Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sustainable Living and Moral Licensing

Moral licensing as explained in the Sunday, July 18th 2010 Washington Post article by Michael S. Rosenwald is one way to describe the seemingly perplexing behaviors that humans engage in. His headline example of swearing by solar heat and driving a Hummer is eye catching, but seemingly unlikely- they didn’t sell many Hummers. Another example of moral licensing is as the commonly attributed cause for the statistic that Prius drivers drive more total miles. However, I prefer to frame this as green budgeting. Instead of driving more miles because they have a Prius, the people whose lives require or include lots of driving and are concerned about sustainable living or the environment choose to drive a Prius. Then there is me; I drive less than 4,000 miles a year, but have a hybrid. Clearly, it makes no economic sense. It is a limited budgetry excess to stay within my conceptual green budget. The life I live (now) requires that I own and drive a car. The hybrid is how I deal with that fact.

In order to live your values, you need to know what your values are and how to go about living them. Seemingly inconsistent choices may result from limted knowledge, information and insight on a topic or simply be part of the trade offs people make in balancing all their life choices. My green budget is an imperfect way to measure my environmental impact to the earth both positive and negative. My true goal is to live a rich and joyous life that is sustainable in all ways. To live sustainably, all aspects of your life- work, entertainment, everyday living, life choices, vacations have to be intergrated into a sustainable plan. Choices have to be made to achieve this, but there really is no sustainable framework to measure and evaluate all those choices. Some have tried to frame sustainable living solely as measured by carbon footprint, but that ignores water, the caring for renewable resources and the allocation of limited resources.

If you will recall, last spring Wal-Mart committed to reduce the carbon footprint from the life cycle of Wal-Mart’s products and supply chain by 20 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent over the next five years. In part this will be accomplished by having Wal-Mart use their leverage with their supply chain to influence the environmental practices, transportation, and storage of their supplying manufacturer. Part of this reduction will be accomplished by Wal-Mart’s customers who will be educated in more sustainable use of a product. A typical example of customer education is recommending that customers use cold water to wash laundry instead of hot. Some of reduction in Wal-Mart’s carbon impact is smoke and mirrors, but some is truly real. Wal-Mart will engage in an examination and improvement in how things are done in their supply chain and store management, but all decisions will be made based on how much carbon will be saved. The smallest carbon footprint is not always the right answer.

On Wednesday, July 28th 2010 the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Libby Copeland “In Search of the Green Cookout.” In this article she compares the traditional cookout with full fat beef, traditional hot dogs, plastic plates, table cloth and cutlery and conventionaly made ingredients for Smores and condiments to a “green” cookout. The green cookout featured grass fed beef, organic and grass fed hot dogs, disposable plates made from fallen palm leaves, bamboo cutlery, organic ingredient for smores, and green recycled paper table cloth. No measurement was made as to the different impacts these two cookouts would have, but the underlying assumption was merely a substitution of products. Green is achieved by shopping and spending more money. Buying a greener disposable plate or an organic marshmallow is not the answer.

For my most recent cookout, I, too, used grass fed beef. Several times a year, I buy bulk beef from Polyface farms. I drive the 38 mile round trip in my hybrid to pick up the meat at the drop off location. Of course this required that I have a large freezer to store the meat and despite being energy star it still uses electricity. To give my grass fed steaks full flavor (and minimize the formation of carcinogens) I marinate the meat in my own red wine and herb mixture for at least one day. Silly me, since we were cooking out in the backyard I used my everyday plates, my stainless steel cutlery, my casserole dishes to serve the organic Greek pasta salad I made using whole wheat pasta and the bounty of Jimmy Phillips garden, a friend who grows organic vegetables and always plants too much. (His heirloom tomatoes are to die for and free!) For a table cloth I used one of the cotton/poly mix tablecloth I bought years ago when I got the table for the deck and really did not want to iron a table cloth.

There are lots of compromises and tradeoffs in my cookout and life. The basic belief I have is that the greenest product is the one I already own. Reusable is better than disposable; though the disposable versus cotton diaper wars/ discussion highlighted the different ways to evaluate that decision. My choice for sustainably and naturally raised beef from Polyface is about healthful eating and humane treatment of the animals. Years ago, as part of my job I evaluated the environmental impact of CAFOs and farms in the northwest. After a few inspections of both conventional farming operations and alternative and organic farming operations the extra cost seemed more than worthwhile. I have not eaten conventionally raised food since. Thought I have not developed a way to calculate the various impacts on the earth of buying sustainably raised meat and storing it in my freezer for months at a time versus other choices, it is a choice I make. The reality is my husband expects to eat meat (or fish) every day and for health reasons and what I saw in the northwest I buy grass fed, pasture raised meat and wild fish. I embrace the philosophy that the Salatins have used for Polyface Farms, though I really do not know where my choice of meat fits into my green budget.

