Thursday, December 30, 2010

Water Filtration Systems for the Home

No single water treatment device treats all problems or is appropriate for all homes. Before you attempt a potentially ineffective remedy, the first and most important step is to have your water tested and fully analyzed by a laboratory. Only then will you have a true picture of the condition of your water and what if any treatment is necessary. A couple times a year some workman or other service provider who happens to be in my home or neighborhood tries to sell me a whole house filter system or water softening system. After examining my water analysis, I have no need for a filter system to remove solids. I have no treatment systems installed in my home so I do not need a filter to remove the residue from other treatments.

Filter systems are either activated carbon filters or mechanical filters. Carbon filters also called charcoal filters are water “polishers” they address minor odor and taste issues and are generally the finishing step when water is chlorinated to remove that swimming pool smell and taste. The ground up charcoal absorbs the contaminant and can be used for chlorine, residual pesticides and radon. Activated carbon filters cannot remove nitrate, bacteria or heavy metals. Nuisance bacteria do grow in the carbon medium thus it is important that these filters should be used in bacteria free water. This often results in multi step treatment systems. Filters need to be replaced regularly. These are four basic types of carbon filters (1) faucet mount; (2) in-line; (3) line bypass; and (4) point of entry (POE). Other types of carbon filters are pour through (portable) and specialty filters.

Faucet-mounted carbon filters attach to the kitchen faucet where drinking water comes out. In-line carbon filters are installed beneath the kitchen sink in the cold water supply line and filter all cold water. Line bypass carbon filters are installed in the kitchen under the sink attached to the cold water supply line, but a separate faucet is installed at the sink to provide treated drinking water. The regular tap delivers untreated water. The carbon filter lasts longer because only water used for drinking is treated. Point of entry (POE) carbon filters treat all water entering the home. This type of filter is recommended for treating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that easily evaporate into the air. Because of the installation costs, size of the filter system and frequency of replacement, these are the most expensive filters to purchase and maintain.

Mechanical filters trap solids and suspended particles in the water by straining the water through a filter cartridge made of spun cellulose or rayon. They remove suspended sediment, sand, and soil (or turbidity). The water pressure forces water through the tightly wrapped fibers around a tubular cartridge that comes in all the types that a carbon filter does. These filters come in a variety of sizes and meshes from fine to coarse, with the lower micron rating being the finer. The finer the filter, the more particles are trapped and the more often the filter must be changed. Fiber filters may not remove all contaminants. If taste and odor problems remain, use a carbon filter after the fiber filter. Often these filters are sold in combination with carbon filters. Fiber filters and replacement cartridges range in price from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. A mechanical filter may become clogged if not cleaned or replace periodically. A clogged filter is one cause of a fall in water pressure. The level of total dissolved solids, TSS or turbidity and water usage will determine the frequency of filter cleaning or replacement required to keep a filtration system functioning. Filters can become hosts to bacterial growth, so that the water should be tested regularly for bacterial presence.

Remember, filters do not purify or soften water. Filters only remove some suspended particles and in the case of the carbon filters dissolved organic compounds that cause disagreeable odors and tastes. These filter systems DO NOT remove nitrate, bacteria or heavy metals.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Limitations of Reverse Osmosis for Home Use

