Monday, August 30, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill Update and the Magic of Nature

Oil began gushing from the BP-Horizon Macondo well into the waters of Gulf of Mexico on the night of April 20th with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The blowout preventer failed that night and in subsequent days BP was unable to trigger the device. Finally, BP sealed shut a provisional cap over the wellhead and stopped the oil from flowing into the Gulf of Mexico on July 15, 2010, after eighty six days later and an estimated 205,800,000 gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Nonetheless, the new cap has only been a temporary solution. Permanently plugging the leak will take place early next month using the relief well that has been drilled. A relief well is actually an intercept well that will be used to cut into the Macondo well and pump in mud and cement to permanently seal it. There is risk that in an attempt to permanently seal the well, oil will be released again. So, as both a safety precaution and a collection of evidence in investigating the leak, BP is preparing to remove the failed blowout preventer and capping stack from the damaged Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The failed blowout preventer is expected to be removed on Monday or Tuesday and replaced with another blowout before the weekend according to the National Incident Commander Thad Allen. Allen said the blowout preventer is a key piece of evidence in the investigation of the explosion and oil spill, including those by the U.S. Department of Justice and a joint probe by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Meanwhile, there has been keen interest and worry about the environmental impact from the oil spill. The US government now reports a total of 45,840,000 gallons of oil have been recovered or burned. A total of more than 11,140,000 gallons of oil from the open water have been removed by controlled burns. The government lists 34,700,000 gallons of an oil-water mix have been recovered. In an effort to accelerate the breakdown of the oil approximately 1.84 million gallons of dispersants had been released into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, both on the surface and in the sub-sea. The long term impacts of this release especially the deep water release of dispersants is unknown, but the underwater plume of oil that was previously observed now appears to be gone.

Several teams of scientists have been following and investigating the oil plume that formed deep below the surface. The plume was created when the chemical dispersant (Corexit 9500) was dumped around the wellhead in an effort to break up the torrent of crude oil gushing from the seabed and prevent a large quantity of flammable oil from reaching the surface. The plume continued spreading through the water even after the well was finally plugged July 15 but has not been observed recently. Several scientific groups have been investigating this plume and its apparent fate.

Terry Hazen is a microbial ecologist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Earth Sciences Division, (Berkley Lab) and principal investigator with the Energy Biosciences Institute, lead a study from Berkeley Lab. Hazen and his team reported on the new microbes in the online journal Sciencexpress in August. He conducted this research under an existing grant he holds with the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to study microbial enhanced hydrocarbon recovery. EBI is a partnership led by the University of California (UC) Berkeley and including Berkeley Lab and the University of Illinois that is funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP. Results reported in Sciencexpress are based on the analysis of more than 200 samples collected from 17 deepwater sites between May 25 and June 2, 2010.

Hazen and his colleagues determined that natural bioremediation of the oil plum is taking place. They found that microbial activity is causing faster than expected biodegradation. Their research found that the dominant microbe in the oil plume is a new species, closely related to members of Oceanospirillales family of known microbes. The Berkeley Scientists attribute the faster than anticipated rates of biodegradation at the 4.7 degree Celsius temperature several thousand feet below the surface in part to the nature of the Gulf light crude, which contains a large volatile component that is more biodegradable, to the use of the dispersant.

Both the Berkeley Lab and the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute had found only mildly depressed levels of oxygen (from 67% oxygen saturation outside the plume to 59% saturation within the plume). Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute had reported earlier that the lack of oxygen dead zone anticipated by predicted bacterial digestion of the plume indicated that the plume was being bioremediated slower than expected. While their observations explain the lack of a dead zone, do not explain the disappearance of the plume.

A third group of scientists at University of California at Santa Barbara, who are also attempting to characterize the microbial response to the oil plume felt that the Berkeley Scientists were measuring the dilution rate for the plume more so than the bioremediation rate. Dr. Hazen agreed that dilution was a factor. The Berkeley Scientists will continue to sample the area in the coming weeks including sediment cores near the well head. However, recent observations confirmed that the plume may be gone, thanks to a combination of microbial action and dilution. While the new species of microbe may not be quite as miraculous as its press coverage, still, microbes are present, oxygen saturation while mildly depressed has not created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the plume is gone.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chesapeake Bay Basin Pollution Diet Support Group

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. As a result, US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nutrients and sediments to restore the local waters. The TMDL (released as a Draft standard in July) allocates a pollution budget among the states and is intended to decrease over time with the goal of restoring the Chesapeake Bay to the best conditions observed in the past 70 years. EPA describes the TMDL as a pollution diet and appropriately enough has created a diet support group. EPA has been having a series of webinars to provide the latest news, information, support and guidance for the state regulators and to provide an approach to implementing the new federal standards in the six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia.

