamental pesticides to disease in humans was found.

The only documented study to find a disease link to 2,4-D was done in the United States, a 1991 National Cancer Institute study examined dogs whose owners' lawns were treated with 2,4-D four or more times per year. The study found those dogs had double the risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide.

In addition, glyphosate (N-phosphonomethylglycine), the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup and the most popular herbicide in use today in the United States was labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC, in 2015. Americans spray an estimated 180-185 million pounds of the weed killer, on their yards and farms every year. All the acute toxicity tests have found that glyphosate is nearly nontoxic to mammals; however, there have been for some time a minority of scientists and experts who believes that glyphosate may be more toxic than is claimed and pushed for additional  studies impacts to human health from low level constant exposure to glyphosate.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Human Waste and Disease

Human excrement can carry disease such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. In the developing world, a case of diarrhea can be life threatening. Sanitation is what makes modern cities and towns possible without the consequences of disease and possibly death. There are 7.5 billion people on earth. In 2015, only 40% of the earth’s population (2.9 billion people) had the use of a toilet or improved latrine with a system in place to ensure that excreta are treated or disposed of safely. Though 68% of the world’s population (5.0 billion people) used at least a basic sanitation service, that leaves 2.3 billion people who still do not have the most basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines. 

Of these, almost 900 million still defecate in the open, in open fields, street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water. Open defecation perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. In the countries where open defection is most widespread they have the highest number of deaths of children under 5 years old as well as the highest levels of malnutrition and poverty.

Open defecation is as old as humankind. As long as population densities were low and the earth could safely absorb human wastes, it probably caused few problems. As more people gathered in towns and cities diseases spread. Mankind gradually learned the link between hygiene and health and, in particular, the importance of avoiding contact with feces. Today open defecation is declining worldwide, but of the nearly 900 million people still defecate in the open, over 550 million of them are reported to live in India. In India it is reported that almost 120,000 children under 5 years old die each year from diarrhea. Children are dying from diarrhea. Untold numbers suffer with chronic intestinal infections that reduce nutrient absorption and result in stunting.

In India and worldwide open defecation perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. Globally most of the people who engage in open defecation live in rural areas, and that is true in India also. However, in India there is reported to be over 150 million urban slum dwellers that lack sanitation facilities and the number is rising. The situation of the urban poor poses a growing challenge as they live increasingly in slums where sewerage is precarious or non-existent and lack clean and safe water.

In the rural areas of India, in particular, cultural taboos and beliefs seem to perpetuate open defecation even when latrines have been installed. Since 1990 India has been engaged in various missions to build latrines in rural India and end open defecation. Under Prime Minister Modi there has been $40 billion allocated for latrine-building and education. The current program is called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). This program follows the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (Total Sanitation Campaign) is a program in India to provide subsidies ($190 per pit latrine) for the construction of household toilets for those at and near the poverty level to prevent diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, and child malnutrition and stunting of growth.

From May 2010 until December 2013 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study to assess the effectiveness of installing rural household latrines in India under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in preventing diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, and child malnutrition. The study attempted to investigate the effect of the installing latrines as actually delivered by the foundation and its local partners working in India within the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.

The study findings cast doubt on the health effect of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan that focus only increasing latrine construction but do not end open defecation or address other sanitation issues that might reduce other possible sources of exposure fecal contamination. Although latrine coverage increased substantially in the study villages to levels targeted by the campaign, many households did not build latrines and others were not functional at the time of the follow-up.

The study findings showed no evidence that the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan program in rural Odisha reduced exposure to fecal contamination or prevented diarrhea, soil-transmitted helminth infection, or child malnutrition. The study found that the program was a failure and had no impact on health. These findings are consistent with another study performed in India in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, but in contrast to results found with improved sanitation and hygiene in other world programs.

The study found that householders with access to latrines did not always use them. Open defecation remained practiced by widely practiced by men and children in homes with latrines. The problem experienced were unique to India. Before any program can succeed India needs to address the underlying cultural acceptance of open defecation, before they can make any progress in improving childhood health and the eliminating the widespread stunting of growth in Indian children. Latrine use was nearly five times higher for women than for men or children in the study, but the study results show that the health benefits generally associated with sanitation cannot be assumed simply by construction of latrines.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dug Well- Rust Colored Water after Rain Storms

We had quite the storm pass through here yesterday. Frankly after heavy rains I always get a pile of questions about rust colored water. Here is a problem that showed up in Spring 2016. I just heard from the homeowner last week with another concern so I was reminded of his problem. (It’s edited for clarity.)

“I have had a problem with my 38 foot deep 2 foot diameter dug well in rural Spotsylvania County that I have been fighting for the past 9 years...The water from the well will stay brown for about 2 weeks after a series of heavy rainstorms. Consequently, we always use bottled water during that time and wait for things to clear up. I have regularly tested the well after things have cleared up over the years by using the WaterSafe test kit and have never noticed bacteria. (I have never tried it when it was brown though).
The water entering the house is pre-filtered by a pleated 10 inch 50 micron filter. When the heavy rains start, I have (with some success) put in a 5 micron carbon filter in its place. This seems to help when things aren’t so bad, but it doesn’t do very much when there are storms going on for days on end like the ones we had. This only happens once or twice a year. After the mineral earthquake, the problem stopped for nearly 3 years! I’d welcome your thoughts.”
photo from J. De Jesus

The image above shows the outside of the well. The 1992 Water Well regulations for Virginia state “Shallow wells are not desirable from a public health standpoint and shall not be used for new construction, except when deep wells attempted have been nonproductive, as it is normally possible to obtain sufficient water from a deep well.“ Existing wells were grandfathered under the regulation.