Before you buy a treatment system, you need to know the actual characteristics of your water. The test will identify the bacteria and level of minerals that are present. Proper interpretation of the test results will help determine whether treatment is needed and what type of system or systems to consider. The intended use of the water (drinking only, drinking and cooking, laundry, or all household uses) is essential to determine the what treatment is needed and the type of system to select. There is no single “best” treatment for home use, only treatment types appropriate for certain problems. The water treatment the industry has expanded to marketing treatment systems designed treat (or at least sold to treat ) contaminants that may pose a health hazards. Unfortunately, the industry is inconsistent in the skill and knowledge of the companies and their employees and many of the systems installed are inappropriate, unnecessary or have side effects that create other problems. The free in-home water testing provided by water treatment companies is very limited in scope. The only things that they can test for in the in-home tests are hardness, pH, iron and sulfur. In addition, the sensitivity and accuracy of the tests can be limited. Analysis for organics and bacterial contaminants must be performed in a certified laboratory.
Reverse osmosis systems can be used to reduce the levels of total dissolved solids and suspended matter in drinking water. The principal uses of reverse osmosis in are for the reduction of high levels of nitrate, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, sulfate, sodium and total dissolved solids. Removal effectiveness depends on the contaminant and its concentration, the membrane selected, the water pressure and proper installation. Proper selection of the membrane and pressure is essential when selecting a reverse osmosis system. The membrane must be selected based on complete water analysis otherwise the entire system might be useless. In addition, reverse osmosis systems require regular maintenance and monitoring to continue to function properly over an extended period of time. Reverse osmosis has been shown to remove 83%-92% of nitrates from drinking water in both field and laboratory test. This is probably the most appropriate use of reverse osmosis systems.
I am not a fan of these systems in many applications. They are often sold as (very expensive) accessory item to solve the taste and sodium problem created when a whole house water softener is installed or for feared problems without proper testing. Reverse osmosis systems use a lot of water. They recover only 5 to 15 percent of the water entering the system. The remainder is discharged as waste water. Because waste water carries with it the rejected contaminants, methods to re-cover this water are not practical for household systems. Waste water is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system. A reverse osmosis system delivering 5 gallons of treated water per day may discharge 40 to 90 gallons of waste water per day to the septic system. This is a significant additional load and could impact the life and functioning of your septic system.
Effectiveness of reverse osmosis system depends on initial levels of contamination, membrane size and type and water pressure. The application of pressure reverses the natural flow of the flow of water in osmosis from high concentration so that water passes from a more concentrated solution to a more dilute solution through a semi-permeable membrane. Reverse osmosis systems incorporate pre and post-filters along with the membrane itself in order for a reverse osmosis system to function properly. It is common to have a whole house filter system utilizing activated carbon installed in series with the reverse osmosis system. In addition, because contaminants are removed by forcing water through a membrane, the membrane requires regular maintenance and cleaning. Reverse osmosis systems are normally used to treat only drinking and cooking water supplies and are often installed under the kitchen sink and requires a permanent connection to an existing water pipe. The filter water is dispensed through the existing sink faucet or a separate tap. Reverse osmosis systems are never not appropriate for treating water supplies that are contaminated by coliform bacteria (neither nuisance nor fecal) because they do not remove bacteria.
Reverse osmosis units on the market range in cost from $300 to $3000 and vary in quality and effectiveness. Homes on well water need to purchase low pressure units which are slightly more expensive than the systems designed for municipal water. The size and membrane type are one of the factors that will determine cost. Replacement membranes cost $100 to $200 and filter cartridges around $50. Reverse osmosis is a proven technology that has been used successfully on a commercial basis most famously for removing salt from seawater. Household reverse osmosis systems typically deliver small amounts (2 to 10 gallons per day) of treated water and waste 7 to 20 times the amount of water treated. Reverse osmosis systems can remove many inorganic contaminants from household drinking water supplies including arsenic, sodium and nitrate. The removal effectiveness depends on the contaminant and its concentration, the membrane selected, the water pressure and proper installation and maintenance.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Treating Bacterial Contamination in Your Well

If bacteria are found in your water (after verification testing and chlorine shocking) the water can be disinfected. The oldest form of disinfection is chlorination. This method of water purification has been in use for about a hundred years. However, if your water supply becomes contaminated, elimination of the source of contamination is the most permanent solution. Continuous chlorination to kill disease-causing (fecal) bacteria in a contaminated water source should be a temporary measure used only until you can develop a new, sanitary water supply. If fecal bacteria have contaminated a water supply there may also be an associated increase in nitrogen which can be a significant health threat to infants. Let’s be honest here, the most likely source of fecal bacteria is a nearby septic system now focus on the source of fecal contamination and think of the yuck factor. If disease-causing bacteria enter your water supply on a continuous basis, you must eliminate the source or construct a new water supply.

Chlorination is widely used because it readily controls bacteria which may enter your well during construction, repair, flooding or as a result of improper construction. Chlorination can be appropriately used to control nuisance organisms such as iron, slime and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Iron bacteria feed on the iron in the water. They may appear as a slimy, dark-red mass in the toilet tank but microscopic examination is needed to confirm their presence. Iron bacteria colonies may break loose from the inside of pipes and flow through faucets to cause stains in laundry, plumbing fixtures, etc. Though thorough shock chlorination of the well and water system may destroy all iron bacteria colonies within the house; iron bacteria that has penetrated the water-bearing formation will be difficult to eliminate and will likely re-infest the system. In this situation you will need to repeat chlorination treatment periodically or install a continuous disinfection system.