In the past 25 years much of the improvement in the Chesapeake Bay water quality has been achieved through regulation and control of point source contamination coming from sewage treatment plants and industrial plants combined with the improved management practices in agriculture. During this period, storm water pollution prevention and management planes were developed and implemented for large scale commercial construction. The largest producers of pollution have been regulated. The new pollution diets mandated by the EPA will require more reductions and a new strategy for achieving these reductions.

Nutrient and sediment contamination from mixed open, urban runoff and septic have all increased with the growing population and expanding suburbs over the past 25 years. So, while agricultural and industrial pollution have reduced their contamination of the Chesapeake Bay basin by a quarter to over half depending on which nutrient and which model is used to measure the pollution, the nutrient pollution form open space, urban runoff and septic have grown. To meet the new TMDLs sediment and nutrient limits that are being mandated by the US EPA the six Chesapeake Bay water shed states and Washington DC are going to have to reduce the nutrient pollution and sediment from urban and suburban residential sources.

The historic regulatory approach will not work with home owners and other small source contributors. Households do not have compliance officers to generate Storm Water Management Plans and implement and maintain best management practices. Many homeowners are not educated on the appropriate steps that should be taken to reduce run off and impact from their properties. Instead they are bombarded with advertisements for lawn care products, services and sprinkler systems and pressured by homeowner associations to maintain the appearance of their properties. Hospitals, libraries, schools, public spaces, parks, and retail locations are all landscaped and watered. The old maximum recommended elapsed time for pumping a septic tank is the one required in sensitive areas within the watershed and it is not monitored and enforced. Many homeowners seem unaware that septic systems require maintenance and care. We wash our cars in driveways instead of utilizing commercial operations with recycled water. There is no easy or obvious way to change this.

The entire state and Federal regulatory structure is geared toward large deep pocket corporate sources of contamination not towards ensuring that septic tanks are pumped with adequate frequency, fertilizer is used sparingly (if at all in ornamental applications) and storm water is adequately controlled in all areas. Many small and older developments were built without addressing the storm water flow and sheet flow of water off streets. This clearly needs to be addressed, but how that is to be accomplished in a non-punitive manner and consistently enforce and implemented is not clear. DC’s idea of requiring every structure of more than 5,000 square feet to have a Storm Water Management Plan does not appear workable in the suburbs where mile of developments were built without urban storm sewers, without storm water management plans, or the plans have proved inadequate over time.

I do not know how to improve homeowner behavior in maintaining a septic systems, lawns, garden care and in managing run off to and from residential properties without creating a regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare for the homeowner and a quagmire for the regulators. I look forward to reviewing the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) when it is released for comment on September 24th 2010 to see how our regulators have chosen to approach the problem if at all in this first iteration of the WIP. I am planning on attending one of the Virginia meetings for a complete list of meetings go to the EPA web page listing. We should all be informed and know what the regulatory community has planned for us.

The schedule for the EPA public comment meetings in all jurisdictions can also be found on the EPA Bay TMDL page at

Monday, August 23, 2010

Chesapeake Bay Watershed Basin Implementation Plans and the Homeowner

EPA has been having a series of webinars to provide the latest news and information on the Chesapeake Bay strict pollution diet, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in total, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded. As a result, US EPA took control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL to restore the local waters. The TMDL (released as a Draft standard in July) allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time. The webinars serve as support and guidance for the state regulators and to provide an approach to implementing the new federal standards in the six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia.

The states and DC have already received their draft nutrient allocation and the sixth and most recent webinar reviewed the sediment allocations to the states and D.C. and had the District. highlight their strategy for their implementation plan. Since my home has a considerable portion of the yard in resource protected area under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act, I view myself as a steward of the watershed and I wanted to get an update on the program. So I “attended” the webinar. Anyone is welcome to attend the webinars or review past presentations. Just go to this page on the EPA web site. Draft Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) from each of the six Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia are due at EPA on September 1st and so time is running out to develop plans acceptable to the EPA and the consultant developed watershed models as meeting the mandated goals. These plans have probably already been developed and are now being finalized in the individual jurisdictions.

