Thursday, March 31, 2011

Farm Subsidies, Water Policy and Food in America

Recently, a friend of mine drew my attention to the fact that rice is cultivated in California. In the semi-arid land of California with an impending water crisis where water is allocated, and allocations cut to protect endangered habitats and species, there are rice patties. This seemingly irrational behavior is the result of the agriculture system that has evolved in the United States under farm subsidies and water allocations. Farmers do not pay the full resource and environmental price of the federally managed irrigation systems (especially if local regulations limiting the pumping of groundwater are not effectively enforced). Farm subsidies have created incentives for water-intensive cultivation in the United States. In the United States farm subsidies over the years have become a maze of programs layered on top of each other involving food assistance, rural sewage, research and extension programs, but at their core the farm programs are subsidized commodity programs that pay predominately large high income landowners based on production or a history of production of eligible crops on land that is classified as eligible.

Commodity payments, what are commonly thought of as farm subsidies are income payments made to farmers or land owners who may no longer farm the land and simply collect payments from tenant farmers or let the land stand idle. Almost 93% of the payments are made for a small list of crops- cotton (22.3%), rice (7.3%), wheat (9.5%), corn (43.5%), soybeans (5.5%), and other grains and oilseeds (4.2%). These payments do not encourage the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, water conservation, or resource protection. These payments do not help the rural poor. These payments are predominantly made to wealthy farmers. These payments are fiercely protected by the congressional representation of the largest recipients. Not surprisingly, after four generations, agricultural sector has changed dramatically and the program beneficiaries lobby and co-opt other groups for support. By including popular but poorly funded programs for conservation and research. According to the Environmental Working Group, who has tracked and analyzed farm subsidies since the 1990’s ten states, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, California, South Dakota and Missouri, accounted for 56% of total subsidies in 2009. Only in the bizarre universe of farm subsidies could you find payments to wealthy landowners to actually grow rice in an arid environment where there is talk of rationing water to people.

The subsidies essentially began during the agricultural price collapse in the 1920’s after the First World War with the creation in 1929 of the Agricultural Marketing Act and during the Great Depression of the 20th century (as opposed to the Great Recession of our own century) the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. This was a time when 25% of America resided on farms and there were reported to be more than 6,000,000 small farms. The country was experiencing a great economic contraction and the Plains of North America was struck by successive droughts in the 1920s and 1930’s that resulted in hundreds of thousands of the homesteaders who had settled the prairie being displaced from the farms. The images of the “Dust Bowl” were poignant and the need acute. The Agricultural Marketing Act created the Farm Board, which fixed price floors for wheat and cotton. If market prices went below 80 cents a bushel for wheat and 20 cents a pound for cotton, the federal government would step in to buy the crop, pay to store it, and hope to resell it later for a decent price. After the creation of the Farm Board, many farmers shifted their entire crop production to wheat or cotton because those crops were protected and now provided a secure income. The resulting overproduction forced down the prices of both crops below the price floors. The government had to buy and store tremendous amounts of wheat and cotton, exhausting the programs entire funding. Instead of ending the program as a failed experiment, Congress added to the program creating the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. This act tried to control oversupply by paying farmers not to produce. As for prices, they would be pegged to the purchasing power of farm prices in 1910 just before World War I.

This modification failed to solve the problem so the farm subsidies and control began on an eight decade journey to find the “right” incentive formula. It is no longer known what the goal of these programs is, but the nature and character of the American farm (and possibly the American diet) has been irrevocably changed by these Congressional programs. The beneficiaries of the subsidies have changed as agriculture in the United States has changed. In the 1930s, about 25% of the country's population resided on the nation's 6,000,000 small farms. In 2010 it is estimated that the $286 billion in farm sales is divided amongst 1.9 million farmers and that agriculture represents between 1 and 2% of gross domestic product even as agricultural output has grown. United States is a net exporter of food and typical American family spends 10% of their income on food. In 2009 according to the Environmental Working Group, subsidies paid for cotton, rice, corn, wheat and livestock, totaled $13 billion dollars a minor fraction of the budget. However, suddenly eliminating the farm subsidies seems almost impossible. Policy makers are reluctant eliminate the subsidies because they fear the consequences to farm employment and food prices.