Other nuisance organisms that chlorination can eliminate include sulfate-reducing bacteria which produce a rotten-egg odor. Nuisance bacteria do not cause disease. Proper chlorination will kill these bacteria. Finally, large amounts of iron can be removed from water by adding chlorine to oxidize the clear soluble iron into the filterable reddish insoluble form. Chlorine helps remove manganese and hydrogen sulfide in the same way. In these instances a chlorination system would be installed with a filtration system, the chlorinator first. Chlorination does have drawbacks; it will not remove nitrates from water despite the implied or direct claims of some water treatment firms. Adding chlorine may prevent nitrates from being reduced to the toxic nitrite form; however, nitrates are not removed from water by chlorination.

Chlorine in water is not poisonous to humans or animals. However, if the concentration is great enough the water will have an unpleasant taste and or smell. Some people object to the smell and/or taste of extremely small concentrations of chlorine. In those cases an activated carbon or charcoal filter may be used to remove the chlorine from the drinking water. Chlorination can also produce disinfection by products which are carcinogenic. Trihalomethanes (THMs) are organic chemicals that may form when chlorine is used to treat water supplies that contain humic compounds which are associated with decomposition of organic materials such as leaves, grass, wood or animal wastes. Lifetime consumption of water supplies with THMs at a level greater than 0.10 milligrams per liter is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a potential cause of cancer. THMs can be removed from drinking water through use of an activated carbon filter.

Other methods of disinfecting water include boiling, distilling, treating with ultraviolet light and treating with ozone. Treatment with ultraviolet light and ozonation are replacing chlorination in may water treatment plants and is becoming more popular for home use. Water must be filtered before treatment with UV light. So, unlike chlorination systems, the filtration system is installed ahead of the UV treatment system. The typical single home UV system is a complete unit that includes a filtration cartridges and can be purchased as a whole house unit or an under the sink kitchen installation. UV, like distillation, disinfects water without adding chemicals. It does not create new chemical complexes, nor does it change the taste or odor of the water, and does not remove any beneficial minerals in the water. Ultraviolet devices are most effective when the water has already been partially treated, many units use filtration-sometimes both sediment and a carbon filter to clean the water prior to passing it through the UV light, which results in both disinfected and cleaner tasting water.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Test Your Water Before Purchasing Home Treatment Systems

Single family home water treatment systems were historically intended to treat aesthetic water quality problems. The biggest sellers had historically been water softeners that were universally marketed to all private well owners. Lately the industry has expanded to treatment of contaminants that may pose a health hazard. Unfortunately, the industry is inconsistent in the skill and knowledge of the companies and their employees. Many water treatment companies provide free in-home water testing. This testing is very limited in scope. The only things that they can test for in the in-home tests are hardness, pH, iron and sulfur. In addition, the sensitivity of the tests can be limited. Analysis for organics and bacterial contaminants must be performed in a certified laboratory. The in-home tests are crude tests performed by people without certification and with limited training, the usefulness of the results obtained in this way are limited by the skill and honesty of the tester. Be extremely wary of in-home testing. Sloppy sampling procedures, reusing sample tubes can render the results worthless or misleading.

Before attempting to resolve a perceived water problem, have your water analyzed. Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be a very real health hazard and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination. These are often nuisance contaminants that are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology and wildlife. From the underlying rocks radionuclides and heavy metals can enter the groundwater. There are areas with natural occurring arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and fluoride. While some of the symptoms of mineral contamination are obvious, never buy a treatment system until you have tested your water completely at a certified laboratory and identified the correct solution. Other contaminants may be present that need to be addressed or the “condition” may be marginal and can be addressed without installing a treatment system. There are limitations and side effects from all treatment systems. Know what they are. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color.

The WaterCheck with Pesticides is an informational test packages targeted to be an affordable option for consumers. The WaterCheck with Pesticide covers 15 heavy metals, 5 inorganic chemicals, 5 physical factors, 4 trihalo methanes, 43 volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. The Minimum Detection Levels, which are the lowest levels at which the laboratory detects that contaminant are below the levels established by the Safe Drinking Water Act so this affordable ($217 including shipping and handling) test will serve as a broad screen of drinking water. Though I know it is tempting to skip the analysis, don’t. Analysis is the only way to make sure you select an effective remedy. Once you know the characteristic of your water you can choose the proper treatment system or plan of treatment. Do not assume that installing a water treatment system similar to a neighbor's will be the best answer to solving your water quality issues. There can be tremendous differences in natural water quality in extremely short horizontal distances.