There will be a public comment period on the Bay TMDL and WIPs set to begin on September 24, 2010 and end on November 8th 2010. You should get involved. Though I strongly support protection of the Chesapeake Bay Basin, I question whether state regulators and their consultants can develop a WIP that will consider the interests of homeowners. My experience with the AOSS regulations in Virginia show that the homeowner has no representation and thus no voice in regulatory development and there is no rational limitation on regulatory overreach and cost impacts to the homeowner of their various regulatory schemes. (With the AOSS Emergency Regulations they included the requirements to sample septic systems along with the more reasonable requirements to maintain and inspect these systems. The intended purpose of the sampling was to gather data. The Virginia Department of Health believes that they are somehow going to obtain this data without any standard and appropriate sampling protocol and somehow use it. All they will achieve with this requirement is spending several hundred dollars of the homeowner’s money to the profit of the licensed operators who were well represented in the regulatory process.) Make no mistake the WIPs will ultimately impact homeowners who have had no representation on the process.

Based on the presentation by the EPA and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) about their WIP, these plans will impact homeowners. In discussing the Storm Water Management and MS4 permit process in the D.C., Hamid Karimi, the Deputy Director of the DDOE mentioned that Storm Water Management Plans (SWMPs?... Swamps?) are required for all building over 5,000 square feet. He was asked if that included residential which it does and he went on to say that there had not been a push back on that. I dare say that most large homeowners in the district are unaware of that particular regulation. However, if the other states mimic that requirement and include basements in the square foot calculation, then a insignificant portion of the newer homes developed in recent years would be required to have Storm Water Management Plans. There is only one standard for Storm Water Management Plans, the cost of having each homeowner with a house that exceeds the threshold square foot limit produce the same Storm Water Management Plan as a suburban Walmart is ridiculous. (Such a requirement will be very profitable to an enterprising group of consultants without producing any improvement in the Chesapeake Bay basin.) Furthermore, EPA will be modifying their watershed model in relation to low density development in the coming year. So that suburban development will be fully incorporated into the WIPs in the future. Currently, Virginia exempts single family homes from the requirement for Stormwater Management Plans.

Sediment allocations are going to be controlled by submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) population and water clarity acreage goals. Excessive sediment clouds the water blocking sunlight from reaching underwater grasses which are need for shelter and survival or young fish and blue crabs. More than 16 species of underwater bay grasses, also called submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) are found in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Bay grasses are used as a measure of the Bay's overall condition because they are not harvested and their health is closely linked to the overall health of the Bay. EPA has apparently used historical records and photographs to generate SAV acreage goals for the 92 geographic segments that they have divided the Chesapeake Bay basin into. These goals are to achieve the best level of SAV that they have a record or picture of. Currently, 66 of those 92 segments (representing 185,000 acres) are not in compliance with the SAV/ clarity goals. I say SAV/ clarity goals because apparently each jurisdiction is allowed to count each clarity acre as 2/5th of an acre in meeting their SAV acreage goals.

EPA determines all these allocations based on models of the Chesapeake basin. These models are evolving and improving, but still are only approximations of the ecology of the watershed. EPA has found the model results tend to show more attainment from implementation than the monitored results. Thus, the allocation made reflect an arbitrarily applied margin of safety across the board. So, EPA is setting the basin wide total sediment allocation at 6.1-6.7 billion pound per year to achieve the desired 8 billion pound per year goal. Then based on the draft WIPs and draft TMDL will allocate sediment for each EPA designated segment in the basin.

There will be a series of 18 public meetings held across the watershed basin mostly in October and November. The First meeting is in Washington DC on September 29th followed by Virginia on October 5th 2010 in Annandale; October 6th 2010 in Richmond; and October 7th in Hampton. There will also be a webinar on October 7th. I encourage you to attend. While various interest groups like builders, regulators and “NGOs” have been fully represented in the process of developing the WIPs, no one has represented the interests of the home owners. The WIPs will evolve over time as TMDLs decrease. There is no organization monitoring the development of these regulations and ensuring rational regulatory standards for homeowners. There is no one to look out for your interests but you. While homeowners should be one of the largest stakeholder groups they are absent from the table.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Keeping the Water Flowing to Your Home from a Well

Private well owners are responsible for maintaining the water supply to their homes as well as monitoring their water quality. Water well pump systems operate on electricity, so in power failures there is no water and no (or limited) septic if your system operates on a pump. (Note also that well pumps operate on 240v and if they should blow a fuse there are two fuses to replace or two circuit breakers to flip. A pump might work poorly on 120 volt if only one fuse or circuit breaker is blown disguising a simple problem. So, always check your fuses or circuit breakers first whenever you have a water supply problem. ) As the winter storms and recent thunder storms and power outages have reminded us, sometimes power can be lost for days. A small portable liquid gas or diesel-powered electricity generators are available that can operate the pump or full-system generators that will run your well, refrigeration, heating, cooling, and other systems in your home, will keep your well operating in an emergency. I have an automatic switch generator connected to liquid propane in ground tank to operate my home in an emergency.

