Thursday, December 31, 2009

There is Coliform in my Well- What to Do?

  1. Retest using proper sampling procedure and verify that E coli is tested for.
  2. If the sample still tests positive for total coliform then treat the system with chlorine
  3. Retest the water after the chlorine has left the system in about 10 days to two weeks (make sure that the water tests negative for chlorine).
  4. If your well water tests positive for total coliform then carefully check the well and water system for points of contamination.
Many instances of total coliform contamination are introduced in the water system and do not originate in the water supply. Washington State is currently investigation the percentage of problems are a result of ground water contamination.

Coliform bacteria are commonly found in soil, on vegetation, and in surface water. They also live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and humans. Some coliform bacteria strains can survive in soil and water for long periods of time. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, because coliform bacteria are most commonly associated with sewage or surface waters, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water indicates that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water system. There are three different groups of coliform bacteria; total coliform, fecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli) each has a different level of risk. Total coliform serves as a proxy for fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria. Coliform bacteria do not occur naturally in most aquifers. Fractured or creviced bedrock aquifers that are close to the surface are the exception and testing for e. coli and fecal coliform and nitrogen will help differentiate the naturally occurring coliform from contamination that might impact your health.

Bacteria washed into the ground by rainfall or snowmelt are usually filtered out as water seeps through the soil, so properly constructed water wells do not typically harbor Coliform bacteria. However, coliform bacteria can persist within slime formed by naturally occurring ground water microorganisms. The slime (or biofilm) clings to the well screen, casing, drop pipe, and pump and may even invade filter systems. Disturbances during pumping or well maintenance can cause the slime to dislodge, releasing the coliform bacteria.

Keep in mind that coliform bacteria do not always show up in every sample. They can be sporadic and sometimes seasonal when they occur in a water supply. Be concerned but do not panic if coliform bacteria are detected. Before treating, repairing, or replacing the well, it is wise to resample immediately if a positive sample is collected making sure to use proper testing procedures. If you receive a second positive sample for total coli forms, or if the initial sample is positive for fecal coliform, do not consume the water. Bring the water to a rolling boil for one to five minutes (the higher the elevation the more time is necessary) to kill the bacteria. You may also want to consider using bottled water as a temporary drinking and cooking water source.

The different bacterial tests are total coliform, fecal coliform, and E. Coli. The most basic test for bacterial contamination of a water supply is the test for total coliform bacteria. Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply. Total coliform includes bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliform is the group of the total coliform that is considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. Because the origins of fecal coliform are more specific than the origins of the more general total coliform group of bacteria, fecal coliform are considered a more accurate indication of animal or human waste than the total Coliform. E. coli is the major species in the fecal coliform group. Of the general groups of bacteria that comprise the total Coliform, only E. coli is not found growing and reproducing in the environment. Consequently, E. coli is considered to be the species of coliform bacteria that is the best indicator of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens.

Bacteria can be introduced into a new well during construction and can remain if the water system is not thoroughly disinfected and flushed. Well construction defects such as insufficient well casing depth, improper sealing of the space between the well casing and the borehole, corroded or cracked well casings, and poor well seals or caps can allow sewage, surface water, or insects to carry coliform bacteria into the well. These problems are common and the most likely source of the coliform bacteria contamination. Unplugged abandoned wells can also carry coliform bacteria into deeper aquifers. In an existing well system that formerly was bacteria free look for defects. These include: openings at the top of the well; old, rusty, or damaged well casing; unprotected suction line; buried wellhead; and, close proximity of a well to septic tanks, drain fields, sewers, kitchen sinks, drains, privies, barnyards, animal feedlots, abandoned wells, and surface water.

After a confirmed positive total coliform test, check following things to look for as a source of contamination introduction. Any defects in the system should be repaired, the system treated with chlorine and then retested after 10 days to two weeks. Items to look for are:
  1. A missing or defective well cap and check seals around wires, pipes, and where the cap meets the casing may be cracked, letting in contaminants.
  2. Contaminant seepage through the well casing - cracks or holes in the well casing allow water that has not been filtered through the soil to enter the well. This seepage is common in the wells made of concrete, clay tile, or brick. This can also happen to a steel pipe well that was hit by a piece of equipment such as a car, snow blower, lawn tractor or mower or that has rusted.
  3. Contaminant seeping along the outside of the well casing - many older wells were not sealed with grout when they were constructed or the grouting has failed. Check the grouting carefully especially if water seems different after severe rains.
  4. Well flooding - a common problem for wellheads located below the ground in frost pits that frequently flood during wet weather.
Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria. Most state’s well construction code requires all new, repaired, or reconditioned wells to be disinfected with chlorine to kill bacteria that may have been introduced during construction. Testing is required initially to demonstrate that the water is free of Coliform bacteria before the well is put into service. A Coliform bacteria test is also recommended immediately if:
  1. A sudden change occurs in your water’s taste, appearance, or odor.
    The water turns cloudy after rainfall or the top of the well was flooded.
  2. You suspect a contamination source (e.g., septic system or barnyard) is within 50 feet of your well.
  3. Family members are experiencing unexplained flu-like symptoms.
Before implementing one of the solutions listed below, be sure to inspect the well for defects, check the grouting, casing, and clean the water delivery system and filter of slime and flush the system fully. Then retest. If the system passes let a few weeks go by and retest again. If repairing and cleaning the system does not solve the problem then one of the long-term solutions will have to be implemented.

Long-Term Options for Dealing with Bacterial Contamination of a Well
  1. Connecting to the regional public water system, if possible
  2. Constructing a new well (it is best to determine the source of contamination before a new well is installed)
  3. Installing continuous disinfection equipment
  4. Using bottled water for drinking and food preparation

Monday, December 28, 2009

Water the Fluid of Life

Environmental awareness began with water. The basis of the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. In July of 1970, the EPA was established in response to the growing public demand for cleaner water, air and land. The first actions of the new agency were to significantly reorganized and expand the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation's public drinking water supplies. The law was amended in 1986 and 1996 and requires many actions to protect drinking water and its sources: rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells. (SDWA does not regulate private wells which serve fewer than 25 individuals.)

The waters of the earth are contaminated in numerous ways. Rivers and streams are contaminated by industrial discharge, contaminated run off, contaminants leaching into groundwater aquifers, animal waste polluting rivers and There are a number of threats to drinking water: improperly disposed of chemicals; animal wastes; pesticides; human wastes; wastes injected deep underground; and naturally-occurring substances can all contaminate water supplies. Drinking water that is not properly treated or disinfected, or which travels through an improperly maintained distribution system, may also pose a health risk. In addition as demands for water have increased in cities, waste treatment plants and other facilities release their treated water to rivers and streams and that water is mixed with more pristine water. In California, they inject treated water into groundwater sources to recharge the aquifer.

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting the limitations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. First of all, only public water supplies (those that serve more than 25 individuals) are required to test their water. There are only 91 substances of concern under the clean water act. Private well owners need to monitor their own water quality. The substances of concern under the Safe Drinking Water Act are a series of metals and inorganic compounds, volatile organic compounds, organic compounds and herbicides and pesticides. It is virtually impossible to test for all known chemicals; there are not even good tests to find trace levels of some substances. Analysis costs money. Water purification and disinfection costs money and disinfection may introduce undesirable contaminants into the water. There are more than 57,400 water systems in this country that need to test their water monthly. The regulatory process is impacted by politics, which are in turn controlled by various interest groups, and limitations on knowledge, money and time.

An example would be the EPA experience when trying to lower the acceptable limit on arsenic in drinking water. EPA proposed lowering the acceptable arsenic limit in drinking water to five parts per billion from 10 parts per billion. Arsenic is difficult to remove from water without “wet chemistry” and cannot be filtered out. Water systems and industries that use arsenic complained, arguing that the science was uncertain and the chemical was expensive to remove. Regulators relented and the arsenic limit remained at 10 parts per billion.

Money and the limits of chemical analysis are not infinite. I view the basic list of primary and secondary contaminants as indicators that other related chemicals might be present. For example if you have traces of gasoline, then you would look for the additives to gasoline. Finding any traces of pesticides then a detailed analysis for pesticides and their break down products would be searched for. In order to target your analysis you need to know what to look for. The history of the land and source of the water is a good starting point to know what you are looking for. It really is not feasible to test for everything in environmental investigation or in medicine. The largest municipal water supply systems pull water from so many sources and mix it that exhaustive analysis would be prohibitive. Some municipal water supplies ignore everything but the letter of the law; others try to push for more purification facilities to clean the water further.