In a world with imperfect knowledge, we guess sometimes in silly ways and engage in green budgeting which may include a big dose of self delusion or advertised enhanced corporate illusions. In a pilot study performed on dairy suppliers, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed the costs and greenhouse gas emissions associated with a gallon of milk, from dairy farm to distribution center. By gathering and looking at the data, the Environmental Defense Fund identified the easily achieved improvements that “best practices” farm management can have in energy used to produce milk. Simple changes in fertilizer and manure management, at dairy processing facilities can achieve significant improvements in energy efficiency and even in the product itself, such as making milk shelf-stable. It is not always the product that matter, but how that product comes to be that is important. Best management practices, BMPs, can deliver more than a reduced carbon footprint; they can protect the watershed, streams and rivers. Soil and Conservation Districts nationwide have been aware of the improvements in environmental stewardship that can be achieved though simple improvements in farm practices; however, these organizations have not had any leverage to encourage farmers and dairy operations to implement these practices or adequate budget to develop farm plans. Some conservation districts certify farms that have embraced BMPs. Look for products from local farms that have embraced BMPs.

Sustainable living is not about buying the right product, though that is a small part of it. Sustainable living is the sum total of all aspects of your life and all the decision and tradeoffs you make. What is your life’s work, where you live, what things you choose to buy or not buy, medical care versus treatment, healthful living, activities you engage in, exercise, vacations, eating out, cooking at home, hobbies, all the activities and choices you make in your life. The little things you choose to do, recycle, compost, water or fertilize your garden, the temperature you choose for your home, and how you maintain your heating and air-conditioning units. We protect, use or abuse the earth’s resources in every aspect of our lives, but have no clear way to measure and evaluate our choices and so we find that we engage in perplexing behaviors trying to make choices without a clear framework for decision making.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Next Steps in Chesapeake Bay Restoration in Virginia

On Friday, Governor McDonnell announced the appointment of a new Assistant Secretary for Chesapeake Bay Restoration in Virginia, Anthony Moore. Mr. Moore recently served for six years at the US EPA as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Water. Prior to serving at the EPA, Mr. Moore briefly served as the Director of Policy for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, was Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and worked as a Chemist for Dominion Power for 15 years. This appointment marks the first step in Virginia’s response to the anticipated release of the final total maximum daily load, TMDLs for nutrients and sediments.

If you will recall, this past spring EPA released the “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” developed under President Obama’s Executive Order. The Strategy was released in May 2010 and outlines actions that will be taken by each federal agency to control pollution, restore habitat and wildlife, conserve land, and increase public awareness and accountability in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The executive order complements and overlaps with the settlement agreement resolving the lawsuit brought by former Maryland State Senator Bernard Fowler, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland and Virginia watermen’s associations, and others filed against the EPA in January 2009 alleging the Agency failed to fulfill its duties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. EPA settled the lawsuit with the “settlement agreement,” which requires EPA to:
Establish and implement a Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load, TMDL, for nutrients and sediments. This will include reviewing watershed implementation plans (WIPs) by the Chesapeake Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to ensure those jurisdictions achieve the nutrient and sediment allocations under the TMDL.
Review state-issued permits, including proposed construction general permits and NPDES permits for “significant point source discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment” in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Develop new storm water regulations by 2012 and concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) regulations by 2014.
Issue guidance on permitting for municipal separate storm sewer systems.

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, Doug Domenech, in a press conference last week said the amount of nitrogen from cars, power plants, fertilizer and other sources is down 20 percent bay wide since 1985. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, this decrease in large part to the water shed states reducing point source reductions by improving sewage treatment plant discharge. The new TMDLs are to take effect next year; the federal government could punish states that do not meet requirements by withholding grant money, imposing more regulations and taking other measures. Mr. Domenech called the consequences "unnecessarily aggressive,” but it is still unclear what how the reductions will be measured, documented and enforced. Mr. Domench argued the current approach, in which states are encouraged not required to meet EPA pollution reduction goals, is working and therefore should not be changed. Pointing out that new regulation could lead to job losses, especially among farmers, ranchers and land developers.