Though nothing should replace testing your water supply regularly the attached publication from the Virginia Cooperative extension “Home Water Quality Problems-Causes and Treatments” is a quick read and offers suggestions for common problems. Do not treat aesthetic problems that are not a nuisance and test your water completely before you buy any treatment system.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When I worked at the US EPA in the 1970’s there was a sign on the wall of the adjacent office that said, “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution.” There was both truth and cynicism in that sign. At the time we were determining the likely contaminates in a waste stream and the levels of those contaminants that would be acceptable based on the potential impact to life. The guiding principal of toxicology is that there is a relationship between a toxic reaction (the response) and the amount of poison received (the dose). An important assumption in this relationship is that there is almost always a dose below which no response occurs or can be measured. So if the concentration of the contaminant was low enough there would be no toxic reaction.

In addition, there is another factor that has been observed for generations and studied in the recent decades. The planet is able to filter and heal itself from limited amounts of pollution. There have been numerous studies of groundwater and surface water systems that have documented this. In Dutchess County New York and North Carolina studies documented that the most important factor in septic regulation is controlling nitrogen pollution from septic systems was average density. Both studies demonstrated that density of on-site waste disposal should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house (and household) to ensure water quality. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure sustainable water quality. These studies were performed on nitrate concentrations as a proxy to achieve adequate dilution and natural attenuation of all contaminants.

Historically, horizontal and vertical setbacks for septic systems were developed without consideration of the dilution for wastewater components like nitrate, pharmaceutical residue, caffeine and other substances we humans consume, process or produce. 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 concentration in traditional septic wastewater. Nitrate was used as a proxy because all humans produce about 10 pounds of nitrate per year, it does not easily break down and there is a drinking water standard and an inexpensive analytical test. Dilution was really the goal here.

An estuary is a coastal area where freshwater from rivers and streams mix with saltwater from the ocean. Estuaries are protected from the full force of the ocean by mudflats, sandspits and barrier islands. One of the least appreciated functions of estuaries is to help control pollution. Water from upland areas often carries sediment and pollutants. The marshy land and plants in estuaries filter these pollutants out of the water. The plants in estuaries help prevent shoreline erosion. Estuaries also protect inland areas from flooding and storm surges. When a storm hits, estuaries often absorb water from the storm before it can reach upland areas. The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary. Right now we are engaged in a major effort to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution that enters the estuary through its tributaries in an attempt to restore the estuary to some arbitrary historic state.

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters are impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, from agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, air pollution and other sources, including septic systems that enter the tributaries and Chesapeake Bay. These pollutants cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create dead zones where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom. Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, primarily because of regulation of wastewater treatment plants and improved farm practices, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded.

The “strict pollution diet” that EPA is imposing on the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states only addresses nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment it does not address other contaminants that have been noted in the tributary waters by the US Geological Survey. The USGS began looking into skin lesions on bass in the southern branch of the Potomac River. Some fish had bacterial lesions, some fungal lesions, and some fish had parasite. The USGS concluded that there was no specific cause of the lesions and that the fish appeared to be immunosupressed so that any pathogen in the water could attack the fish. A series of studies were performed over a period of years and it was discovered that the bass suffering from lesions were intersexed. This prompted further sampling of the river that identified higher concentrations of wastewater chemicals near the wastewater plants. Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations sampled and traces of estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals were found at all locations examined though their source is not yet known. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, USGS have embarked on further study to gain greater understanding of the implications to the earth’s ecosystem.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Revised Watershed Implementation Plan and Farmers

For agricultural operations the revised WIP will require the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock over time; and implementation of nutrient management plans. The Commonwealth intends to provide cost-share funding to achieve implementation of these best practices through the soil and water conservation districts. The WIP calls for farms to implement "resource management plans" to reduce pollution but does not mandate what those plans should include and requires them only if adequate funding is available through the cost share programs. These programs are cost share programs and do require financial participation of the farmers. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation objects to the seemingly soft requirement of this provision stating that 30% of the nutrient and sediment pollution is from agriculture.