In all honesty, mixed source municipal water containing reprocessed water is not water I am entirely comfortable with drinking. Chemicals are a fact of modern life they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. There are estimated to be over 80,000 artificial chemicals in the world today. The structural diversity is enormous and it is not known which of these substances might adversely affect living things in subtle ways. Having worked for the EPA in the pre-manufacturing notice section I know testing for new chemicals is for gross and acute impact, subtle impact is very difficult to identify or predict. However, one thing is certain the growing class of known endocrine disrupting chemicals can disturb a staggering range of hormonal processes. Like natural hormones, some EDCs bind directly with hormone receptors.

When I purchased my home, one of my contingencies was water quality. The house sits on one of the most productive aquifers in Virginia and draws its water from a private well. I had the right to exit the purchase if the water quality was either unacceptable to me or did not meet US EPA Safe Drinking Water Standards. All we could negotiate was 12 day contingency period and in reality I had less time than that. The power needed to be turned on to operate the water pump, the and water tanks drained and the water run to clear out the lines and holding tanks. Though an old friend at the US EPA had identified a reasonably priced informational oriented analysis package, the turn around time was 4-6 weeks plus the analytical limits were higher than I wanted. I was interested in obtaining a water supply as pristine as possible, thus I would refuse any traces of any industrial compounds. I was specifically looking for solvents, hydrocarbon fuels, heavy metals and pesticide traces. So I determined my best option to verify water quality within the transaction timeframe appeared to be to use an US EPA certified laboratory to perform a rush compliance analysis of the water sample for every primary and secondary contaminants listed under the Safe Drinking Water Act while simultaneously researching the history of the land. The good news is the results confirmed that the on-site drinking water well provided water that met the Safe Drinking Water Standards and was free of trace contaminants beyond the small traces (parts per million) of naturally occurring items such as iron, barium, cooper and moderately hard water (the presence of calcium carbonate). The groundwater supplying the house was uncontaminated. To obtain that analysis within the time frame of the contingency period I spent $1,635.00. The house was the most expensive purchase of my life and I did not want to purchase a house with “bad” water. The water also tasted good. There is no guarantee that the water will remain uncontaminated so I need to monitor it regularly as well as keep an eye out for likely sources of contamination.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Misplaced Priorities at the Virginia Department of Health

The final version of the Emergency Regulations for Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS) is posted at the Department of Health web site and can be downloaded for your perusal.

Still contained in the final version is the requirement that single family alternative onsite sewage systems be sampled every five years. This gives the appearance of the emergency regulations that serve to ensure enrichment of the septic service companies and department of health data gathering project. The regulations require two year contacts and basically tie the homeowner to an extremely limited pool of service providers. My own service provider just informed me that his contact rates have gone up almost 25% to meet the requirements of the new regulations and does not include sampling. The requirement for testing is a waste of the homeowner’s money and the inflexibility of the regulations will not serve to better protect public health and the environment. To work regulations must be effective, clear and not overly burdensome.

The proposed requirement for sampling and analysis by single family homeowners at a single point in time is misleading and it has no scientific value beyond data gathering. Results from a single test would normally vary in a range around the design parameters and so are statistically misleading and not representative of sound sampling methods. The Department of Health is using this requirement to data gather on the homeowner’s nickel. There are no standards for the sample results.

Perhaps I am wrong and the Department of Health intends to use the design parameters of the system as sampling standards. Let’s walk through this. If the system “failed” to meet the design parameters the next steps would be to make adjustments to the use or operation of the system. Then, to verify that these changes had the desired result, the system would be retested, again at the home owners expense to verify effluent within the design parameters. How many rounds of testing would be required to determine that the “average” parameter was met? Or would the Department of Health simply ignore the results and allow the systems to continue to operate until the next five year sample date? In real life there will be variability in performance. At what cut off does the VDH take enforcement action, or require further investigation? Without these answers a sampling program can be no more than data gathering.

All of the approved AOSS systems were demonstrated to perform satisfactorily to meet the requirements of the Commonwealth. Operation and maintenance of these AOSS systems by professional operators (or trained homeowners) ensures that a single family home (low volume) unit is functioning properly. These are not very complicated systems, they contain tanks, pumps and filters and natural process of bacteria breaking down the waste. As an experienced chemical engineer I know that a single sample once every five years would be misleading. Testing of a septic system operation at a single point in time can be impacted by volume, load, temperature and humidity and is not representative of overall performance. These systems do not have controlled sample ports and the field workers servicing single family homes have no sampling training and under the regulations are not required to have any form of license. Temperature and pressure will not be recorded, temperature will not be controlled during hold and delivery, and sampling will be unprofessional. There are no standards for appropriate sampling of a septic system. Nonetheless, I will be charged hundreds of dollars. In addition, the results of the single sampling event can be easily manipulated by adding a large quantity of clean water from the garden hose to the location being sampled. In my case, simply adding water to the third tank will ensure that the data obtained is entirely worthless. Such a single sample test would never have been adequate by itself to get an AOSS approved for use.

What is even more annoying than paying for the data gathering efforts of the Department of Health is their failure to put their first priority on the primary duty of protecting public health and the environment. If they wanted to do something useful they could test private drinking water wells annually. This data would ensure the public health and could identify failing or failed AOSS and traditional septic systems that had impacted groundwater. However, the massive costs of this would be visible and the pain of the cost felt by the public. At least, the groundwater of the Commonwealth could be carefully tracked. The Virginia Department of Health does not require homeowners to test their drinking water wells annually or even every five years. There is no logic behind the requirement that I should be spending hundreds of dollars to have some septic operation company sample and then send for analysis a sample from my third septic tank, but does not require me to ever pull a sample from the faucet of my house. Evidently, the Department of Health regulatory process was very influenced by the input from the industry.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen Final

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen closed on Friday December 18th 2009 without an agreement. The conference in Copenhagen, the 15th conference of parties (COP15) failed. The parties of the UNFCCC met for the last time before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and failed to hammer out a new agreement to prevent or stop climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Kyoto Protocol requires emissions cuts from developed countries that ratified it. The new accord does nothing and the Kyoto Protocol was made irrelevant by not including the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China, India and the US.

Now, China has proven that we of the United States are becoming increasingly irrelevant. We are only useful for the money we should be paying as retribution for having once been the major industrial power. We are a far less rich nation than we used to be and are rapidly spending our way to insolvency. The Copenhagen conference ended Saturday saying "the majority of countries" showed support for a U.S. negotiated political agreement without clout or consequences. China was clearly in control of the process. U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of major emerging economies including China, India, Brazil and South Africa met late Friday to hammer out some sort of agreement. Apparently, the President and Secretary Clinton thought they were meeting with China alone and found themselves faced with representatives of all the emerging economies.

Only with Chinas approval was an accord hammered out. The Copenhagen accord set a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times and reiterated a goal of rich nations to jointly mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. However, no details were provided as to exactly how such a target would be achieved or where that money would come from. A proposed 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 that had been in earlier drafts was removed. There are no consequences to failure to meet the goals. The U.N. climate conference agreed to "take note" of the Copenhagen accord, as the agreement is known. The accord was not formally approved so that no one is required to comply with the agreement.

With the accord in place emissions of carbon dioxide will continue rising rapidly beyond current level. Total atmospheric CO2 is currently 386 part per million. China, which emits 30% MORE CO2 per year than the US will continue to grow their economy unhindered by any aspects of the Copenhagen accord. China and the other developing nations have promised nothing. At the heart of the disputes in Copenhagen was money and economic strength. The poorest nations wanted a large pot of money (with no strings attached) to compensate them and pay for whatever programs they saw fit to support. China and India agreed to allow their emissions to continue to grow with no target to cut greenhouse gases. Our wants and desires for capping or reducing carbon emissions are irrelevant.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


The United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, between December 7th and 18th 2009. The conference in Copenhagen is the 15th conference of parties (COP15) in the Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the conference in Copenhagen the parties of the UNFCCC meet for the last time before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and intend to hammer out a new agreement to prevent or stop climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Kyoto Protocol requires emissions cuts from developed countries that ratified it. The US did not ratify Kyoto. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, is exempt from the Kyoto because it is classified as a developing nation. India is also exempt.

Even if the stated goals of the conference are all met, emissions of carbon dioxide will continue rising rapidly beyond current level. Total atmospheric CO2 is currently 386 part per million. Most future carbon emissions will not come from the currently industrialized world, but from the emerging economies, especially China, which emits 30% MORE CO2 per year than the US. China, has not promised to cut actual emissions. China and the other developing nations have promised only to cut their carbon "intensity," meaning emissions per unit of GDP.