Yet, despite more than 25 years of effort, the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded and considerably short of attaining the 2010 water quality goals set forth in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement by the states. As a result of the court order, the US EPA is required to draft a new Bay-wide cleanup plan by May 2011. After point source reduction, which was mandated by federal regulation, improvements in water quality of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed stalled. All of the states failed to meet the 2010 deadline for water quality in the Bay. The new federally mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan is will establish and apportion an allowable pollution budget among the states and review the implementation plans for achieving those goals. The US EPA will set nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment limits for each impaired tributary and the Bay, together with maximum allowable point source and nonpoint source loadings.

The Federal Clean Water Act gives regulatory authority to the states to restrict pollutants discharged into the waters of the Bay from point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants. In contrast, that authority does not extend to non-point sources, such as farms, ornamental gardens, horse facilities and septic systems. The states need to address these non-point sources using other regulatory schemes. That lack of bright line regulatory authority has been the root cause of the stalled cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. There were always other calls for the resources of the states. Reductions in discharge of contaminants can be achieved through the implementation of “agricultural best management practices” operations and sensible management of septic systems in the state. In Virginia, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts work with farmers, and livestock owners to develop BMP implementation plans. The property owners are not “required” to implement BMPs and there is no system to verify the BMPs are followed. The most recent budget cycle has slashed the Soil and Conservation budgets throughout the state. There has never been and mechanism for enforcing the adoption and maintenance of BMPs now it seems there will be no budget for developing them.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act Meets the Wartime Museum

On July 19th, 2010 a public hearing was held in Woodbridge, VA to review the National Museum of Americans in Wartime, commonly known as Wartime Museum, request for an exception under the Chesapeake Bay Act to encroach into the RPA by 4.4 acres and enclose a perennial stream in a pipe under tons of fill as it moves from a wetland area that has formed in what was once a storm water management dry pond at an off site location, the uphill K-Mart parking lot. The storm water management pond was originally built in 1979 in the early days of storm water control, when there were no management agreements in place and only volume of water was controlled. The storm water management pond was allowed to deteriorate to the point that the pond is no longer functioning because there was no management plan or oversight agreement in 1979 ponds and the pond sits on private property. A perennial stream now runs from the wetland area that was once a dry pond, through a 200 linear feet of pipe before it becomes an open unnamed stream that runs to Neabsco Creek. It is unclear if this stream was created by or impacted by the creation of the storm water management pond.

The proposal, which was ultimately approved by the Board, was to fully enclose within a pipe the remaining 650 linear feet of stream and fill the 4.4 acres to allow the land to be used for outdoor activities at the Wartime Museum. The Wartime Museum will feature both indoor and outdoor settings such as WWI trenches, a bombed out WWII European Village and vintage tanks for WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan. It is envisioned that the 300,000 anticipated visitors each year will get to view military equipment up-close and in action. The Wartime Museum views the Outdoor Reenactment Area as the centerpiece of the museum and essential to their philosophy and mission. This area will allow the museum to be truly interactive with re-enactments, demonstrations, and visitor participation opportunities. Apparently the site requires that many of these activities take place in the 4.4 acres that house the perennial stream and adjacent Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Bay Act.

All requests for exceptions to encroach into the Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Bay Act are accompanied by proposed mitigation steps. The idea is if you encroach on or disturb and RPA, the water quality protection improvements must be made in other areas to “pay” for the disturbance of the RPA. For the simplest of cases, the rule of thumb is for every 400 square feet of RPA encroachment (say for a deck or patio) you plant 1 canopy tree, 2 understory trees and 3 small shrubs. As part of their request the Wartime Museum proposed replanting in other parts of the RPA to protect woods and vegetation on the site, some debris removal and the retrofit of the failed storm water management pond for the K-Mart parking lot. I believe that the Wartime Museum’s request was approved because Williamsburg Environmental, their consultants, represented that there would be a significant improvement to water quality of Neabsco Creek by the removal of 10 times as much phosphorus runoff between a functioning 1979 era storm water management pond and the voluntary improvement of the pond to 2010 standards. Little or no analysis was performed to determine potential impact from water velocity and any impacts to the water basin are not considered under the Chesapeake Bay Act. Under the current regulatory scheme in Virginia, the most significant improvement to water quality could be obtained by voluntarily improving and maintaining an off site storm water management basin. It appeared that the majority of the Board felt as if approving the request was the lesser of two evils.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Cost of My Solar Panels