Thirty-eight feet is a very shallow well and likely to be impacted by surface infiltration, and drought. Typically rain water and snow melt percolate into the ground and the deeper the well the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of the depth of the well, the geology of the area, the precipitation, recharge of the aquifer and pumping rates of the aquifer that control the rate of flow of water to a well. The age of the water in an aquifer provides insight into the likelihood of contamination from both anthropogenic and natural sources. Very young groundwater that has recently infiltrated into the aquifer is more vulnerable to contamination from human activities near the land surface than older, deeper groundwater that has had more time to be filtered by soils. Old groundwater, however, is not necessarily free of contaminants. The older groundwater can contain naturally occurring chemical elements and contamination from years past. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.

The fact that well owner states that when he tested the water was free of bacterial contamination and that the problem cleared up for a few years after mineral earthquake does suggest that the problem might be infiltration of Virginia red clay carried in the very young groundwater during storms. The most common type of observed ground-water response to an earthquake is an instantaneous water-level fall or rise and can occur near or far from the epicenter of the quake without significant change to the rock formation. Recovery to the pre-earthquake water level can be so rapid as to be almost unnoticeable, or it may take as long as several days or months. Water level changes can be large enough to make a well flow to the land surface, or render a well dry.

The shaking associated with an earthquake may cause sand or clay fines to plug a well screen, and thus reduce the volume of water that can be pumped. Conversely, the shaking can dislodge sand/clay fines plugging a well screen and cause an increase in the volume of water that can be pumped from the well. In Virginia where well casings typically extend only 50 feet below grade or in this case of a very shallow well, the shaking or oscillation of the earth may dislodge sand or dirt within the water table that can be captured by the pump. In in this case the looser dirt within the water table might have been flushed so that for a few years there was not enough dirt to be carried by heavy rains. 
photo from J. De Jesus
 Nonetheless, the typical sources of rust colored water cannot be discounted as a cause of the problem. After rust in the household fixtures there are five causes for well water to be discolored or brownish: surface infiltration, well collapsing or water level dropping, iron – iron bacteria and/or manganese in the water, pump system or well casing rusting and worst of all contamination from a nearby septic system.

The most likely causes of dirty looking water after heavy rains is surface infiltration and shallow groundwater in a shallow well, but contamination from a failing septic system is also possible and should be investigated an monitored for. The bacterial test can help confirm whether the problem is septic. I would recommend taking a water sample to a local certified laboratory, and have the water tested for coliform bacteria and if positive e-coli and fecal coliform bacteriaat the very least. However, to further diagnose the problem and monitor the well the water should be tested regularly for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. Also, considering how shallow the well is an occasional look at pesticides might be prudent.

Filter cartridges for sediment removal are rated in microns. As you know, the micron rating for a water filter is a way of indicating the ability of the filter to remove contaminants by the size of the particles. A filter that is marked “5 microns” has some capability in capturing particles as small as 5 microns. However, there is no one accepted method to measure and describe the size of particles that a filter can capture or the total amount of particles that the filter can hold. Filter micron ratings for water are usually Nominal or Absolute. For sediment removal, Nominal rated cartridges are most common. Absolute ratings are needed for example, in removing Giardia, a type of parasite, when it becomes important that the filter cartridge absolutely must be rated at 1 microns. A Nominal Micron Rating (NMR) usually means the filter can capture a given percentage of particles of the stated size. For example, a filter might be said to have a nominal rating of 90% at 10 micron.

The breakthrough you are experiencing could possibly be resolved by having two or three filters in series, a 50 micron followed by a 25 micron followed by a 5 micron; however, I have a basic concern that there is the possibility that your well could be impacted not only by bacteria but by parasites and spores that have the potential to be fatal in vulnerable populations. Though I would encourage you to drill a well at least 100 feet below grade to ensure the health of your family, surface water can be treated. You need a series of filters meticulously maintained to reliability remove the discoloration, a series of two or three should do it. (This will impact your water pressure that you may need to boost.) Make sure you match the flow to the capacity of the filer. Then after the water is clear you need to disinfect using a using a UV light.

Finally, you will need a point of use filtration system for any water that is likely to be drunk because of the potential for cysts, parasites etc. Giardia is a fairly common microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea. Once an animal or person is infected with Giardia, the parasite lives in the intestine and is passed in feces. Because the parasite is protected by an outer shell, it can survive outside the body and in the environment for long periods of time extending to months. Millions of Giardia parasites can be released in a bowel movement of an infected human or animal. Human or animal waste can enter water through sewage overflows from flooded septic systems, polluted storm water runoff, and agricultural runoff. Wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.

The CDC usually recommend boiling water, but that may be impractical unless you are sure that the water is impacted. An alternative to boiling water is using a point-of-use filter. Not all home water filters remove Giardia. Filters that are designed to remove the parasite should have one of the following labels:
• Reverse osmosis,
• Absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller,
• Tested and certified by NSF Standard 53 for cyst removal, or
• Tested and certified by NSF Standard 58 for cyst reduction.

There are now available on the market some carbon block filters which takes care of cysts and some chemicals and are certified by NSF Standard 53 0r 58. I am always interested in your problems. Please use email to ask questions.