Meanwhile, the United States has growing regional water problems. When agricultural land is irrigated, the water balance in nature is altered. The environmental impact of an irrigation system is dependent on the nature of the water source, the quality of water, the method of delivery and the local geology and climate. Irrigation of lands can destroy them through subsidence or the buildup of salt in the land and groundwater. Irrigation accounted for 65% of total freshwater withdrawals in the United States excluding thermo-electric power. Changes in climate or weather patterns and growth in population may increase demand for irrigation water because the Agricultural subsidy system creates resistance to changes in irrigation style and patterns. Hotter, drier summers increase pressures on water resources, but our agricultural sector does not respond easily to these changes. Second, recent demand for bio-energy has been met using corn crops from states that irrigate.

Water pricing and farm subsidies have been used in the past to solve economic and social problems. Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve our conflicting economic, environmental and social goals through subsidies and price controls. Water rights must be owned and cannot exceed the sustainable rate of withdrawal. In California there is no longer any relationship between the water and the land, they have destroyed the natural ecology of water rich areas to deliver the water to Los Angeles, San Francisco and the farms. Water is wealth in California where you can grow three crops a year. As long as water costs less than the real resource cost, farmers will plant and grow as much as their water allocation as the state continues down the path of ruin. Annual water allocations cannot be banked, use it or loose it. Over 75% of all water use in California is for agriculture and the demand will always be just a little more than the last wet year when times were so good. The agriculture incentive scheme has become extremely perverse.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Water and Food

In much of the world food prices are rising. The effects of the current price spikes have not been significant in the United States where food represents about 10% of the income of a typical family and where the volatility in food and energy are accepted or at least tolerated. In the United States processing and advertising costs of foods often outweigh the cost of food ingredients themselves.

Food prices are being driven up in part by an increase in oil prices, affecting both fuel and fertilizer costs. But the primary cause is water. The recent droughts and flooding have both impacted food production. Russia has been hit with the worst drought in a half century. Australia has suffered years of drought only to be hit by torrential flooding so that the lack of water has been replaced by too much water. India’s falling water table and water shortages have been well documented in the world news. Even U.S. grain forecasts have been reduced due to adverse weather.

In countries where most residents purchase only basic foodstuffs and where food costs require a much larger percentage of household income, the cost of food has effectively skyrocketed. When food represents 50% of household income, a 10% increase cannot be absorbed. The outcry in India over the price of onions recently illustrated this. India’s food production regions are reportedly sitting atop groundwater aquifers that are being depleted. Irrigation accounts for 84% of India’s total water use. The population continues to grow, industrial demand for water grows and the demand for more water intensive food is growing. Generally, higher value crops such as sugar and vegetables are more water-intensive than cereals, and meat and dairy are even more water-intensive. So as populations move up the economic ladder beyond subsistence the demand for irrigation water explodes.

Overall, approximately 60% of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go to irrigation. Large-scale farming could not provide food for the world's large populations without the irrigation of crop fields by water from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and ground water wells. Without irrigation, crops could never be grown in the arid and semi-arid lands of California, the Middle East, or India where irrigation consumes a much larger share of fresh water.

The majority of irrigated acres in the United States is in the west were where annual precipitation is less than 20 inches and is insufficient to support crops without supplemental water. In the western United States water used for irrigation exceeds 75% of the water supply. The system of water rights that developed in the west assured for generations the allocation of water to agriculture. The water rights system as conceived and administered in the western states was not designed to conserve water. It was developed in a time when population was still sparse, water supplies were believed to be plentiful and development and growth were to be encouraged. The system was designed to protect the water and work necessary to build farms in the west. This management scheme has resulted in non sustainable use of groundwater and unsustainable agricultural practices.

When agricultural land is irrigated, the water balance in nature is altered. Water is withdrawn from a river, spring, or groundwater and added to agricultural fields. The environmental impact of an irrigation system is dependent on the nature of the water source, the quality of water, the method of delivery and the local geology and climate. Withdrawing ground water beyond the recharge rate may cause the land to subside as happened in the Central Valley of California. In many parts of the world where water is often plentiful slash and burn agriculture is practiced and the land cultivated until it is exhausted then abandoned, more forest cut down and the climate impacted by the massive loss of trees. Irrigation of lands can destroy them.