Besides power outages, there are other causes of failure of your water system. A component of the well or pump system might fail or the well itself might develop problems. The most common type of private water well pump is the submersible pump which pushes water to the surface as opposed to jet pumps that pull water. Submersibles are more efficient than jet pumps or the older water rams. The entire pump assembly is submerged below the water level in the well. The main advantages of this type of pump are that it keeps the pump cool and can prevent pump cavitations, which is basically sucking air and reducing the life of your pump. The presence of air or other gases in the actual pump chambers or around the water pump impellers leads to overheating of these parts and mechanical damage to the pump’s moving parts. Cavitations can also cause the pump to have to work longer to meet the water demand which in turn can cause its electric motor to overheat, reducing motor life. Falling water level in a well could cause pump failure so that both your well and the pump end up failing simultaneously. Without testing the well, you might replace the pump only to have the new pump fail over a short period of time.

The most common cause of falling water level is the slowing of the recharge of water to the well. . This can be caused by a falling of the water level due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer or the plugging of holes along the well’s casing and mineral crusts forming on the well screens if the well casing extends to the water table. My well was drilled in siltstone and the casing only extends for the first forty feet of the well. This method prevents clogging of a screen in a firm substratum that contains hard water (which is likely to deposit lime scale on the screen) and is cheaper to drill. However, an unscreened well might allow larger stone particles to be pulled up by the impellers and wrack the pump or damage the impellers. Dealing with natural systems like groundwater and local geology there is no perfect design. The life of a well and its pump is determined by geology, mineral content of the water, operation hours and a number of other factors that can result in a wide variability in well and pump system life from five to twenty-five years.

Calcium carbonate, iron bacteria, silt, clay, and “slime,” a combination of sediment and deposits on well casings and screens, are all common causes of a clogged well. A clogged well can be rehabilitated rather than just drilling a new well. (This may only be cost effective in deep wells or fully screened wells.) Two typical methods are (1) using mild acids to dissolve the incrusting materials so they can be pumped from the well and (2) cleaning the well with a brush that can be attached to a drilling rig and then used in the well. High pressure jetting, hydro fracturing, and well surging are procedures in which water is injected into the well at extreme pressures. Well service companies will often use a combination of these methods to rehabilitate an older well, the additional life gained from these procedures could be decades or months. Slime buildup can also cause persistent coliform bacteria presence. For iron bacteria and slime, a liquid bacteria acid is effective. For clogs with calcium carbonate scale, sulfamic acids are used with inhibitors and modifiers. If the bacteria problem is persistent some of the more aggressive chemicals are muriatic acid and hydroxyacetic acid.

Over time the amount of water a well produces can decrease. Sometimes that is because the water table is dropping. Other times it can be caused by the plugging of holes in the well casing, mineral encrustation of the well screen or the filling of openings in the geologic formation around the well from which water flows as discussed above. The pump performance could also be impaired by a damaged motor or impeller. The solution can not be properly identified until the cause of the problem is identified. A well check-up should be performed regularly and whenever a problem is noticed. This check up should include four components. First, is a flow test to determine system output, along with a check of the water level before and during pumping (if possible). Second is to check pump motor performance (check amp load, grounding, and line voltage), pressure tank and pressure switch contact, and general water appearance. (This will not necessarily identify a pump that is going to fail shortly). Next, is an inspection of well equipment to assure that it is sanitary and meets local code requirements. Third, a test of your water for coliform bacteria and nitrates, and anything else of local concern should be performed. These tests while not exhaustive, should allow you to differentiate between a pump problem, well/water supply problem, and other system problems.