One of my choices when I purchased my solar panels was to choose the Enphase micro inverter system. Though this system was more expensive than a single power inverter, it does two things for which I was willing to pay. The first is that the power cables running down the side of my house, albeit inside a pipe, are 120 current instead of 240. The second advantage to the micro inverters is that the energy production of each individual panel can be checked on the internet. If there should be a problem with the system, I can easily identify which panel needs to be attended to. However, my installation web page allows me to see the current energy produced by each of my 32 panels every minute, every hour, daily, weekly, monthly and the cumulative total power output. After two months of checking several times a day, I only spot check the solar panel midday to make sure all the panels are performing optimally. Though each panel is rated at 230 watts the rated PTC output per panel is 203 watts. The micro converter efficiency is rated at 95% so theoretically maximum actual production per panel is around 193 watts. I regularly see that watt output or slightly above at midday if a cloud is not floating by. Just by viewing the Enphase web page I can verify the proper functioning of my system.

For the first month of full operation (the panels were actually installed on the first day of my billing cycle) I checked the use of electricity on the solar on demand digital meter, added my recorded solar electricity production and compared it to my overage daily summer use of electricity twice a day. We use air conditioning. I am old enough to remember a time before air conditioning was common, but it is not a time I want to return to, not here in Virginia. A few weeks ago when my electric bill actually came, our power usage was slightly more than half of what it had been for the same period last year. My husband has taken to telling the neighbors who ask how much power we have that we have more solar power than Ed Begley, Jr., which is true. I believe we also use more power than the Begley household does. My husband explains this as a reference like saying a place is a little bigger than the state of New Jersey.

The energy produced by the solar panels has gone a long way in erasing the memory of my misadventures in solar that were topped off by actually finding a roof leak. I finally discovered the leak when the water began dripping in my first floor office during a thunder storm. Fortunately, rain storms make finding a leak easy. The solar installation company was actually a subsidiary of a roof and gutter company and was able to verify the location of the leak (and a few other nail pops) and dispatch a roofing repair crew (with full safety equipment) in the rain. The last few thunder storms have confirmed the integrity of the repair. Last week the wall board damage from the installation and leak were finally repaired and painted. The house looks good as new (or at least good as before the solar panels were installed). I just need the final bill from the contractor for the interior repairs to my home to deduct from the retainage and make the final payment to the solar installation company and we are done. Both the solar installation company and I are looking forward to that moment. Though it has been a bumpy road, they have always been responsive to problems and nice.

So, what did the solar project cost? The answer to that question is not simple.
To purchase and install a 7.36 KW solar array consisting of 32 Sharp 230 watt solar panels, 32 Enphase micro-inverters and mounts was $57,040. For the engineering and permits I paid $1,500 for a grand total of $58,540 out of pocket. Now it gets complicated. The 7.36 KW are equivalent to 6.2 KW PTC. I reserved 6 KW PTC Renewable Energy Rebate from Virginia and on completion of installation, inspection by the county, and sign-off by my power company, NOVC, I filled out all my paperwork, provided copies of permits, signed off inspections, invoices, technical information, contractor information and pictures of the installation, and meter and promptly (within 4 weeks) received my renewable energy rebate of $12,000 from Virginia. This payment may or not be taxable income. When I file my federal tax returns at the end of the year, I will have to provide copies of all the documentation for my federal tax returns as well as evidence that Virginia paid my Renewable Energy Rebate to obtain my 30% tax credit of $17,562. Thus, from the original installation cost of $58,540 I subtract the Virginia Renewable Energy Rebate of $12,000 and the 30% tax credit of $17,562 and my total out of pocket cost for my solar system after the first year is $28,978. A rough estimate using the DOE model of my savings on electricity (I have an air heat exchanger) is $1,400 per year. That is an under 5% return on my investment each year.

However, that’s not the final cost. The cost and return on a solar power system is based entirely on regulated incentives and there are more. The final incentive is the Solar Renewable Energy Credit or SREC. Each SREC is a credit for each megawatt of electricity that is produced. In the first two months of operation, my system has produced 1.9 megawatt hours. SRECs have value only because some states have Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. Utilities in the state buy SRECs from solar installation producers. It is a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the consumers). Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their states creating a closed market where the price is very high. Other states, like Virginia, have no current RPS requirement. Still other states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization.