Aquifers and the land may become saline. All water contains dissolved salts that attached to the water molecules as it washed over the land or percolated in the ground. Rain also contains some salts. The salts are generally at very low concentrations in “fresh” water’ however, evaporation of water from dry earth leaves much of the salts behind. Over time the salts concentrate. This problem has become acute in the Central Valley of California, in China’s North Plain, in Soviet Central Asia (the –istans), parts of the Middle East and the Colorado River Basin. These are all semi-arid areas where irrigation is the basis of agriculture that has used flooded irrigation for generations. Land is being irrigated before planting to reduce the salt levels. At least 20% of all irrigated lands are salt-affected, with some estimates being as high as 50%.

To address these problems, more controlled types of irrigation have been developed and more salt tolerant crops need to be exploited. Micro-irrigation also known as drip irrigation has gained attention during recent years because of its potential to increase yields and decrease water, fertilizer, and labor requirements if managed properly. Drip irrigation systems can apply water and fertilizer directly to individual plants or trees, reducing the wetted area by wetting only a fraction of the soil surface; water is applied directly to the root zone.

In drip irrigation, water is run through pipes (with holes in them) either buried or lying slightly above the ground next to the crops. Water slowly drips onto the crop roots and stems. Unlike spray irrigation, very little is lost to evaporation reducing water waste. Subsurface drip irrigation is the slow frequent application of water below the surface to the root area of the pants. The goal is to maintain constant moisture content in the soil at the optimal plant growth level. This requires monitoring soil moisture and weather instead of a set irrigation schedule and in this way reduce net water use by 30%.

The costs involved in drip irrigation can be substantial, not just the $800-$2,000 for the tubing, filters and pumps, but also the irrigation infrastructure that would allow controlled constant delivery of filtered water. On demand water availability for irrigation may be an insurmountable hurdle within the current water allocation system. In addition, a University of California study concluded that a salt balance must be maintained in the root zone, irrigation without improved management practices cannot be sustained in the San Joaquin Valley. In addition, sensible choices will have to be made about water allocation, crop choices, and water pricing. Our political systems and human nature have not excelled in the past at sensible.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Magnetic Water Softening Does it Work?

In many parts of the country (including mine) the water contains high levels of dissolved minerals and is commonly referred to as hard. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of minerals and metals that can be a nuisance in elevated concentrations. Calcium and magnesium ions are the minerals that make water hard. Before considering purchasing any treatment system test your water yourself to get a full picture of the nature of your water supply. No treatment is without cost or consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems.

Water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, and magnesium per liter of water (ppm) can begin to have a noticeable impact and is considered hard. (Some label water hard at 100 ppm.) Certainly, concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, there are observed impacts in our homes. Bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. The minerals also combine with soap in the laundry, and the residue doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car (though commercial car washes use recycled water and are more environmentally friendly).

Many can live with the water spots and soap scum issues but are induced to treat their water because of the potential impacts on plumbing and appliances. When heated, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are removed from the water and form a scale (lime scale) in cookware, metal hot water pipes, dishwashers and water heaters. As the scale builds up more energy is required to heat the water and hot water heater and appliances have work harder which will burn them out eventually. Thus, in hard water locations hot water heaters and other appliances have a shorter life.

The traditional treatment for hard water is a chemical softening system which is chemical process based on ion exchange can be easily tested. The water softening system consists of a mineral tank and a brine tank. The mineral tank holds small beads of resin that have a negative electrical charge. The calcium and magnesium ions stick to the beads as the hard water passes through the mineral tank. As the water is softened, the sodium (or potassium) ions are replaced and are released into the softened water. If a water sample is tested after the treatment system there is no (or very little) calcium and magnesium left in the water and the sodium or potassium is elevated. Eventually the surfaces of the beads in the mineral tank become coated with the calcium and magnesium. To clean the beads, a strong salt solution held in the brine tank is flushed through the mineral tank.