I can not over emphasize the importance of a systematic approach to identifying a problem. Remember, well drillers and service companies while very knowledgeable are in the business of selling and installing equipment their knowledge and veracity will vary. You can get help in understanding a well check up report from the The Master Well Owners project volunteers in your area. This is a federally funded program operating in the mid Atlantic states. The Virginia Master Well Owner Network is a group of trained, dedicated Virginia Cooperative Extension agents and volunteers who have completed training about protecting and maintaining private water systems such as wells, springs and cisterns, and about water conservation, testing and treatment. This network is designed to provide practical information to private water system owners on the proper management of private water wells. One final thought, generally speaking the nearest source of water contamination to your drinking water well is your own (or neighbors) septic system. At a minimum you should inspect the septic tank each year for capacity and leaks, pump out the tank every three years (according to the newest recommendations from the US EPA) rather than the minimally required five years here in Virginia, watch for indications of impairment to your leach/drain field. When a septic tank is not pumped out often enough, sludge (solid material) builds up inside the septic tank, and then flows into the leach field, clogging it beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter down the drain will shorten the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance the system will wear out. Eventually, the soil around the leach field becomes clogged with organic material, forcing sewage upward into the yard (bright green strips of lawn over the leach field) or back into the house (black liquid in the toilets or slow flushing or draining).

Monday, August 16, 2010

Maintaining Private Wells and Personal Responsibility for Your Water Supply

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems, the responsibility for ensuring the safety and consistent supply of water from the estimated more than 21 million private wells belongs to the well owner. These responsibilities should include knowing the well’s history, testing the water quality annually (or more often as needed), and having the well system and its components inspected regularly by a well driller licensed or certified by the appropriate state agency where the well is located. In Virginia that is the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR.

Installation of private wells is regulated by various state agencies. State/local agencies that oversee private wells are usually responsible for approving the location of a well, inspecting the well after construction to verify proper grouting and adequate water yield, maintaining records of the well driller’s log, verifying the most basic pot ability of water by requiring at a minimum bacterial testing. In some regions of the country the Department of Health tests wells annually or at least did until the recent budget crisis. The well driller’s log should be reviewed by all homeowners (or potential homeowners). It identifies, the depth of the well, the depth of the casing, the types of soil and the, yield of the well. This will give you some indication of the characteristics of the aquifer.

A drinking water well that is contaminated could significantly impact your health and the value of your property. There is no requirement, but as one of the 15% of American families whose drinking water is supplied by a private well, I feel I should test my drinking water for all the primary and secondary contaminants of concern to the US EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As the providers of our own water supply we need to serve as our own watch dogs, and ensure our safe water supply, no one else will. Part of the price of your own water supply is maintaining it and testing it. The local health departments have local rules and regulations for the installation of wells and can often help with testing for bacteria and nitrates which are the typical contaminants from septic systems, drain fields and livestock, but as the well owner you will need to take the initiative.

The water well test that was performed when you bought your house probably only tested for bacteria and nitrates, which is inadequate to be certain that your water is safe to drink. In addition, your water should be tested at least annually for those basic contaminants and after any flooding which might have impacted your well. The EPA recommends that you test your water well every year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels at a minimum. If you suspect other contaminants, test for those. Always use a state certified laboratory that conducts drinking water tests.

According to the Water Systems Council, you need to monitor the condition of the wellhead and inspect the well system annually. In their publications developed in partnership with the EPA they recommend that you routinely inspect your wellhead several times a year. Check the condition of the well covering, casing and well cap to make sure all are in good repair, leaving no cracks or other entry points for potential pollutants. Note any changes in condition. In addition, you should have the well system, including the pump, storage tank, pipes and valves, and water flow, inspected every 5-10 years by a qualified well driller or pump installer. The soil types, groundwater supply and materials of construction and depth of the well will determine the life of the well. Many wells can continue to produce water supply after a pump has failed and only need a new pump to return to service. This is especially true in areas of hard water where the well pump can have a relatively short life. If you notice a change in your water pressure, it may be time to have your system inspected. Do not ignore any changes in your water supply.

A drop in water pressure can originate in the pressure tank, the pressure switch, the pump or the well and water supply. A loss of charge in the pressure tank can be caused by a leak in the bladder or cause. Pressure to the tank is controlled by an electric switch that turns the pump on when pressure is low and off when the proper tank pressure is reached. A pressure switch can fail. In the well, a diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing or a drop in pressure could be caused by a failing or damaged pump. Of course a drop in water pressure could just be caused by increased demand, if your pump is undersized for the number of plumbing fixtures in the house then using more than one bathroom at a time or doing laundry while hosing down the patio will cause a noticeable drop in water pressure.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Backyard Chickens and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Comparing the small scale backyard raising of chickens to full scale agricultural operations as I did is not an appropriate or fair comparison because scale and density are important elements of their environmental impact. Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential nutrients of the growth of living organisms in our yards and in the Chesapeake Bay. However, excessive nitrogen and phosphorus degrade the water quality of our groundwater, surface water and the Chesapeake Bay-the entire water shed. As population density has increased in the watershed, the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment entering the bay has increased tremendously.