Within the PJM (where my house is located) I can currently sell my SRECs to utilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. I need to have my solar system certified by both Pennsylvania and Washington so that I can sell my SRECs in their states. Once the system is certified, I can sell my solar power by estimate on the spot market or I can shop for a long-term SREC contract. The discount for a long term contract is huge. The value of SRECs will go up and down depending on the supply and demand as determined by the number of solar installations, states requiring RPS, and states allowing sale within the PJM regional transmission organizations. RPS requirements are currently set to increase over time, but regulations can change. SRECs in Pennsylvania have ranged from $200-$300 per megawatt hour. So after having my system qualified in Pennsylvania, I could earn an additional $2,000-$3,000 a year for 15 years or as long as the demand for RPS lasts which ever is less.

The bottom line is that I paid $58,540 for a photovoltaic system of 7.36 KW and we the American tax payer, and PJM power buyer will pay hopefully $29,562 in the first year for my solar system and maybe pay up to another $30,000 (or so) over the next 15 years.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Water for Sale

Water for Sale is the title of a book by Fredrik Segerfeldt. The last chapter of the book begins:
“Excessively low prices fixed by politicians have lead to waste, lack of caution, and misallocation of resources-in short inefficient use of water. Distribution, moreover, has been managed by bureaucrats and public authorities with a low level of competence, little capital, and distorted incentive structure. In addition, the lack of property rights and water trading has resulted in water being pent up in less productive activities..;”

Mr. Segerfeldt was talking about the water supply in the developing world, but much of this appears true of many of the water distribution systems in our first world country. We delay maintenance of our water infrastructure as we debate the “fairness” of water rates. Our regulators and bureaucrats have allowed water companies to pump so much water from rivers that they no longer flow to the sea or have been reduced to small trickles. They have removed the cost of water from the benefits by artificially pricing water too low. The environmental costs have to be paid for by the water users. Damning and diverting rivers and pumping of groundwater have become as extensive as to change the face of the planet. The nature of governments is they do not take small steps, and then continually reevaluate the course direction. The grand actions governments tend to take are limited by knowledge and a tendency of man to believe that what he wants to see and assumes is the ultimate truth. Governments do not make quick course corrections. Central control of resources produces tragedies. (See Time Magazine article on the impact of a hydroelectric dam on India.)

“The tragedy of the Commons,” by Garreth Hardin was published in Science, December 13, 1968 and at least among environmentalists and scientists of my age are well known. The concept from the article that has survived is that what is a free and common resource is abused. The common of Hardin’s article was a community pasture that was open to all and used to graze cattle. The theory proposed by Hardin was that each cattle owner would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons until the carrying capacity of the land was exceeded and the land was overgrazed and the common pasture destroyed by erosion and weed dominance. Hardin said “Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” It was sensible for each cattle owner to increase the size of their herd because though the common pasture would be ruined, each individual would have maximized what they got out of the pasture before it was gone. This idea has of late been very poignant to me because of the work being done by the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District in their environmentally friendly horse farm project. I have watched management techniques utilized to revitalize and manage a pasture from overgrazed with significant runoff to lush, well maintained and thriving along with the horses.

Hardin was arguing for forced population control and pollution laws in a direct command and control manner. To a large part I believe he was wrong in that argument. His assumptions about human nature were wrong; we are not mindless and respond to incentives both perverse and rational. As countries move up the development ladder, they fertility rate falls. The rise of the middle class has coincided with a fall in fertility rate. As people have more they begin to choose smaller families for their well being and the well being of their children. In China where the famously enforced one child rule has been relaxed families are for the most part still choosing one child (perverse incentives), and the crash in population will be devastating for their economy and society.

However, the Tragedy of the Commons is also an argument for private ownership. What is not owned is not protected and what is viewed as free is abused. It is an argument to have quantitative ownership of rights to use a resource. Water rights must be owned and cannot exceed the sustainable rate of with drawl. In California there is no longer any relationship of the water to the land, they have destroyed the natural ecology of water rich areas to deliver the water to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the farms. Water is wealth in California where you can grow three crops a year. As long as water costs less than the real resource cost, farmers will plant and grow as much as their water allocation as the state continues down the path of ruin. Water cannot be banked in California, use it or loose it. Eighty percent of all water use in California is for agriculture and the demand will always be just a little more than the last wet year when times were so good. The incentive scheme has become extremely perverse in California. They did not initially understand the damage they were inflicting on the groundwater basin and the environment. I believe that if we understood the value of a resource and we own it that individuals can work together to protect their common interests.