For decades magnets have been promoted and sold to eliminate water harness. Early devices involved a series of magnets, these have been replaced to a large extent in the market with alternating magnetic or electrostatic fields to adopt to the emergence of plastic piping. Magnetic water treatment has been promoted since the first half of the 20th century, yet it is still not proven that they actually work. Though many claims made by salesmen are preposterous pseudoscience, there are anecdotal stories that can not be completely dismissed. For a wonderful and funny discussion of the scientific validity of the marketing claims of the purveyors of magnetic water treatment systems see the website of retired Chemistry Professor Stephen Lower, PhD. For those of you so inclined it is witty and funny.The reason that after all this time the question of whether magnetic water treatment systems work is not definitively answered is the claim that exposing water to a magnetic field will decrease the water’s “effective” hardness. Effective hardness cannot be tested for with a chemical analysis. Magnetic water treatment system salespeople typically claim that the systems will eliminate scale deposits, lower water-heating bills, extended life of water heaters and household appliances, and more efficient use of soaps and detergents without the ongoing expense and bother of continual salt addition to a brine tank.

The effectiveness of these magnetic water treatment systems is difficult to prove or disprove. No magnesium or calcium is removed from the water by magnetic treatment, nor is it claimed to be removed. Instead, the claim is that the magnetic field decreases the tendency of the dissolved minerals to form scale through various mechanisms. Testing the water will find the mineral levels unchanged. Even though the dissolved mineral concentration indicates the water is still hard, magnetically treated water is supposed to behaves like soft water. Anecdotal stories and people's perceptions of relative softness are used to “prove” the effectiveness of the products, and the anecdotal stories cannot be entirely dismissed.

There is apparently no consensus among magnet vendors regarding the mechanisms by which magnetic water treatment occurs. As Dr. Lower points out lots of pseudoscience is thrown around, but there is no valid explanation for a mechanism of how magnetic water treatment can work. Claims by salespeople of magnetic treatment devices to be "softening the water" are simply lies. If the systems work at all and no controlled research has demonstrated that they do work, they do so by some unknown mechanism and somehow reduce the tendency of water to form and maintain lime scale. The "hardness" of water is defined by the measured amount of minerals it contains, magnetic water treatment does not claim to reduce this. Instead their claims are to reduce deposits of lime scale on pipes and appliances. Unfortunately for testing purposes, the development of hard lime scale is a slow process, requiring many years to become measurable and a serious problem.

Mike R. Powell, P.E., author of an exhaustive discussion of the research relating to magnetic water treatment entitled “Magnetic Water and Fuel Treatment: Myth, Magic, or Mainstream Science?” states “Much of the available laboratory test data imply that magnetic water treatment devices are largely ineffective, yet reports of positive results in industrial settings persist ….” “Consumer Reports magazine tested a … magnetic water treatment device…. Two electric water heaters were installed in the home of one of the Consumer Reports staffers. The hard water (200 ppm) entering one of the heaters was first passed through the magnetic treatment device. The second water heater received untreated water. The water heaters were cut open after more than two years and after more than 10,000 gallons of water were heated by each heater. The tanks were found to contain the same quantity and texture of scale. Consumer Reports concluded that the … unit was ineffective.” I called Consumer Reports to obtain a copy of the article and permission to cite it.. The full 280 word article can be found in the February 1996 volume of Consumer Reports on page 8. It appears that bottom line is, don’t waste your money on magnetic water treatment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Water Politics- The Cost of Food In America and the California Water Supply

California Water Plan Update 2013's Public Advisory Committee meets on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. This meeting is open to the public. The future of California will be decided by the water necessary to maintain and grow the agricultural sector. The recent rains and favorable snowpack have alleviated the recent water crisis, but not the long term projections.

California water problems fundamentally result from having a growning economy and growing urban population in an arid climate. There is simply not enough water to go around. Almost all of the water in California comes from precipitation in the northern portion of the state and inflows from the Colorado and Klamath Rivers.

The solution to the problem is not increasing reservoirs. While water storage does allow flexibility, making it possible to carry water over to the dry season and to smooth out year-to-year variations in precipitation, it does not create water. Large reservoirs already exist on most major streams in California, limiting the potential to increase absolute water deliveries than in the past. There are no longer large unregulated amounts of water available to fill new reservoirs.

The current through-Delta system is unsustainable, but the solution suggested for a peripheral canal is limited in what it can accomplish. This canal alone will not fix the Delta nor create additional water supply. Nor is it likely (according to the US EPA) to improve native fish populations enough to allow immediate increases in exports above currently restricted levels. The idea of large construction projects is pushed by local interests that will profit from state subsidies. However, California no longer has the wealth to waste enriching a few and not solving its long term problems.