I was thinking about justice and regulations as I was trying to straighten out a problem at my Bank. I found myself waiting interminably for the branch manager with another customer with his own problem. We had both driven the 16 miles from our corner of Prince William County to wait at Bank of America on Route 50 and to face seemingly insurmountable regulations. While we were waiting, my neighbor, a fourth generation cow farmer, told me about his concerns with the WIP. His cattle are sustainably and locally raised and for the most part are pasture raised on grass; however, he admitted that the cows are watered by the streams that come together in our area to feed Bull Run. His concern was if he needs to build stream exclusions, and bridges for the cows to move from one pasture to another then create watering systems for the cows in each pasture that the cost would put him out of business even with cost sharing. He also voiced concerns that nutrient contamination coming from upstream sources would prevent him from being able to achieve the targets of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Since he had not read the revised WIP many of these concerns may have not been well founded or researched, but certainly the WIP will have a profound impact on his business and the business of all farmers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

According to the National Association of Conservation Districts, NACD, there are 4.3 million acres of farmland within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that will be impacted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Total Maximum Daily Load, TMDL for the bay. A USDA draft report reportedly shows that farmers and ranchers are making good progress in the Bay, but that is not enough to meet the stricter demands of the TMDL. Of the actively-cropped 4.3 million acres, farmers are actively implementing erosion control and nutrient management practices on more than 4.1 million acres. The NACD states that these actions have reduced sediment pollution on rivers and streams within the Chesapeake Bay watershed 64%, cut nitrogen pollution 36% and reduced phosphorus pollution 43%. Nonetheless, the Chesapeake Bay foundation states that 30% of the nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is from agriculture operations and is pressing strongly for tighter regulations and enforcement against agricultural operations. .

I had no answer as to whether sustainable, humane, local agriculture should be encouraged, or if the world is better with a few high intensity concentrated animal feed lots that have a combined smaller land footprint and are not in sensitive watersheds. Though, I am not at all certain that there are any locations not in some sensitive watershed. In the west (home of many agri-industrial operations) water diversions are having severe impact on the environment. The agricultures economy is manipulated by farm subsidies that distort the market and agricultural practices. To pay for the increase costs of complying with the higher costs of sustainable agriculture, instituting nutrient management and best practices and enforcement of those steps the cost of food will have to rise either directly or indirectly. I only know I would prefer to continue to buy my meat locally from an operation where I can see the cows are grass fed and pastured. Then there are the hobby farm operations, lots zoned to allow horses and the current push for a zoning to allow backyard chickens in the much of Prince William County. It is impossible reconcile the requirements necessary to comply with the Chesapeake Bay TMDL with the personal freedom, small scale local food and population growth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What’s in the Final Watershed Implementation Plan for Virginia?

After reviewing the September 2010 draft of the Watershed Implementation Plan, WIP, from Virginia the US EPA detailed a series of regulatory threats or as the EPA preferred to call them “back stop” measures for Virginia. These threats and the understanding that Virginia was better off implementing their own plan spurred the Commonwealth to develop a more aggressive WIP that meets the TMDL mandated by the EPA despite protests about the costs. The revised WIP for Virginia was submitted to the EPA on November 29th and appears to address many of the areas of concern, but does not target agriculture as aggressively as the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay NGOs seem to have been pushing for.

In the revised WIP Virginia commits to significant additional pollution reductions from wastewater treatment plants in the James River basin. The existing limits on total nitrogen and total phosphorus are reduced by an additional 1.6 million pounds of nitrogen and 200,000 pound reduction in phosphorus in the James River prior to 2017 and an additional reduction of 1.0 million pounds of nitrogen and 250,000 pound reduction in phosphorus in the James River post-2017. These nitrogen and phosphorus reductions will be obtained by upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Virginia has committed to obtain a total reduction of 6 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from wastewater treatment plants in the WIP at this point; this does include planned upgrades that are currently underway in the Commonwealth.