True, China's CO2 per capita is only a quarter of the U.S. emissions rate. But warming (if caused by CO2 emissions) doesn't come from emissions per capita, it comes from total emissions. With 10% annual growth in China's economy, a 4% cut in intensity is actually a 6% annual increase in emissions. China is framing the negotiations in Copenhagen as a referendum on the developed nation’s responsibility for past emissions.
At the heart of the disputes in Copenhagen is money and economic growth and strength. The poorest nations want a large pot of money to compensate them and pay for adaption to climate change. China and India want to agree to allow their emissions to continue to grow at 6% per year and have the developed nations cut emission by significant amounts while paying retribution. This will result in crippling of the western economies as demonstrated by the experience of California, a leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

California which represents 20% of the US economy has demonstrated the costs to an economy of cutting emissions with their passage of AB 32 which established a comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that were intended to be cost effective. This law established a statewide GHG emissions cap for 2020, based on 1990 emissions. California has lead the way in cap and trade legislation and serves as an example to the nation of the concerns and problems with this particular approach to attempt to prevent climate change by controlling CO2 emissions.

In a recent report by Sanjay Varshney, of California State University, Sacramento and Dennis H. Tootelian, Ph.D., Director, Center for Small Business, California State University, Sacramento, titled “Cost of AB 32 on California Small Business-Summary Report of Findings,” the financial impacts to the economy and people of California to implement California’s greenhouse gas program was outlined.

The report concluded that result would be approximately a 10% loss in total gross state output. This will translate into nearly 1.1 million lost jobs in California which represents about 6% of the state labor force. The study also found that in order to cope with the increased costs generated by the AB 32 program, consumers will be forced to cut their discretionary spending by 26.2%, to cover the increased costs of necessary goods and services. The study’s cost analysis was based on the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) findings, which revealed significant cost increases. The study’s findings are consistent with the Peer Review analysis that CARB commissioned, which also concluded that the cost of the AB 32 Scoping Plan would be significant, and that the California Resource Board had significantly underestimated these costs.

In a global economy having the developed nations agree to cut greenhouse gases while the developing nations are allowed to continue to grow their emission will not result in any amelioration of the increase in greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, the production of CO2 will just moves out of the country along with the economic activity that is producing the emissions making the developed nations poorer. The wealth will be transferred to the developing world. We as a nation are currently spending much more money than we have; there is not enough money to pay for our current programs let alone any future programs. Strangling our economy to drastically cut emissions of CO2 will not save the earth and will become increasingly irrelevant as the Chinese and other developing economies ellipse the US.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The EPA Endangerment Determination

Back in April 2007, in a suit filed by Massachusetts against the US EPA the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The case was brought to force the US EPA to determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which endanger public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision.

Two years later in April 2009, the EPA Administrator signed a proposed endangerment and a cause or contribute findings for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  (That links to the draft of 2007 since the final was taken down. EPA held a 60-day public comment period, which ended June 23, 2009. If you will recall at the end of the comment period Alan Carlin and John Davidson of the US EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics detailed their concerns about the science underpinning the agency's "endangerment finding" for carbon dioxide. The two said the US EPA accepted findings reached by outside groups, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, "without a careful and critical examination of their own conclusions and documentation." They raise questions about data that EPA used to develop the proposed finding.

The EPA dismissed these concerns and barred the two from working in this area in the future. The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals support for the concerns of Alan Carlin and John Davidson who said the EPA accepted findings reached by outside groups, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, "without a careful and critical examination of their own conclusions and documentation." More importantly, the US EPA is required to make its own evaluation of the underlying science not depend on the findings of others for its Endangerment Determination and must that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health.

Though these days when you say greenhouse gasses most people think carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse substances in the earth's atmosphere are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide represents less than 0.04% (386 parts per million) of the atmosphere and its increase over the past hundred years or so is no doubt due to man’s impact on earth. The other greenhouse gasses are methane (1.8 parts per million), nitrous oxide (0.3 parts per million), hydrofluocarbons (0.00025 parts per million), Perfluorocarbons (0.00086 parts per million), and sulfur hexafloride (0.000006 parts per million). Ozone is also a greenhouse gas, but is not part of the endangerment finding.

On December 7, 2009, EPA Administrator Jackson signed two distinct findings regarding greenhouse gases under section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act:
Endangerment Finding:
The Administrator finds that the current and projected concentrations of the six
key well-mixed greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous
oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur
hexafluoride (SF6)--in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of
current and future generations.

Cause or Contribute Finding:
The Administrator finds that the combined emissions of these well-mixed
greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle engines
contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution which threatens public health and
Administrator Jackson explained her decision "relied on decades of sound, peer-reviewed, extensively evaluated scientific data." The declaration has been expected for months, after the Obama administration said earlier this year that it would act on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that found carbon dioxide and five other so-called greenhouse gases are pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. To use that law to regulate greenhouse gases, the EPA has to prove those gases are harmful to human health. As Kim Strassel or the Wall Street Journal points out, The EPA must prove first that carbon dioxide will cause global warming and that a warmer earth will cause Americans injury or death. Given that most climate scientists admit that a warmer earth could provide "net benefits" to the West, this may not be possible to demonstrate.

Although the EPA could have delayed until March the announcement of findings, in picking this time the administration chose to signal the US’s dismissal of any questions raised by the disclosure of emails hack from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though the emails released appear to reveal some researchers willingness to suppress or massage data and rig the peer-review process and control the publication of scholarly work, the Administration has dismissed any questions raised as a the “couple of naysayers,” deniers and dismissed them out of hand. The emails do raise new questions about how honest the peer-review process was. The Administration chose the first day of the United Nations global warming conference in Copenhagen as a way to signal full US acceptance of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determinations and that President Obama wants to demonstrate to other nations that the U.S. is committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions either through legislation or regulation.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Living in an RPA under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act

The Regulations of the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act require that a vegetated buffer area of at least 100-feet wide be located adjacent to of all tidal shores, tidal wetlands, certain associated non-tidal wetlands, and along both sides of all water bodies with perennial flow within the Tidewater region. These aquatic features, along with the 100-foot buffer area, are the Resource Protection Area (RPA) and serve to protect water quality by reducing excess sediment, nutrients, and potentially harmful or toxic substances from groundwater and surface water entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The RPAs are riparian buffers and provide critical habitat to terrestrial and aquatic species and stabilize stream banks. You can determine if you have a RPA area on a property by using the mapping function from the Assessors Department. Generally, RPA is one of the available mapping layers.

Riparian buffers are noted for their ability to protect and enhance water quality. A properly planted and healthy riparian zone can trap sediment, and reduce or remove nutrients and other chemicals from precipitation, surface waters and ground waters. Riparian buffers are especially important on headwater and small streams that have the greatest amount of water-land interaction and, therefore, have the most opportunities for gaining and transporting sediment. Once sediment has entered the system it can be continually re-suspended as it travels downstream and should be prevented from washing into the stream.

Riparian buffers perform many ecological functions. While required by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act for water quality benefits, the advantages realized by a natural or established forested buffer go well beyond clean water, erosion control and control of runoff. The presence of properly vegetated buffers provides biologically diverse habitats both in the water and on land. Watching the wildlife on the edge of the forested zone has provided hours of peaceful pleasure. The buffers are complex ecological systems that connect the upland areas with surface waters providing a transitional area through which both the surface and ground waters flow. Protecting riparian buffers protects human health and welfare by protecting the watershed, one of our most valuable resources.

According to Helms and Johnson a healthy forest has living trees functioning as part of a balanced and self replacing ecosystem. That ecosystem is a complex mix of trees, understory shrubs and groundcover. Over time the process of natural succession causes a change in species composition and structure. Small saplings are developing into the next generation of trees as the older ones die out, and understory trees add valuable functions between the larger dominant species. A riparian, forested buffer may require some degree of maintenance to retain its health and function. Since a forest is a dynamic ecosystem, change is inevitable as vegetation grows and dies.