Monday, July 12, 2010

BP Oil Leak Update

A “leak” or “spill” does not covey the damage and impact of the 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of oil that the government and BP currently estimate are released each day from the BP-Horizon Macondo well into the waters of Gulf of Mexico and began on the night of April 20th with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. However, since June 4th when the first successful cap, “top hat,” was installed, BP has been capturing a portion of the oil, anywhere from 840,000 to 1.2 million gallons of oil a day. The cap was leaking and it was impossible to estimate the true flow rate, so the actual amount of oil being spewed into the Gulf waters has only been estimated.

Given a good weather window, BP with the approval of the Administration’s on-site commander Admiral Allen have decided to remove the old cap, install a new better fitting cap and attach to well to another ship, the Helix Producer which can capture up to an additional million gallons of oil a day at the same time. Both of these actions were planned to take place, but not simultaneously. It was originally planned to attach the Helix Producer then replace the cap.

On Saturday, July 10th 2010 robotic submarines removed the leaking cap from the gushing gulf oil well. This was the first step in installing the new cap which is designed to fit more snugly and help BP catch all the oil. However, until the cap is secure, millions more gallons of crude oil will flow freely into the Gulf for at least two days until the new tighter-fitting cap called ‘Top Hat Number 10” is functioning and will enable more oil to be caught. We are all hopeful that this procedure hit no delays and that the new cap will be in place today. Meanwhile, the Helix Producer is being attaché to the system. With Top Hat Number 10 and Helix Producer in place, the system will be capable of capturing 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons of oil a day and we may finally know what the true flow rate of the Macondo well has been.

None the less, the new cap is only a temporary solution. Hope for permanently plugging the leak which has spilled between 87 million and 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as of July 10th still lies with the two relief wells being drilled. The first of the relief wells is still estimated to be completed by mid-August. The relief well is actually an intercept well that will drill into the leaking Macondo well and pump in mud and cement to permanently seal it. That is the plan but it is much more complicated than that.

To intersect the leaking well, BP has been drilling a new well parallel to Macondo well. At the last five feet, the intension is to shift directions slightly and drill directly into the Macondo well. BP is bouncing electromagnetic waves through rock to measure the distance between the relief well and the interception target as they near their goal. In the June 28th technical briefing by BP, it was pointed out that BP started drilling the relief well at the surface some 2,800 feet away from the well horizontally. Now, they are within 20 feet of the existing well and have been paralleling the well. On June 28th the relief well was at a depth of 16,770 feet with another 900 feet to go vertically before they try to cut into the Macondo well sideways. Before they do that BP is going to have to ensue that they are exactly where they think they are and lined up within the last 100 feet before they cut. They will have drilled over a mile to hit a less than 10 inch pipe. Once they have managed to intercept the well, they then will have to kill it. None of these steps is easy or certain.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Future of California

Unlike many communities in California, the Monterey Peninsula does not import water from the Sacramento Delta or Colorado River. Instead, in its semi-arid climate, the peninsula community is completely dependent on local rainfall for its water supply. The Carmel River has served as the main source for the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply since the first dam was built on the river in the late 1890s. Over 90% of the potable water supplied within the Seaside basin is delivered by California American Water (Cal-Am), a private company. Cal-Am operates several water distribution systems in the area, some of which are interconnected. The main system serves the Carmel Valley, Monterey Peninsula and coastal subareas of the Seaside basin. Presently, water is obtained from approximately 17 wells along the Carmel River and eight wells in the Seaside coastal subareas. The Carmel Valley wells extract groundwater from the Carmel Valley alluvium and operate year-round. Wells in the Seaside coastal subareas are used primarily in late spring, summer and fall- the dry season in California.

Cal-Am traditionally supplied its customers with water from wells located near the river in the Carmel Valley Aquifer. For a long time the water supplied was considered to be groundwater, which is not subject to State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) jurisdiction. However, in 1995, the SWRCB ruled that California American Water’s wells were diverting from the underflow of the Carmel River, thus making the diversion subject to SWRCB jurisdiction. Order 95-10 was issued, which held that California American Water had no valid permits for nearly 70 percent of the community’s water supply. Cal-Am went to court and nothing changed for a while.

Finally, in October of 2009 the SWRCB issued a Cease and Desist Order, CDO, for Cal-Am. The Order required Cal-Am to develop water supply sources in places other than the Carmel River. Cal-Am has not developed a substitute supply to date. The lack of a replacement supply was cited by the SWRCB as the reason the CDO was imposed. Initially, the order was put aside while the case was adjudicating, but has been reinstated by the court.

