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.