I had noticed that some of the trees on the garden potion of our land (the area not part of the RPA) seemed to be dying, chocked to death by what appeared to be wineberry and some unknown vine. As an experiment my husband cut down much of the vines on three trees that appeared to by dying the year we moved into the house. Two years later the trees seem to be once more thriving. As I studied the garden I noticed vines growing over many of the trees and began to think that maybe the invasive vines should be cut back on all the trees. This raised the question of the health of the RPA. Wanting to be a good steward of the RPA entrusted to me, I turned to the Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

According to the “Riparian Buffers Guidance Manual” it is practically always best to allow the RPA to evolve on its own. Removal of noxious weeds or dead, dying and diseased vegetation should only be done as necessary to maintain the health of the forest or to prevent fire fuel buildup problems. So I contacted the Virginia Department of Forestry to assess the health of the woodland. The Forester seemed to think that the woodland appeared healthy, though he did not have time to walk the acres within the woodland. The Forester recommended that in the area not part of the RPA that a section of invasive vines be removed and replanted with native species, a dying tree removed and replaced with a native species and some additional tree suggestions for expanding our plantings. The Riparian Buffers Guidance Manual had a wonderful section on the management of woodlands that essentially stated that leaving the woods alone is the best plan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Global Warming Debate May Actually Begin

Until recently, questions about accepted global warming models and other modeling strategies took place only in fringe journal, there was no funding for differing points of view, the discussion was over and only approved research was funded. Not even the most fantastic statements were questioned. Thus I enjoyed reading George F. Will’s editorial comments in the Washington Post yesterday when he said, “Barack Obama …promises that U.S. emissions in 2050 will be 83 percent below 2005 levels. If so, 2050 emissions will equal those in 1910, when there were 92 million Americans. But there will be 420 million Americans in 2050, so Obama's promise means that per capita emissions then will be about what they were in 1875.” It does put that promise in perspective.

The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals some researchers willingness to suppress or massage data and rig the peer-review process and control the publication of scholarly work. Hacked emails have shown some of the weaknesses in the climate data and models used to forecast global warming as well as some rather questionable behavior. Richard Lindzen, a meteorology professor at MIT recently wrote about his questions about the climate models.

It is likely that global average temperature has increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 19th century, but he points out that the quality of the data is poor, and because the changes are small, it is easy to nudge such data a few tenths of a degree in any direction. Several of the hacked emails from CRU talk about how to do just that to support the prime theory of global warming.

Though these days when you say greenhouse gasses most people think carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse substances in the earth's atmosphere are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide represents less than 0.04% of the atmosphere and its increase over the past hundred years or so is no doubt due to man’s impact on earth. According to Professor Lindzen, even a doubling of CO2 would only upset the original balance between incoming and outgoing solar radiation by about 2%. Due to what he calls “climate forcing."

The main statement publicized after the last IPCC Scientific Assessment two years ago was that it was likely that most of the warming since 1957 (an anomalous cold year) was due to man’s activity. This was based on the fact that the various climate models couldn't reproduce the warming from about 1978 to 1998 without some climate forcing. They concluded that the climate forcing was due to man, not a fault in their models’ assumptions and understanding of climate.

Yet, articles from major modeling centers acknowledged that the failure of these models to anticipate the absence of warming for the past dozen years was due to the failure of these models to account for natural variability. Unaccountable variability is the reasons the climate models did not predict the failure of the earth to warm in the past decade, but unaccountable variability is the evidence that man’s activity caused the temperature warming that occurred in the previous twenty year period.

Recall that according to Professor Lindzen a doubling of CO2 would only increase incoming and outgoing radiation by about 2% over outgoing radiation; we are still talking about a two degree Fahrenheit increase associated with a doubling of CO2. The potential for alarm at increasing CO2 levels is basted on the concept of climate sensitivity-will an increase in CO2 act as a catalyst on global temperature increases.

Current climate models predict very high sensitivities of climate to changes in CO2. They do so because in these models, the main greenhouse substances (water vapor and clouds) act to amplify anything that CO2 does. This is referred to as positive feedback. But as the IPCC notes, clouds continue to be a source of major uncertainty in current models. Low sensitivity is entirely compatible with the small warming that has been observed in the past 12 years. The models with high sensitivity simulate the currently small response to the steep increase in CO2 by using aerosols to arbitrarily cancel as much greenhouse warming as needed to match the data, with each model choosing a different degree of cancellation according to the sensitivity of that model.

Many disasters associated with global warming are simply normal occurrences whose existence is claimed to be evidence of global warming and taken as omens, portending doom due to our carbon footprint. As George Will stated, “Some climate scientists …seem to suppose themselves a small clerisy entrusted with the most urgent truth ever discovered. On it, and hence on them, the planet's fate depends. So some of them consider it virtuous to embroider facts, exaggerate certitudes, suppress inconvenient data, and manipulate the peer-review process to suppress scholarly dissent and, above all, to declare that the debate is over.”

Now the debate should truly begin.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Water is still the Fluid of Life

Our quality of life and life itself is dependent on our access to water. Mankind cannot survive without water. One of the world’s most critical problems is a lack of quality water. More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 1.5 million deaths, mostly among children underage five, are attributed to unsafe drinking water each year. People are dying today for lack of clean water. The projections for 2030 are for significant and potentially life threatening water shortages in parts of the world.

Though I tend to distrust all long term modeling efforts for their simplifications and straight line projections; however, water planning ten and twenty years out is a standard practice in the US west and other water critical areas of the world. Water supply projection a decade or two out is a much simpler model than say climate projections, but still are impacted by non correlated variables and limited knowledge of groundwater recharge and reserves that would make it difficult to accurately projects water demand and availability.

In California, the combined demand for irrigated agriculture, expanding suburban footprint, habitat protection, and drought have stressed the water supply. For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. On less than 1% of the total farmland in the U.S. the Central Valley produces 8% of the agricultural output (as measured by value). In 2002 this translated to $17 billion in crop value. This is all made possible by irrigation. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley of California (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley. According to the US Geological Survey the Central Valley of California was mining groundwater at approximately 1,900 cubic feet per second from 1962 to 2003. As California learned this is an unsustainable practice.

In Virginia, the Water Resource Research Center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, WRRC, has been studying the projected future demand for water in the Commonwealth and examining the options. From 1999 to 2002 many localities in Virginia experienced a severe drought, but periodic droughts in Virginia are not unusual. In the past, the groundwater had served as the backup resource during critical water shortages. The recent drought was note worthy because the population shifts and growth had caused declining groundwater levels and increased demand in some regions. The WRRC states that there is a high probability that the costal areas and northern Virginia face a sever water shortage in coming decades because of the periodic droughts and increased water demand. Traditionally, building dams and reservoirs and inter-basin transfer of water were used to supply the state. However, these methods would face significant economic, environmental, regulatory and societal challenges in the future.

The WRRC suggests several options to supplement water supplies in these critical areas: water conservation, water reuse, groundwater recharge and desalination. Water conservation is the low lying fruit, but is unlikely to meet the increased demand. Water is the fluid of life and should never be wasted. My years in California make me acutely aware of and careful of my water use. It is important to teach the next generation to use water more wisely than the current generations have. Nonetheless, conservation alone will not be enough. Though we could limit population density by water carrying capacity of the area, the WRRC makes other suggestions.

Desalination techniques are being developed and planned in Florida and California. Their pressing needs will allow others to learn from their experiences, but their ability to supply any significant amount of drinking water is many years in the future. Enhancing groundwater recharge would improve groundwater supplies by an unknown amount. Certainly, elements of long-term water supply planning should be part of all development and growth planning. Groundwater sustainable development would include protection of aquifer recharge zones along with increasing subsurface infiltration and groundwater recharge by implementing low-impact development techniques, such as forestation and bioretention in urban and suburban areas. However, recharging groundwater with reclaimed water and the reuse of the reclaimed water, though practiced in many areas, is of real concern.

When the USGS began looking into a series of fish kills in the southern branch of the Potomac River, they found fish suffering from a variety of lesions. Some fish had bacterial lesions, some fungal lesions, and some fish had parasite. The USGS concluded the fish appeared to be immunosupressed so that any pathogen in the water could attack the fish. A series of studies were performed over a period of years. During the investigation it was discovered the bass suffering from lesions were intersexed. It had previously been demonstrated that estrogen and estrogen mimicking compounds can cause intersex. The occurrence of intersex among the lesioned fish prompted further studies. Since 2004, unexplained fish kills have occurred in the Shenandoah River basin. During 2007 and 2008 similar events took place in the upper James and Cowpasture rivers. Fish kills occur in various parts of the country and seem to occur for a variety of reasons.

The studies of the Potomac fish kill found the problem of endocrine disruption in fish to be widespread within the study area, a portion of the Chesapeake Water Shed, but increased in proximity to and downstream of the waste water treatment plants. Chemical sampling that took place along with the fish sampling found higher concentrations of waste water chemicals near the waste water plants. Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals at all locations their specific source is not yet known. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, the US FW and US GS have embarked on further study.