Though the CDO is directed against Cal-Am, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, MPWMD has been actively involved in the CDO because 95% of the people who live within MPWMD boundaries are Cal-Am customers. The MPWMD Board of Directors has consistently opposed the CDO due to technical flaws and the potential for adverse health and safety impacts to the community. MPWMD staff provided expert testimony in hearings on the draft CDO in Sacramento in 2008, and offered comments on earlier versions. When the final CDO was approved by the SWRCB in October 2009, MPWMD and Cal-Am filed suit jointly.

The MPWMD was created the California Legislature in 1977, and ratified by the voters of the Monterey Peninsula area in 1978. The District was formed in response to the drought of 1976-1977. The MPWMD Law provides authority for integrated management of the waters of the Carmel River and Seaside groundwater basin. The District’s integrated management responsibilities include control over water supply and demand, a combination which calls on the District to act both as a planning agency and a regulatory body, not as an advocate for unsustainable water use. In response to the SWRCB Order groundwater extraction near the coast increased markedly beginning in 1995, resulting in declining water levels and depletion of groundwater. After a series of studies in the early part of this decade it was estimated that the water being pumped from the groundwater basin was at approximately twice the sustainable yield of the Seaside basin. The Monterrey Peninsula was mining water at an alarming rate seemingly encouraged by the MPWMD

The state has ordered Cal Am to dramatically reduce its pumping of the Carmel River by 70 percent by 2016. Water conservation has been very effective in the region, but rationing may have to occur as the SWRCB steps down the water the Cal-Am may pump each year.

The Coastal Water Project is Cal-Am’s proposed solution to the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply shortage. The project consists of a seawater desalination plant and aquifer storage and recovery facilities. The project will replace water pumped from the Carmel River. Seawater desalination is used in 120 countries around the world for drinking water. As the technology has improved and costs have lessened, costal communities’ car looking to increase water supply from over-stressed rivers and aquifers.

Desalination is accomplished through a Reverse Osmosis (RO) process in which seawater is sent through highly pressurized, fine membrane filters that remove salt and other contaminants. What’s left is pure H20, which is why many bottled water companies use RO filters to produce their product. The project is based upon the recommendation by an independent team of environmental consultants selected by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) of how to best meet the community’s water supply needs. After a series of public hearings and workshops, the Coastal Water Project was suggested as the best alternative to a long-debated new dam and reservoir on the Carmel River.

Cal-Am recently completed a 12-month study, which included operation of a pilot desalination plant at the Moss Landing Power Plant. The pilot plant functioned as a mini version of a seawater desalination plant, drawing 22,000 gallons of ocean water per day from the power plant’s cooling systems and testing a variety of membrane and treatment technologies to help refine design of a full-scale project. Desalinated water produced by the pilot plant was tested for more than 100 compounds in a water quality study that will be submitted to the Department of Public Health as part of the project permitting process. The data collected in this study will be valuable to the ultimate project, regardless of its location. It is estimated that the construction of the desalination plant will cost between $300 and $500 million which will be paid for by a doubling (or tripling) of water rates in the area.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Failures in Our Water Infrastructure-Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Water Main Failures

Its Fourth of July weekend and Montgomery and Prince George counties are under mandatory water restriction, which to a large part have been ignored by large portions of the local population. Apparently, everyone is special and should not have the water restrictions apply to them. However, the bottom line is that in order for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, WSSC, to ensure enough water pressure to fight fires and prevent an overall drop in pressure, the population needs to cut back on their water use by about a third and hope that there are no big fires over the holiday weekend. The WSSC reports that mandatory conservation has so far resulted in less than a 10% reduction in water use. If conservation measures do not work, supply will simply be inadequate. If there is a fire there could be inadequate pressure at the hydrant to put it out. If the pressure in the system drops enough then it could impact supply to some homes. Their taps could simply go dry until the repair is completed and the 8 foot diameter water main refilled and might allow contaminants to seep into the entire system.

This is not the first time a massive main has caused major problems for the WSSC. In late 2008, a concrete main 66 inches in diameter burst in Bethesda, causing a torrent of frigid water that stranded cars and drivers. Other large water-main breaks in the past several years have led to advisories to boil-water for homes, businesses and hospitals as well as the temporary closure of schools and day-care centers. If water supply drops enough from a water main break or a water main’s removal from service, the water pressure in the system drops and two things happen, bacteria and other contaminants can seep into the water supply and there would be a drop in pressure at the tap, in many cases no water at all.