Each year, approaching 300 million pounds of nitrogen reaches the Chesapeake Bay. The majority of nitrogen pollution comes from sewage treatment plants, large-scale animal operations, agriculture, and air pollution from vehicle exhaust and power plants and other industrial sources. Other sources of nitrogen pollution include septic systems, runoff from roadways, development, residential and commercial lawn fertilizers, and small scale animal and agricultural sources (the keeping of horses, poultry, and other animals and growing vegetables in predominately suburban or exurban locations. Solutions to nitrogen pollution include upgrading sewage treatment plants, proper operation of septic systems, using nitrogen removal technologies on septic systems, and decreasing fertilizer applications to lawns and controlling suburban and exurban animal waste.

Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased in total, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded and considerably short of attaining the 2010 water quality goals set forth in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement. As a result US EPA is developing a new federally mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan to establish and apportion an allowable pollution budget among the states.

Over the past 25 years, nitrogen released to the Chesapeake Bay has fallen about 33% from agriculture, fallen about 40% from waste treatment plants, but increased about 15% from septic and mixed open use. During that same period of time phosphorus released into the Chesapeake Bay has fallen about 29% from agriculture, fallen about 65% from waste treatment plants and increased about 14% from septic and mixed open use. The population in the region has increased by more than 20% (including the urban core) during this time period.

According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the typical household generates 10-15 pounds of nitrogen per year and 1-2 pounds of phosphorus per year. According to a Maryland state study, each chicken generates approximately 0.41 lbs of Nitrogen per year and around 0.35 pounds of phosphorus per year. Thus, each household with 10 chickens would generate 4.1 pounds of nitrogen and 3.5 pounds of phosphorus per year. This is a significant increase in the nutrient load of a typical house hold, a more than three fold increase in phosphorus load and an increase of nitrogen load by more than 30%. This additional waste is delivered in an uncontrolled manner. The poor location of a chicken coop could potentially impact ground water and well heads both on and off site and should be subject to the same off sets as septic systems. In addition the nutrient load has to be addressed.

Dutchess County New York did a study to monitor the effectiveness of septic set backs and studied nitrate concentrations. They chose to use nitrate concentrations at half the drinking water level as a proxy for adequate dilution and natural attenuation of all contaminants. Historically, horizontal and vertical setbacks were developed without consideration of the dilution for wastewater components like nitrate and phosphorus. The NY Department of Health separation distances were assumed (and these are almost identical to the Virginia setbacks), but the overall regional density of septic systems was examined to ensure that groundwater resources would not be overwhelmed by the total load of contaminants. The density recommendations were developed based on the nitrate concentrations. Nitrate was used as a proxy because all humans produce nitrate, it does not easily break down and there is a drinking water standard. The target concentration was half the drinking water level to ensure all outcomes are safely below the standard since household size can vary tremendously. The Dutchess County study found that overall average density of on-site waste disposal should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size household to ensure water quality.

Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure sustainable water quality. Unfortunately, by adding 10 chickens to a yard you have increased the nutrient load significantly, tripling the phosphorus and increasing the nitrogen by 30%. The geology of this area consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks. The rocks of the Culpeper basin are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. The lack of overburden limits natural protection to the aquifer. The sedimentary rocks create a productive aquifers, but allow contaminate to easily wash into the groundwater basin. Allowing backyard chickens represent a significant threat to the groundwater basin.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Backyard Chickens

On July 8th 2010 the Prince William Planning Commission held public hearings on a proposed change to the zoning and land use regulations within the county. Currently chickens and other farm animals are allowed on 2 acres or more of agricultural land, but only if there's no house on the land. If there's a house, the property is considered residential and chickens are not allowed. Though probably not intended this regulation serves to protect the groundwater of the county. The proposed change to the zoning law would allow up to 10 chickens, pigeons or doves, or 5 ducks, or 3 turkeys, geese or pea fowl, or one emu or ostrich, or some combination of those on 2 acres. The law would also require the birds to be kept in a fenced area, coop or cage at least 10 feet from the house on the property, and at least 15 feet from the property line. The Planning Commission has tabled the matter.