This reclaimed water implicated in the study is the same reclaimed water the WRRC suggests we all drink and forcibly use to recharge previously pristine groundwater. Due to its protected location underground, most groundwater is naturally clean and free from pollution. Recharging groundwater with reclaimed water may not be the best of ideas until more is known about the causes of the lesions and intersexed fish and the implications to human life. In April of 2009 the US EPA issued the Final List of Initial Pesticide Active Ingredients and Pesticide Inert Ingredients to be Screened under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as potential endocrine disruptors. Pesticide runoff is a large contributor of known pollutants to the watershed. Water is the fluid of life.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Global Warming Data Scandal

A large number of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia webmail server were hacked recently from computers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit in the United Kingdom. The CRU is the data repository for much of the world's climate research and is a major source for the judgments reached by the U.N.'s climate reports.

Available now for anyone to read are hundreds of emails that give the appearance of a concerted and coordinated program by the leading climatologists to make the data fit their conclusions instead of modifying their models to accurately reflect the data. In addition, they engaged in attempts to silence and discredit their critics. This form of intimidation and manipulation is despicable and serves to silence true scientific inquiry. These scientists truly believed their conclusions and were operating in a world where the ends justify the means. In trying to rush forward, these scientists have now undermined their cause and damaged their own credibility.

In the June article by Michael J Economides PhD and Xina Xie PhD “Climate Change-What Does the Research Mean?” was a brief review of the scientific literature and research on the some of the postulated impacts that global warming might have on hurricane frequency and intensity, shrinking the ice field of Mount Kilimanjaro, melting the polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Both sides of each argument appear to be documented and supported by specific scientific measurements. Such contradictory conclusions indicated that the modeling of the earth’s climate and environment needed to be significantly reexamined and tested. Now we have some inkling of why the models were not predictive. Some research suggests that climate change may have some anthropogenic (human) causes. However, human cause is not the sole component in climate change. The consequences of climate change that have been cited as reasons for government action have not so far been born out by the facts.

The CRU e-mail scandal, changes the focus of the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit next month from attempting political action during a global downturn to discussing a potential fraud. Republicans are launching investigations, and the pressure is building on Democrats to hold hearings, since climate scientists were funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars. The office of Senator Jim Inhofe the ranking republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee sent letters to federal agencies and outside scientists warning them not to delete their own CRU-related emails and documents, which may also be subject to Freedom of Information requests.

Carol Browner, the White House Environmental Czar in trying to downplay the controversy that the hacked e-mail has raised said “… we have 2,500 of the word’s foremost scientists who are in absolute agreement that this is a real problem and that we need to do something and we need to do something as soon as possible. What am I going to do, side with the couple of naysayers out there or the 2,500 scientists? I’m sticking with the 2,500 scientists.” The US EPA has stated repeatedly in the past that it based its findings on the UN science, which is now in question.

If you will recall at the end of June Alan Carlin and John Davidson of the US EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics detailed their concerns about the science underpinning the agency's "endangerment finding" for carbon dioxide. The two said the US EPA accepted findings reached by outside groups, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, "without a careful and critical examination of their own conclusions and documentation." They raise questions about data that EPA used to develop the proposed finding. The Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute posted the document on its Web site and you can find it there. Can the US EPA move forward with their “endangerment finding” based on science that now needs to be reexamined?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Soil and Water Conservation District Impact to Waters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

A large portion of both Prince William County and Fauquier County is within the Culpeper groundwater basin. In Prince William County the Culpeper basin consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks with a lack of overburden that limits natural protection to the aquifer, which is one of the most productive aquifers in the state. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act does not address the importance of groundwater to the watershed nor address the interconnected nature of groundwater and surface water. Under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act 2001 amendment, all the perennial flow surface water, connected and contiguous to tidal wetlands and buffer lands or within 100 feet of any of those features were made Resource Protection Areas of the Act. Virginia has not yet determined what percentage of the land area and population are subject to the act, but hopes to do so in the future. The “Tidewater” area as defined under the Act covers some of the most populous areas of Virginia. Portions of my land fall within the Resource Protection Areas of the Act, though according to the old geography books I live within the Piedmont of the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, I take my stewardship of this resource and my responsibilities under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act seriously.

I was very dismayed to read recently, that the Act was a “quasi-regulatory requirement” and is “likely only voluntary in nature because it does not require farmers or landowner to pay for the (soil and water quality conservation) assessments.” The September 2009 report from the Environmental Working Group Facing the Facts in the Chesapeake Bay,” is the source of that statement. The EWG identifies non-point source agricultural sources as the producers of a significant portion of the pollution in the watershed. This is an undisputed fact. The EWG points out that to achieve the target nutrient reduction in the Chesapeake Bay the six states have assigned two thirds or the nutrient reductions to agriculture. These are really the low lying fruit and can be obtained with agricultural “best management practices.” To achieve that end, the EWG argues that the six Chesapeake Bay states and the federal government must develop and effective regulatory framework to specifically implement the necessary farm best management practices by expanding federally regulatory authority over agricultural non-point source pollution. I do not believe that expansion of federal regulation and control are either cost effective or desirable. Self regulation is a proven and effective model. The resources available to educate and assist property owners should be more widely dispersed.

Virginia's Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) coordinates and directs programs and services to prevent degradation of the Commonwealth's water quality and quantity, though it is unclear if that mandate extends to groundwater. Most DCR soil and water conservation efforts are devoted to controlling nonpoint source pollution. Statewide nonpoint source pollution control programs support natural resource stewardship and assist local governments with resource management. These programs include technical assistance, education and research efforts are provided by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts which are funded through state agency budgets, through programs such as the sale of Chesapeake Bay license plates and by funds available from the federal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program under the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) were established in the 1930s to take ownership of the dams within the state. Across the United States, nearly 3000 conservation districts almost one in every county are helping local people to conserve land, water, forests, wildlife and related natural resources. In Virginia, the SWCDs work to develop comprehensive programs and plans to conserve soil resources, control and prevent soil erosion, prevent floods and conserve, develop, utilize and dispose water. Today, forty-seven districts serve as local resources for citizens in nearly all Virginia localities except Arlington. Virginia's Conservation Districts take an ecosystem approach to conservation and protection. Their vision is to help all citizens of their District to have livable communities in harmony with the environment. The SWCDs offer free technical assistance and resources for many sustainable and environmentally-friendly projects from managing storm water, to technical assistance to farmers with specific nutrient management to protect our waterways. The SWCDs provide technical assistance for natural resource conservation best management practices and offer tax credits and financial incentives, when appropriate.
I plan to work with my local SWCD in the coming months to add my skills to their programs and to see how this great resource contributes to moving towards a sustainable Virginia and healthier Chesapeake Watershed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Choosing Solar Power

Solar Photo Voltaic panels are one of the least cost-effective ways of reducing your use of non-renewable resources. The only way these systems get installed are by all of us subsidizing the cost. This is accomplished by tax credits, state rebates, and renewable energy credits. A tax credit is generally more valuable than an equivalent tax deduction because a tax credit reduces tax dollar-for-dollar, while a deduction only removes a percentage of the tax that is owed. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 extended the tax incentives under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) and eliminated the limit on the credit. Rebates from the state are an inefficient return of tax dollars paid because it requires administrative costs to funnel the dollars back from the stimulus package, but does ensure that the systems were actually installed. Finally, SRECs, solar renewable energy credits, are payments to the owner of a renewable energy system from a utility. They are currently greater than the value of the energy created. This is only possible because the utilities are required to have an ever increasing portion of their generation of power from renewable sources. To meet this requirement the utilities must buy the RECs and in turn charge all their customers a higher rate to cover the cost of the RECs. RECs paid in cash to the Solar PV system owner, increase the utilities' cost to operate, and thus, the cost they charge per kilowatt goes up making my solar system more valuable to me.

Though I want a solar system, I am concerned that my decision is based primarily on government incentives. Making an economic decision based on tax incentives, puts me at risk of capricious government action leaving me stuck with the economic reality of my decision if the tax incentives should be modified. Choosing solar now only makes sense based on the incentives and RECs. Then there is the problem of cash. In order to proceed with a 5 kilowatt project I would need to have about $40,000 in cash to pay for the Solar PV system, and then in turn I can reduce the taxes I pay the federal government next year and the years beyond by $12,000 (this is not a refundable tax credit) and can receive a rebate from the state from the state for about $7,700. The RECs will pay quarterly for at least four years and the power savings will be for the life of the system. Nonetheless, I will still have to pay (net assuming I navigate the rebate and tax credit requirements correctly) a bit more than $20,000 in cash. The estimated power savings of the system would be about $760 per year.