The water main that is the source of this weekend’s problem was installed in 1969. In 2007 when it was last inspected the, crews left behind fiber-optic equipment to detect the "ping" sounds created when the reinforcing steel wires break. This past week, the acoustic fiber optic system heard several pings of wire breaking- an indication that a section of the pipe was crumbling. The water main would need to be replaced before it failed as happened last winter. This is just the latest indication that our water infrastructure is aging. It has not been properly maintained.

Like many public water supply companies, the WSSC's attention has not been on maintaining the water deliver system and water purification standards; instead they have been mired for decades by politics. The commissioners have one job, to oversee the maintenance of supply of water to the residents and businesses in the area. The WSSC has a dedicated revenue source with a captive market so they can raise funds to maintain the system in an orderly and organized fashion, but they don’t. The three from Montgomery commissioner and the three from Prince George fail in their primary job. Instead they became deadlocked along county lines over a new general manager, and a Prince George's commissioner accused two Montgomery commissioners of racial bias. The board continued to debate racial issues after last winter’s water main break for two months before addressing the crisis of the water supply. They worry about fairness for rate increases when water rater need to support the maintenance and operation of the water system.

The replacement of the damaged section of the water main has been delayed because the adjacent valves have failed to completely shut and water continued to pour into the damaged section of pipe early Saturday. Repairs are further complicated by the water currently in the system. The WSSC had to discharge the water in the system somewhere. The water has been disinfected and contains chlorine so it could not be released into the sanitary sewer and the load on the waste treatment plants would exceed capacity. After replacing the pipe section the main will need to be refilled.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Evolution of Water Treatment

Throughout history civilizations have risen where there is a reliable supply of drinking water and have failed or disappeared when the population exceeded the available water supply. The change in water supply could have happened through population growth, through changing climate or through exhaustive water mining, but in all cases the water supply became unreliable or vanished and the civilizations disappeared. Most early water supplies were from surface water that often was visibly cloudy. The Nile has been fed for millennia by the rich runoff from Ethiopia. The rains brought nutrients and minerals with the water which created the agricultural bounty of Egypt in wet years. One of the earliest water treatments was used by the Egyptian. Alum was added to the water to cause suspended particles to settle out of the drinking water. The Greeks used charcoal, sunlight and straining to improve the taste and appearance of their water. The earliest water treatments were methods to clarify water and improve its taste and appearance using these techniques.
During the 19th century, with the rise of the European city filtration began to be regularly used. However the true advances in water treatment came out of the advances in scientific understanding. John Snow was a brilliant English physician who during his short life was the first physicians to demonstrate using statistics the correlation between water quality and cholera cases in London. This took place before the creation of the germ theory. His work would be the basis for further exploration by Louis Pasteur, who disproved spontaneous generations and HH Robert Koch who finally proved that germs were the basis of disease.
Filtration and additives like alum are effective treatments for cloudy water or turbidity, but it has limited success in removing pathogens which cause diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. The discovery in the early 1900’s that chlorine and ozone were effective disinfectants for the treatment of water to eliminate pathogens were the beginning of the modern scientific era and the birth of the great nations. The first standards for bacteria in drinking water in the United States (1914) applied only to water carried on interstate boats and trains. The Public Health Service expanded water standards beginning in 1925 with the most rudimentary standards. This was expanded in 1946 and further expanded in 1962 to standards for 28 substances in drinking water. All fifty states adopted some version of the Public Health Service standards of 1962. However, in a landmark survey by the Public Health Service in 1969 found that only 60% of the water systems surveyed meet all 28 Public Health Service standards. Several more studies ensued and resulted in Congress passing the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The SDWA was further amended in 1986 and 1996. Today there are almost 90 substances tested for and controlled under the SDWA.
Since the passage of the SDWA in 1974 the treatment of drinking water has increased most notably by small and medium community water systems. According to the EPA treatment by these smaller systems has more than doubled. Many of the treatment techniques used today by drinking water plants include methods that have been in use for hundreds of years. However, driven by the discovery of chlorine-resistant pathogens in drinking water that can cause hepatitis, gastroenteritis, cryptosporidiosis and others, newer technologies are being employed to maintain a safe water system. Reverse osmosis and activated carbon have increased in use and additional methods of water purification will no doubt be developed as new chemicals and substance find their way into water supplies through, runoff, industrial and waste treatment point source discharges and water recycling. As population centers strain their water supply we are entering the next age of drinking water in America.