The revised WIP also reduces the rate of growth in on-site sewage disposal systems, or septic systems. The intension is to raise the costs to operate a septic system through regulation which would make clustered systems or community systems more competitive and raise the overall cost of building and maintaining homes. The cost of housing would increase in the area in response to these requirements. In addition the revised WIP proposes to require the offset of new system loads through an expansion of the Nutrient Credit Exchange Program. The Commonwealth intends to implement amendments to Virginia Department of Health regulations for alternative systems which are currently a little bit in limbo because of the temporary emergency regulations that the department of health has done little to enforce in much of the Commonwealth. The proposed amendments require a minimum 50% reduction in delivered nitrogen for all new small alternative onsite systems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed resulting in an effective delivered load to the edge of the project boundary of 4.5 lbs TN/person/year. All large alternative onsite systems will have to demonstrate compliance with <3 mg/l total nitrogen at the project boundary.

The revised WIP states legislative and regulatory changes will be considered to require all new and replacement septic systems within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to utilize one of the nitrogen reducing technologies. The WIP states that DEQ will seek legislative changes necessary to establish tax credits for upgrade/replacement of existing conventional systems with nitrogen reducing systems. In addition, they will seek legislative changes to establish 5 year pump-out requirements for all septic tanks in Chesapeake Bay watershed not just Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act areas.

For agricultural operations the revised WIP will require the implementation of resource management plans on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock over time; and implemented nutrient management plans. The Commonwealth will provide cost-share funding to achieve implementation of these best practices through the soil and water conservation districts. The WIP calls for farms to implement "resource management plans" to reduce pollution but does not mandate what those plans should include and requires them only if adequate funding is available through the cost share programs. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation objects to the seemingly soft requirement of this provision. If the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is correct that 30% of the pollution loads in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans.

Allocations for newly developed land will be set at a level that results in no increase above allowable 2025 average nutrient loads per acre from previous land uses; unless offsets are obtained. This in effect is a limitation on or added cost to development. Many of these provisions seem intended to slow population growth, because utilization of increased technology and knowledge on how to control the nutrient and sediment pollution has to some extent been overwhelmed by continued population growth in the area.

To attack other problems of suburbia, and the ever increasing suburban sprall in the region, the revised WIP suggests restrictions for application of non-agricultural fertilizers and voluntary reporting from “for-hire” applicators such as lawn service companies. In addition to controls suggested on do it yourself lawn fertilization. Golf courses will be required to implement nutrient management plans.

The revised WIP requires that Virginia’s Stormwater Management Regulations (currently under revision) will require redevelopments to meet reductions in nutrient and sediment loads, and to prevent nutrient pollution and sediment load increases from new development. In the future all new development appear to be required to be almost sediment and nutrient pollution free. The Commonwealth will reduce pollution from stormwater running off urban streets and parking lots by mandating reductions in state permits for large city stormwater systems. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stormwater runoff remains the only source of water pollution in Virginia that continues to increase and must be aggressively addressed if restoration of the Bay is to succeed. It seems likely that the increase in nutrient pollution and sediment pollution from stormwater systems is partially a reflection of the expansion of suburban development out into Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties and the increasing population in these areas.

It remains to be seen if these revisions to the WIP will be adequate to satisfy the federal regulators and how Virginia plans to pay for these estimated $7 billion in pollution control measures in the next six years.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Virginia Submits Their Final Watershed Implementation Plan

On November 29th 2010 Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, Doug Domenech, submitted the final version of the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The introduction to the revised plan states that full implementation of the plan would cost more than $7 billion dollars which would be according to Secretary Domenech “another federal unfunded mandate on the state, localities, private industries, and homeowners and would place enormous new fiscal stress on state budgets.” As a show of good faith, the Governor of Virginia included $36.4 million new dollars in the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund in his 2011 budget amendments. The WIP went on to state that “In these austere times, we cannot guarantee what additional funding will be provided by our General Assembly. It is our position that the success of the WIP may be subject to the provision of sufficient federal funding to assist in covering these massive new unfunded mandates.”

In Virginia this $7 billon dollars to meet the 2017 TMDL represents more than $1,500 for every person living within the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To put this in perspective, the state would have to add a Chesapeake Bay surcharge to every property tax bill within the watershed for the next 6 years of $1,000 or more per household.

If you recall the first version of the Virginia WIP the plan did not meet the TMDL loading levels with “reasonable assurance.” The EPA found that none of the states met the reasonable assurance standard, but that Virginia’s WIP had a “moderate need” for federal backstops. Virginia’s WIP was found to have serious deficiencies. It did not meet allocations for nitrogen (6 percent over) and phosphorus (7 percent over), but did meet allocations for sediment (12 percent under). In addition, the EPA found that the Virginia WIP relied on pollution trading programs but had no commitment to adopt new regulations relying instead on market forces. The WIP was deemed to be vague and was found to have limited enforceability and accountability for filling the gaps identified by the EPA and few data points to demonstrate compliance.