Solar PV systems and solar thermal systems for heating water will not save enough from electric (or gas) bills to make them financially viable in a homeowner's lifetime. There is an argument for installing solar panels but it is not an economic one. The various financial incentives provided by the government make the cost palatable. The incremental change in the use of fossil fuels because of the installation of solar panels will not prevent climate change, but the increased cost of power to consumers may reduce their use of power. These tax incentives seem geared to increase conservation of energy by increasing the cost of power. The reasoning presented is we are allowing the solar industry to develop better, more efficient products by encouraging and subsidizing the installation of Solar PV and thermal systems. The federal stimulus program is just “priming the pump” with a few billion dollars in federal money and an unknown amount in REC payments from utilities in order to make solar power economically feasible in total cost. In doing this we are burning the financial resources of the country in hopes of building a self sustaining solar industry. This makes me uneasy. The government incentives to home ownership ended up encouraging irresponsible behavior on the part of lenders and individuals and excesses that resulted in the real estate mess we are in now. I am trying to anticipate the types of problems that might result from my Solar PV system. Since I am looking only at the personal downside the analysis is much simpler.

The first thing is to make sure that I qualify for the federal tax credit, i.e. you would actually pay 30% of the total cost of the Solar PV system in taxes next year or beyond. Remember, you are going to have to pay the money upfront and reduce your withholdings or apply for a tax refund for the 2010 tax year in 2011. You might be out of pocket the money for the solar system for a year or more. There do not seem to be any more restrictions, no limits on income or the cost of a system. The state rebate in Virginia is limited by the $15 million in stimulus funds that the Commonwealth of Virginia has allocated to the program. In order to obtain a rebate, you first have to sign up and be accepted. This is a very simple procedure to ensure that some of the stimulus money is reserved for you. You can go to the website and sign up with little more than your name, address and type and size of system you intend to install- if you are serious about installing solar. Do not sign up until you have done enough research to be seriously considering the installation and only sign up for the size system you can afford or your home can support. Otherwise you will be tying up funds other people could use. Your request to conditionally reserve funds from the Virginia Renewable Energy Rebate Program will be immediately approved as long as funds are available. You then have 180 days to actually install the system and meet all the requirement of the program to obtain your rebate. Signing up only guarantees that there is still money available for your project not that you will receive the rebate. My reservation for funds has been conditionally approved. I am obtaining bids, reviewing references and checking contractor licenses for complaints, and looking for reviews of solar panels. The selected contractor will have to provide me with evidence of liability insurance, workman’s liability insurance (they will have people on my roof), and a bank reference. In these tough economic times, I can not afford a contractor to go bankrupt in the middle of my project. The delay could cost me the state rebate.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ideas for Modifying the Emergency Regulations for Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems

After much thought I have come up with some ideas on how to amend the Emergency Regulations for Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems in Virginia to better achieve the goals of the regulation and serve the people of Virginia. Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems are likely to be used more extensively in the future and may replace many of the conventional septic systems that fail. Though, conventional septic systems were designed to operate indefinitely if properly maintained, the truth is they have no alarms or ways to monitor them and the EPA states that most are not well maintained. The EPA estimates that the life of a conventional septic system is t 20 years or less. AOSS systems that are properly maintained will better serve the 30% of all homes that use on-site sewage systems and protect Virginia and Virginians.

To protect public health and the environment are essential and the goal of these regulations. In order to achieve this goal, regulation must be effective, clear and not overly burdensome. Self regulation is a proven effective model that can work to ensure that single family and low volume AOSS units are operated and maintained to protect public health and the environment. We allow people to operate their own automobiles on highways with school buses, ambulances, fire trucks, taxicabs, professional drivers and other citizens. We allow licensed pilots to fly planes. These citizens operate and maintain their machinery with annual inspections. The same self regulatory system can work for AOSSs.

First of all I believe that any PE, engineer licensed in the state of Virginia can operate and maintain their own AOSS.

Anyone who maintains an AOSS must personally hold either a PE, be certified under Chapter 23 of title 54.1 as being qualified to operate, monitor, and maintain AOSSs, or hold a (new) Class 2 License even if working under the direct supervision of an individual who is licensed or certified under Chapter 23 (§ 54.1-2300 et seq.) of Title 54.1 as being qualified to operate, monitor, and maintain an alternative onsite sewage system. I believe that the field employees should have at least a basic knowledge of AOSS systems, their operations, working parts and maintenance requirements before they are sent out to my house to work on my system.

“Maintenance” means performing adjustments to equipment and controls and in-kind replacement of normal wear and tear parts such as light bulbs, fuses, filters, pumps, motors, or other like components. Maintenance includes pumping the tanks on a periodic basis. Maintenance shall not include replacement of tanks, drain field piping, distribution boxes, or work requiring a construction permit and installer.

The DPOR must develop a test to qualify anyone seeking capability to maintain an AOSS system. All field employees of any entity that is licensed or certified under Chapter 23 (§ 54.1-2300 et seq.) of Title 54.1 as being qualified to operate, monitor, and maintain an alternative onsite sewage system, must have at least a Class 2 License. The new Class 2 License can not have a professional work experience requirement, but must demonstrate knowledge of AOSSs.

An owner of an AOSS of less than 1,000 gallons a day may operate and maintain their own system if they have obtained a Class 2 License demonstrating knowledge of the systems.

All AOSSs less than 1,000 gallons a day must be inspected annually. Inspections can only be performed by the department of Health or an individual who is personally licensed or certified under Chapter 23 (§ 54.1-2300 et seq.) of Title 54.1 as being qualified to operate, monitor, and maintain an alternative onsite sewage system.

All AOSS under 1,000 gallons a day must be operated by either an individual who is licensed or certified under Chapter 23 (§ 54.1-2300 et seq.) of Title 54.1 as being qualified to operate, monitor, and maintain an alternative onsite sewage system or the owner of the system and is either a PE in Virginia or holds a Class 2 License.

All AOSS less than 1,000 gallons a day must be maintained according to the requirements of the operating manual and maintain a log.

No AOSS less than 1,000 gallon a day will be required to sample the system. All of the approved AOSS systems were demonstrated to perform satisfactorily to meet the requirements of the Commonwealth. Operation and maintenance of these AOSS systems by professional operators, PEs, or trained homeowners ensures that a low volume unit is functioning properly. A sampling and testing requirement is burdensome, without public health or environmental benefits.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Renewable Energy Incentives and Solar PV Panels

On October 6, 2009 Governor Kaine of Virginia announced that a portion of the stimulus dollars we are all paying for as been allotted to its Residential and Commercial Solar and Wind Incentive Program. Up to $15 million will be provided in rebates to partially reimburse the costs of residential, commercial and nonprofit renewable energy systems. For residential users the first 10 kilowatts, the rebates will be $2.00 per watt for Photovoltaic Solar systems, $1.50 per watt for small wind turbines and $1.00 per watt for solar thermal units (solar hot water heaters). The rebate is less than you might think because system capacity is defined in Virginia as the installed system’s predicted peak alternating current (AC) output. The system’s predicted peak alternating current (AC) output is calculated as: PTC output Watts per module x Number of Modules x Inverter weighted efficiency. Thus, the rebate is for the AC output not the DC installation size that you are sold. The predicted peak alternating current output would be around 75%-80% of the DC rating.

Virginia has net metering. Combining this with the federal tax credit of 30% and the sale of the renewable energy credits, REC’s, which can be sold to California utilities who’ve just had their renewable energy hurdle rate increased or to others needing RECs. Current prices quoted for RECs are $220-$300 per kilowatt/year and are sold in 4 or 5 year contacts to REC aggregators. (Packaging RECs might be a nice clean business to be in.). Solar mounting modules with connectors built in cost about $7-$8 per (DC) watt installed. All of these incentives added together could bring solar PV within range of dreaming of actually having a payback period.

Though, I am fully aware that the payback period for my hybrid car is around infinity, due to my extremely low driving (less than 4,000 miles annually). I am tempted once more by green technology. So I went to the renewable energy recourse center to use their PVWatts calculator to see if I could get an estimate of the energy cost savings for the Solar PV cells. It helps to have your latitude and longitude (get it off your cell phone GPS function) and know what you actually pay for electricity and if you have net metering (the credits for power generated is at the same rate as you are charged). The model uses hourly weather data and a PV performance model to estimate annual energy production and cost savings for a crystalline silicon PV system. It allows users to create estimated performance data for any location in the United States. The PVWatts calculator uses the data from a typical meteorological year data station and site-specific solar resource and maximum temperature information to provide PV performance estimation. (Solar systems work more efficiently on sunny cool days.)