According to Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, poultry manure (chicken in particular) is the richest animal manure in nitrogen (N), phosphoric acid (P) and potash (K). Chicken manure is considered "hot" and must be composted before adding it to the garden. Otherwise, it will burn any plants it comes in contact with. However, there is an even darker side to poultry manure. The main cause of the Chesapeake Bay's poor water quality and aquatic habitat loss is elevated levels of two of those nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. According to the Chesapeake Bay foundation, runoff from animal manure accounts for about one-quarter of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that feed "dead zones" downstream.

According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, poultry yards, and enclosed holding areas are areas of concentrated and accumulated animal wastes. These areas can be a source of nitrate and bacteria contamination to groundwater. The impacts can be mitigated by utilization of farm best management practices (BMPs); however, backyard farmers are not often versed in appropriate waste management techniques. The potential for livestock and poultry operations to affect groundwater is greatest if located on Karst terrain or over sandy-textured permeable soils, or other susceptible groundwater basins.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), much of Prince William County, especially the northeastern portion is located within the Culpeper basin which is highly susceptible to contamination. This is the source of drinking water for all the private wells in the area and feeds the tributaries to Bull Run.

The geology of this area consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks. The rocks of the Culpeper basin are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden (that would be soil). The lack of overburden is a challenge to gardens and limits natural protection to the aquifer. The sedimentary rocks create a productive aquifers, but allow contaminate to easily wash into the groundwater basin. Ground water flows under ambient pressure from Bull Run Mountain towards Bull Run, the river. The soils in this area are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That is the technical name for the flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rock run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to drinking water depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures and zigzag through the adjacent neighborhoods.

There are two risks that should be carefully considered by the Planning Commission when making this decision, potential contamination of the drinking water supply for the area and potential for contaminated runoff to impact the Chesapeake Bay. Runoff from animal manure accounts for about one-quarter of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that feed "dead zones" downstream. Over the past few years, as I have monitored my groundwater quality, I have watched the nitrogen levels in my neighborhood rise. Groundwater protection should be a major consideration in whether to allow poultry on all residential properties. As our area has become more suburban, density has increased, along with the utilization of groundwater for domestic purposes and the density of septic systems. Unless, they intend to regulate the micro poultry farms and require the implementation of and maintenance of BMPs to manage the waste the county Planning Commission should deny the request.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

BP Oil Leak Update August

A “leak” or “spill” does not covey the damage and impact of the 4.9 million barrels (205,800,000 gallons) of oil that the government and BP currently estimate were released from the BP-Horizon Macondo well into the waters of Gulf of Mexico beginning on the night of April 20th with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and ending on July 15th when the current 75-ton cap was placed on the well. The cap referred to as Top Hat Number 10 has been keeping the oil bottled up inside over the past three weeks. So the flow stopped and allowed the scientists to make more accurate estimates of the size of the entire spill.

Stopping the flow using the cap was only a temporary measure. BP and the Coast Guard are executing a three step plan to permanently stop the flow of the Macondo well. First the current larger cap was put in place and has held for almost three weeks. Now, after repairing seals, and carefully testing, they slowly pumped the mud from a ship down lines to the top of the ruptured well a mile below. Though BP has said that may be enough by itself to seal the well, the Coast Guard Admiral Allen is requiring the completion of the three step procedure to seal the leak. After about eight hours of pumping drilling mud for the “static kill" procedure they stopped and were monitoring the well to ensure it remained stable. This appeared to be the completion of the second step in permanently sealing the leak.

It was unclear how much drilling mud would be needed to seal the well because the condition of the well itself was unknown. There are three different of areas of the well that might ultimately need to be filled with mud. The drill pipe, the casing, and the area between the casing and the drill pipe, the annulus, to fully seal the well and leave no routes for gas or oil to bypass the drilling mud. The current monitoring is to determine if all areas have been sealed and are stable. The drilling mud itself is not entirely impervious to gas or oil working its way up so the final step for permanently sealing the well will be to inject mud and cement into the bedrock from the 18,000-foot relief well BP has been drilling for the past three months. This is the "bottom kill," that will finish the job, according to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.