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 TMDL to restore the local waters. The TMDL (released as a Draft standard in July and to be finalized at the end of December) allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time. It is also a keystone of the federal strategy to meet President Obama’s Executive Order to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay by 2017

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation performed a telephone survey of Virginia residents and found that 80% of voters believe that Virginia can protect water quality and have a strong economy with good jobs for Virginians. In addition, almost two thirds of Virginia voters want Virginia to establish its own plan to reduce polluted runoff through stronger requirements and incentives so that farms, sewage treatment plants, and others meet the new pollution reduction standards rather than have the federal government step in and take control in Virginia. So we now have the revised WIP and the need to add $7 billion dollars in state taxes to pay for the plan.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Energy Incentives and Other Market Distortions

The California Public Utilities Commission, PUC, is currently considering granting the state’s big utilities $77.3 million in additional rewards under a program for cutting the amount of energy their customers use, despite indications that the actual energy saved was far less than originally hoped when the utility companies launched the energy saving programs. Essentially, the PUC is considering paying incentives for programs that did not have the desired result, and the money they are using is coming out of the consumer’s pockets. However, it is likely that the incentives will be paid and is another example of bureaucratic waste we as a country can no longer afford.

The rewards were conceived to give utilities a financial incentive to sell less electricity and natural gas. Command and control environmentalists hailed the program as a major innovation to fight global warming when it was launched and certainly the intention was good. The PUC set three year energy-efficiency goals for the utilities. If the companies met those goals, they would get rewards, paid by their customers in the form of increased rates. If they missed by a wide margin, they faced fines. How to actually measure the savings was initially not known so a proxy for that goal was established and that is at the heart of the current dispute at the PUC, but not the real problem. The a newly develop methodology used to estimate savings shows vastly different results from the original methodology. The PUC believes it has developed a better methodology to measure results than the original standard and wants to change the method of measurement.

Utilities are a highly regulated industry. The profits are based largely on the volume of energy sold less cost of providing service, including the value of all the pipes, wires, power plants and electrical substations each utility owns and is allowed to enter into their cost basis. All costs whether productive or not can essentially be recovered in rate increases. The current program was launched ahead of an acceptable methodology to evaluate the results. The current efficiency rewards were designed to make energy efficiency part of the utilities’ everyday business, but utilities are trained to analyze any program to maximize cash flow to the utilities. So, the utilities did what they were supposed to do, embrace the program to maximize their return.

While the PUC spent $97 million developing a way to evaluate and verify savings from the efficiency program, they started issuing rewards to the utilities based on actions taken like giving out compact fluorescent light bulbs and pay incentive for energy star appliances. Now the PUC wants to use its new evaluation standards to determine how much energy the utilities really saved (or as real as the current model can predict). The utilities developed programs to profit from the program using the original behavior standards and now the PUC wants to change the rules and the difference is $371 million less in reward payments to the utilities. Now the PUC will have to determine if they will pay the incentives and how much of this failure will be paid by the consumers and how much will be paid by the stockholders.

The utilities spent $2.1 billion on the efficiency efforts from 2006 through 2008 subsidizing compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient appliances for their customers, running efficiency clinics for homeowners and working with businesses to trim their energy expenses. These were the behaviors that the regulators thought would produce results and so the program was initially set up to reward the utilities to run them. Now the PUC has determined that these programs have not been as effective as hoped and they need to determine if they will make additional payments under the old benchmarks or change measurement tools now. It appears that $2.1 billion of the utilities money (which no doubt was recovered from rate payers) was spent, $97 million of the rate payer's money was spent to develop a method to determine that the original goals presented to the utilities were wrong, and then $400 million in incentive will probably be paid when all is said and done so that a total of $2.5 billion will have been spent to achieve only a trivial reduction in energy use. Our regulators in action.

As in all things regulatory and government lawyers will be paid large sums of money to determine which individual investor or consumer pocket this money (and their handsome legal fees) will come out of. The real questions are how effective are these kind of programs in promoting desired behaviors, and should the government be engaged in these types of programs. This is just one government program and example of what our legislators, politicians and regulators have created.