The PVWatts tells me that a 5 kW array mounted on my roof would generate about $760 dollars of electricity a year at $0.0122 per kW. This is what I pay NOVEC, my power co-op. Taking that data and calculating a payback period using a 4% interest rate and assuming that I obtain all the available incentives, the payback period for the solar panels would be 30 years with power costs remaining constant. The life of solar panels is between 20 and 25 years, so the payback with these assumptions is about the same as my car- will never happen. However, the sale of the RECs changes the economics. RECs are bundled together and sold for 4 or 5 years, paying quarterly. They represent twice the annual savings in power. So counting the RECs the solar panels actually appear to have a reasonable return. There is no guarantee what the value of the RECs will be in the future or if there will be any value. RECs only have value because utilities are required to generate and increasing amount of their power from renewable sources. If the regulations change or the utilities find cheaper sources of RECs then the return evaporates.

Armed with this information, I was able to convince the husband that the solar panels might be worthwhile based on the above analysis and the fact that I would let him turn up the air conditioning in the summer. It is still a big decision because even with rebates and tax credits we would have to come up with the cash to pay for the system. So, its on to the next stage of investigating installing a solar PV array. Now, it is on to finding the right contractor and obtaining bids.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Virginia’s Emergency Alternative Onsite Septic System Regulations Comments 2

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. There was a 30 day comment period that closed on October 28th 2009. On Friday, November 6, 2009 the Department of Health posted the comments. The comments and emergency regulations were posted on the VDH website for your review (they have since been taken down). There are 187 pages of comments from designers, regulators, manufacturers, environmental groups, consultants, and homeowners. Some of the comments are so technical in nature that I fear the resolution would require a multi year experimental program. Many comments are interesting.

Amelia McCulley of Albemarle County states that enforcement of noncompliance will be critical. The Emergency Regulations read:
“The Board, commissioner, and Department may use any lawful means to enforce this chapter, including voiding a construction or operation permit, imposition of civil penalties, or criminal prosecution.”

To ensure the successful implementation of the Emergency Regulations, the regulations need to be clear in the operating requirements for homeowners and the failure to comply with the operating requirements requires clearly spelled out appropriate fines and penalties the department of health is willing and able to invoke. Criminal prosecution of a homeowner for lack of an Operation and Maintenance contract is unlikely to be pursued. Therefore, As Amelia points out the necessary staffing, tools and procedures will need to be in place to assure that enforcement can occur as needed.

Ted McCormack of the Virginia Association of Counties strongly endorses the provisions of 12VAC5-613-110 that require all AOSS owners to maintain an ongoing relationship with an state-licensed AOSS operator, and further, to have the AOSS visited on a regular basis… In addition, current and prospective staffing reductions at local health departments mean that regular operator visits of AOSS by licensed professionals may be the only way the commonwealth will ever know that the systems are functioning properly. “ He concludes that the protections, the performance and laboratory sampling and monitoring provisions must not be weakened under any circumstances, and in some instances, should be increased. His argument is that the costs of maintaining, monitoring and regulating the AOSSs should be born by the property owner.

Scott York of Loudoun County supports annual maintenance and inspection requirements. “Unlike traditional septic tanks, AOSS are complex machines with components that must be properly maintained in order to continue functioning according to system design. Annual operator inspection reports filed with the health department will not only ensure that each AOSS is properly functioning, but it will also lead to improved maintenance as problems are identified during the required site visit and pointed out to the homeowner. Annual inspections and better routine maintenance will decrease the incidents of catastrophic system failures, which can cost many thousands of dollars to fix.” Because the costs of repairing a complete system failure are so high, Loudoun County goes on to suggest the Health Department to develop a requirement for the owner, designer, installer, manufacturer or operator to post a performance bond or other form of financial surety in order to cover the costs of major system failures in the event that routine maintenance and inspections are not enough to prevent such failure.

For the single family homeowner the requirements of the Emergency Regulations are about, ensuring and that these systems perform to protect public health and the waters of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For single family homes the typical homeowner cannot afford a gold plated regulatory system with every potential system and regulatory failure, monitored for, tested for, and insured against on the homeowner’s nickel. As was pointed out by the PEC, even waste water treatment plants, may not provide adequate protection of the waters of the state from man. We as a state could not afford the infrastructure necessary to be monitor and verify performance and operation, and the homeowner can not afford it all. The Department of Health needs to determine the reasonable compromises that will protect public health and the environment in a less than perfect world. Controlling the density of septic systems and the required inspections and maintenance will go a long way in ensuring the protection of public health and the waters of the state. It is a start.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Virginia’s Emergency Alternative Onsite Septic System Regulations Comments 1

On September 28, 2009 the Virginia Department of Health published their proposed Alternative Onsite Septic System, AOSS, regulations for public comment. There was a 30 day comment period that closed on October 28th 2009. On Friday, November 6, 2009 the Department of Health posted the comments. I was a little surprised to see both my comments and what I thought was a personal e-mail to Alan Knapp posted as comments. Nonetheless, I learned a lot reading through the comments and was really pleased with all the sheer number of people who participated in the regulatory process. The comments and emergency regulations are posted on the VDH website for your review. There are 187 pages of comments from designers, regulators, manufacturers, environmental groups, consultants, and homeowners. Some of the comments are so technical in nature that I fear the resolution would require a multi year experimental program. Many comments are interesting.

Thomas Crow of the Fairfax Co. Health Department points out that “In the initial stages finding an operator for home owners will be difficult and expensive. There are very few operators for a home owner to choose from in today’s market. We suggest providing an effective date for this paragraph to allow time for the infrastructure to be built to meet the demand.” He goes on to suggest that Emergency Regulations require that “…operating permits must be renewed every five years by the Health Department. We believe that requirement is necessary because local Health Departments lack the staff necessary to adequately provide oversight to the program as described in the regulations. Requiring a renewable permit will make it ensure that the Health Department is able to evaluate each AOSS at least every five years.” So, every year the Health Department will have to issue or renew operating permits complete with sampling for 20% of all AOSS in the state and every new system built. I do not think that will alleviate the staffing issue. Furthermore, if the operating permit lapses is the occupancy permit voided or must the homeowner begin pump and haul until such time that the department of health renews the permit. I think the idea of outside licensed operators and computer systems was intended to automate compliance someday, not create a system where the VDH needs to manually review and issue a new permit for an ever growing number of systems each year.

Scott Fincham also of the VDH points out that according to his reading of the regulations “Low Pressure Distribution System’s will be considered Alternative (AOSS) and thus require maintenance and monitoring.”

W. Todd Benson of the Piedmont Environmental Council points to the USGS research on the Potomac River that identified intersexed fish. Researchers identified the presence of endocrine disruptors. “Evidence is mounting that trace levels of prescription drugs in rivers and streams may be harming fish, tadpoles, frogs, mussels and oysters. Obviously, the same constituents in the solid and liquid waste stream of conventional waste water treatment works should be expected in AOSS effluent. One might assume that the risk posed by and individual AOSS is the same or better than individual, traditional septic system and, therefore, the permitting of individual AOSSs should be allowed. But the assumption of no greater harm dissipates as the systems grow in size.” Emerging chemicals of concern will be an issue to septic systems, AOSS, clustered systems and sewage treatment plants in the future. It is unknown which of these systems will prove most protective of human health and the environment. Soil filtration may prove to be more effective that point source release. There is still much research to be done in this emerging area of investigation. Todd is correct when he states “These regulations are prepared without any analysis of or attention to the problem of endocrine disruptors or other chemicals of concern.” The PEC recommends that all AOSSs other than individual AOSSs should be banned.

Several different investigations within the Fish and Wildlife Service and US Geological Survey studied the relationship between wastewater treatment plants, other chemicals, and the impacted fish. The study Todd refers to found the problem of endocrine disruption in fish to be widespread in the limited study area of a portion of the Chesapeake Water Shed, but increased in proximity to and downstream of the wastewater treatment plants. Chemical sampling that took place along with the fish sampling found higher concentrations of wastewater chemicals near the wastewater plants. Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals at all locations their specific source is not yet known. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, the US FW and US GS have embarked on further studies.

Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., P.E, a former VDH employee, is a supporter of the clustered systems and today makes his living designing and operating those systems. I should give him the opportunity to counter the PECs recommendation against clustered systems, but as always Anish’s comments are way beyond my knowledge base, but he does state “It is important that Lab Sampling be required for ALL types of AOSS, large and small, at frequency that does not create undue financial burden on either type of AOSS… It’s all about Performance WITH Verification.” I like the philosophy which would allow the regulations to evolve with the knowledge base. However, I am still thinking about that, after all, for at least the single family homeowner the requirements of the Emergency Regulations are intended to ensure that these systems perform to protect public health and the waters of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For single family homes the typical homeowner cannot afford a gold plated regulatory system with every potential system and regulatory failure, monitored for, tested for, permitted and re-permitted on the homeowner’s nickel. As Todd elegantly points out, highly regulated point source generators, waste water treatment plants, may not provide adequate protection of the waters of the state from man. We as a state could not afford the infrastructure necessary to monitor and verify performance and operation, and the homeowner can only afford essential protections to protect public health and the environment, not those that make a regulator's life easier. The Department of Health needs to determine the reasonable compromises that will protect public health and the environment in a less than perfect world.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sustainable Living with a Lifecycle Approach

The carbon footprint and IPAT approach failed to encompass the balance with which we live with the earth. When I lived in the city I did not often think about all the resources of the earth pulled to support the city entity itself. I never considered if urban living was more or less sustainable than country or suburban living. Certainly, when we worked in the city, living within walking distance of work seemed more sustainable. The work I did in environmental evaluations and redevelopment of Brownfield properties was clearly improved use or re-use of the land and a sustainable form of land use. How does the work you do contribute to the sustainability of your life? What is the cost of supplying cities with power, water and food? Is the ecological impact of a city greater than the ecological impact of the individuals merely because of the concentration of population? These are truly tough questions, and I do not have the simplicity of an answer that measuring a carbon footprint would. Truly measuring your ecological footprint and choices accurately might require some of the computing power of NASA.

All resources are finite. As humans our resources consist of money, time, passion and energy. In the end, where, how and when we deploy these resources will determine our comfort and happiness with our lives. Living within your personal means, financial means and your ecological means would be a sustainable life. The problem is how to determine what is or should be your ecological means, what is sustainable in a dynamic and interconnected environment. A useful model in sustainable living could be a great tool in decision making. In the real world of finite resources, careful consideration must be given to how and when we expend our resources. Recently, I came across an article by Phillip E. Savage, PE of the University of Michigan, “What Does It Mean To Be Green.” In the literature cited was a book, “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living,” written/published in 1991 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Thanks to the internet excerpts from the book were available to read as well as a summary of the book. It appears to be a guide to the principles and actions of sustainable living on this earth. The first part of the book was even called “principals of sustainable living.”

There is a “popular adoption” of the book called “Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Survival.” That is the book I ordered. The book summary reads in part, “The principles of sustainable living are respect and care for the community of life, improvement in the quality of human life, conservation of the earth's vitality and diversity, reduction of nonrenewable resource depletion, (and) maintenance of the earth's carrying capacity… Changes in community attitudes and practice in the care of their own environments, a national framework for integrating development and conservation.” Sounds like powerful and encompassing view that I hope has not been made obsolete with the passage of 18 years. Hopefully, I will find universal principles to evaluate choices.

Until I find a truly workable model of sustainable living I will try to stumble through life’s choices, balancing wants and desires with resources and trying to make good choices for us and the earth. Following a systematic plan to reduce the non-renewable the energy footprint of our home and lives. Living within the limits of the hydraulic system of the Culpeper Basin. Acting as responsible stewards of the watershed. Making responsible choices on how we spend the money we have available. For example, I will admit that for health and taste reasons (and because I evaluated the environmental impact of CAFOs in the northwest and Texas) I buy meat from what my husband refers to as the meat underground. Every six weeks or so, I drive my little hybrid on a 35 mile roundtrip to pick up my meat order from the appointed pickup location that the husband always describes this as “under a bridge by the river.” It is actually at the end of a cul-de-sac. My meat is more expensive than what could be bought in groceries (with the exception of the grass feed organic meat at Whole Foods that I buy when we are in California). My meat co-operative is a relatively local Shenandoah Valley Farmer, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Just recently, Mr. Salatin and Polyface Farms received a Heinz Family Foundation Award for helping to bring about a cleaner, greener and more sustainable plant. After reading that in the local “Co-op Currents” I feel really good about all the money I spend on meat. Since I calculated that I have about 28,000-30,000 more meals to cook for my husband, they might as well be tasty, healthy and sustainable.

By the way, just in case you care, Salatin rotates his livestock’s location on the farm, so that different species are helped by the proximity of the other animals. He uses portable infrastructure and equipment, and does not use chemicals or fertilizers, instead using composting and pigs as aerators. He is too ornery and libertarian to jump through hoops for organic certification, so you take it or leave it with his guarantee. For anyone who has not spent time at concentrated feed lots or by their official government name “concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, I recommend Michael Pollen’s excellent book, “An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Food.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sustainable Living and Your Carbon Footprint

All resources are finite. As humans our resources consist of money, time, passion and energy. In the end, where, how and when we deploy these resources will determine our comfort and happiness with our lives. While there are some basic truths, the optimal allocation of your resources is based on your values and goals. Living within your means and your ecological means would be a sustainable life. The problem is how to determine what is or should be your ecological means. In the real world of finite resources, careful consideration must be given to how and when we expend our resources.

A very popular viewpoint right now is sustainability is tied to the individual and national carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is a by product of combustion, all combustion. Human beings exhale it at over 3 pounds per day for the average sedentary adult. Carbon dioxide is also released when we burn fossil fuels such as gas, coal or oil. In a natural carbon cycle, carbon dioxide is used by plants and trees. However, the belief is that we are producing more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by the plants and trees currently available to use it because we are burning too much fuel. The fuel represents carbon dioxide that was trapped under the earth's surface for millions of years. It is believed that the human population by breathing and burning fuels has caused the increase in the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere from approximately 250 parts per million (0.025%) to 386 part per million (0.039%) in the past 100 years.

The popular belief is that this increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has caused the under 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in average global temperature since 1900. (It is to be noted that that increase was 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit when measured in 1998 and 2005, but the average temperature has fallen somewhat since then.) This theory further postulates that the overall temperature of the planet is increasing (global warming) at a faster rate now and causing the earth’s climate to change in unpredictable ways (from floods and hurricanes to heat waves and droughts). The strongest adherents to this belief, hold that the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced immediately. The goal of Cap and Trade legislation is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by capping the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted by all industry, reducing that amount each year and allowing the industrial sector to reduce their releases off the base and sell each other release permits, thus reducing the burning of fuels. The belief is that if we could reduce our carbon dioxide emissions enough we could stop the climate of the earth from changing. The models predicting this are at the earliest stages of development because our knowledge of our environment is really limited, hard data points especially for the oceans has been limited in quantity and duration.

There is a price to reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and we need to the costs and benefits in terms of comforts, services, possessions and environmental balance before we act. It is likely very important to reduce the burning or fossil fuels and increase the planting of trees; however, we should approach this in the most cost effective manner. It is not clear how regulations to limit point source carbon dioxide release, to reduce our carbon footprint (reduce our burning of fuels) will of its self make living more sustainable. Certainly, the current fuel usage in the United States will decrease and may make the climate of the earth more stable if carbon dioxide emissions do not increase else where in the world. In addition, as the previous review of global warming research showed some research suggests that climate change may have components that are other than of anthropogenic (human) causes. Certainly, anthropogenic activity has been a contributor to the 136 parts per million (0.014%) increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 109 years. The exact relationship of increases and decreases greenhouse gasses to climate change is unknown, if mankind were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth as in Alan Wisman’s February 2005 essay “Earth Without People”, climate change would not stop. The climate is neither static nor fixed, but without mankind it would certainly be different.

Building a bureaucracy to measure, control and tax carbon dioxide will have unintended consequences and consume resources and energy. There is real benefit to increasing the efficiency in energy use by selecting technologies, like hybrid or dimpled cars, ground source heat exchangers, solar panels or wind turbines. There is tremendous benefit to improving insulation in buildings and homes, passive use of solar and wind. Changes in how we live; urban dweller, rural dweller, suburban dweller; whether or not we commute or if we commute using public or private transportation, alone or in a groups, our purchasing and activity choices all will impact our “carbon footprint.” However, this approach only looks at one aspect of the carbon cycle and fails to identify what is a carbon budget if such a thing exists, it does not consider the other resources of the earth. Legislating the measurement of carbon dioxide release in all things will cost money and resources and of itself will not make our lives more sustainable. Limiting carbon dioxide emission by industry might reduce the use of energy in the United States by industry. Energy will become more expensive, a reduction in use will be achieved by a rationing of energy and products by price. A greater allocation of my resources to heating, electricity and food will make me poorer though not necessarily more sustainable in my living on this earth. Too many important aspects of sustainable life are missing from this viewpoint.