With the final and permanent sealing of the leak within grasp it is time to tally up the damage from the 205,800,000 gallons of oil estimated to have been released in the spill. According to the official government web site which is unlikely to overlook taking credit for any of the oil recovered, only a fraction of the oil has been accounted for. The government gives a total of 45,840,000 gallons of oil have been recovered or burned. A total of more than 11,140,000 gallons of oil from the open water have been removed by controlled burns. The government lists 34,700,000 gallons of an oil-water mix have been recovered. I assume this number includes the 33,600,000 gallons of oil that BP captured from the previous caps and that appeared to be supported by the data published yesterday on the NOAA web site. That would mean that the other methods of recovery, including skimming had captured only 1,100,000 gallons. NOAA reports that A third (33 percent) of the total amount of oil released in the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill was captured or mitigated by the Unified Command recovery operations, including burning, skimming, chemical dispersion and direct recovery from the wellhead, so that would imply that 22,100,000 gallons of oil was mitigated by chemical dispersion. In an effort to accelerate the breakdown of the oil approximately 1.84 million gallons of dispersants have been released into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 1.07 million gallons on the surface and 771,000 gallons sub-sea. The long term impacts of this release especially the deep water release of dispersants is unknown. The government also estimates that 25 percent of the total oil naturally evaporated or dissolved, and 16 percent was dispersed naturally into microscopic droplets. The residual 26 percent or 53,500,000 gallons of oil, is either on or just below the surface as residue and weathered tarballs, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sustainable Living, Human Environmental Damage and Climate Change

Sustainable living by societies is about managing environmental resources without overexploiting what initially appeared as inexhaustibly abundant. As mankind migrated across the globe waves of extinction and over exploitation of environmental resource followed. Ancient societies have collapsed many believed to have been triggered by the destruction or exhaustion of environmental resources. Normal fluctuations in resource levels between years or decades tend to mask the signs of depletion of resources, as the current heavy rains have done in California. The complexity of ecosystem makes it difficult to know, understand and predict the consequences of human actions. Some water can be pumped from the groundwater basin and diverted from rivers without significantly impacting the water balance and ecology of the area. However, diverting all the water, over pumping the groundwater until the land subsides will destroy the ecology and watershed.

Mankind does not learn restraint easily. This is classically illustrated by “The tragedy of the Commons,” by Garreth Hardin was published in Science, December 13, 1968. The concept from the article that has survived is that what is a free and common resource is abused. Hardin said “Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Because of fluctuations in “renewable” resources it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that California depends or any other resource that a society depends on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. Despite knowledge that there are always droughts after wet years, Californians and the Western States maintain policies for rural and urban/suburban use of water and water allocations drawn up during the wet El Nino years. These are assumed to be the “normal” water allocations. In California agriculture is entirely based on profligate use of irrigation water, the vast three crops a year agri-industrial empire of this semi-arid state is based on irrigation. Water costs less than the real resource cost, so farmers plant and grow as much as their water allocation and any groundwater available can produce as the state continues down the path of ruin. Our technology and engineering have allowed us to mine the water and allow the west to expand beyond the carrying capacity of the land and the water. Vast amounts of energy are needed to deliver unsustainable amount of water to farmers and the southern cities of the state. Hard choices and restraint will be delayed until ecological and financial bankruptcy.

The "American Clean Energy and Security Act” also know as the Waxman-Markley energy bill is dead. The bill included a cap-and-trade global warming reduction plan designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. It set an overall cap on such carbon dioxide emissions that decreased over time reducing what can be emitted. This was intended to push utilities and industry to release less carbon dioxide by utilizing cleaner energy sources or increasing efficiency of the existing ones. However, it probably would have achieved it’s goal by exporting carbon burning, jobs and business and the bill is probably dead because of unintended consequences to the economy. It is unclear what impact if any this failure will have on the earth’s ecology. Climate change is constant. As seen in the geological record, throughout earths’ history climates become hotter or colder, wetter or drier, more or less variable because of natural forces like volcanic eruptions, changes in the orientation of the earths axis, variation in the heat put out by the sun (it is not constant), changes in the continents. There have been ice ages millions of years ago, the often cited “Little Ice Age” from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, climate disruptions caused by volcanic explosions, vanishing of the rivers and lakes from the Sahara leaving it a desert. Archeologists, geologists, and the human record tell us that the climate of earth is constantly changing, but there does not appear to be a single cause that explains these changes. In each change of the climate there are those societies that fail and those that thrive. The idea that we are experiencing global warming caused by man seems a little arrogant. To think that mankind, like the Sun has the power to change the climate or prevent climate change is a na├»ve view of the world and the forces at play. Certainly, mankind is engaged in exploiting and overexploiting the earth’s resources and there will be local ecological collapses. How we harness technology, trade and the human capacity to adapt to changing environment to respond to these changes will determine the fate of our society and others. The future will tell us if a society that has depleted its resources can survive the further depletions of resources and environment due to changes in climate.