According to U.S. Department of Commerce, California’s GDP (gross domestic product) was slightly more than $1.8 trillion in 2007. GDP is the value of all goods and services produced in California. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, the total value of the agricultural output from the state’s farms and ranches was $36.6 billion in 2007, up from $31.8 billion the year before. This means that crop, meat and dairy sales account for about 2% of the state economy. However, when you count all the secondary economic impacts: wine making and sales, chesses making, olive oil production, juice making, food processing and packing this number grows to 7.9% of the California economy.

In terms of national agricultural output, $36.6 billion in revenue represents 12.8% of the U.S. total. The state accounted for 17.6 % of crops, and 7 % of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Several of these crops are currently produced only in California.

The number of farms operating in California has been falling as farms consolidate and grow larger. There 75,000 farms and ranches in California. As a comparison there are approximately 1.9 million farms and ranches in the United States. However, California farms and ranches produced an average of $488,000 in revenue each year, compared to the average U.S. farm sales of $137,000. Yet, the average farm size in California was 349 acres, compared with the U.S. average of 449 acres.

According to Pacific Research Institute, agricultural crop volume production per unit of applied water (tons/acre-foot) increased by 38 % from 1980 to 2000. This increase in crop volume occurred during a period of falling food prices so that inflation-adjusted gross crop revenue per unit of applied water (dollars/acre-foot) increased by 11 percent by 2000 compared to 1980.

California has a complex, highly interconnected, and decentralized water system. Agriculture’s share of non-environmental water use was reported to be 77 % in 2005, down from an reported 90 % in 1960. As farmers have shifted to higher value horticultural and orchard crops, they have adopted more efficient irrigation technologies. There is still some progress that can be made in net water use by expanding implementation of drip irrigation and other technologies, but there are limitations, too.

The Central Valley Project (CVP), supplies water to thousands of Central Valley farms. The CVP water is subsidized and estimated yearly subsidy to farmers is roughly $60 million. This water subsidy was intended to subsidize the price of produce in the United States. Sixty million is a tiny fraction of the $36.6 billion that is the base cost of produce. The value of agricultural land in California is in part determined by eligibility for water subsidy and many of today’s farmers paid for this subsidy when they bought the land from the grantees. Maintaining this subsidy and the etrawealth it produces is what the farmers in the Central Valley are fighting for.

The Pacific Institute recommends the elimination of 1.3 million acres of drainage-impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley from irrigation and agricultural use. This land represents less than 5% of the agricultural land in California, but would save 3.9 million acre-feet of water per year, while also reducing polluted surface water runoff and impacts to groundwater. This water savings represents 9% of the water used in California and is equal to two thirds of the total water used for urban residential use. This combined with limited conservation measures could solve the California water issues for decades.

However taking this proactive and ultimately necessary step is not likely to happen. The cost in terms of impacts on agricultural workers, agricultural communities, the value of the land and the wealth of the farmers will be fought tooth and nail by every political action group with an interest in the outcome. The urban residents of California elect just under two thirds of the state legislature. We can’t both use the water to subsidize the food and allow for growth in California. We need to choose between half of all U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and people. The cost of food in America is on a collision course with water supply in California.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Test Your Well Water

If your home drinking water is supplied from a private well, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. Unlike public drinking water systems serving many people which have experts regularly checking the water quality, no one is looking out for families with their own wells. The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act does not protect private wells. You are responsible for ensuring that the water supplied from your private well is safe to drink and palatable. Managing your water is an ongoing process like managing your health.

The US EPA estimates that 10% of America obtains their drinking water from private wells. In Virginia that number is much higher, 34% of the population is estimated to obtain their drinking water from private groundwater wells. The Master Well Owner Network (MWON) is an organization of trained volunteers dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia manage the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The volunteers can help homeowners interpret their test results and make educated decisions about what treatment might be appropriate and desirable.

According to the US EPA actual events of groundwater contamination have historically been rare and typically do not occur at levels likely to pose health concerns. City and county health departments have local rules and regulations for the installation of wells. The water well test that was performed when you bought your house or installed your well probably only tested for bacteria and nitrates. Due to its protected location underground, most groundwater is naturally clean and free from pollution. However, not all groundwater is clean and safe it can become polluted.

Before initially using a water well you should completely test the water for contamination. A good start would be the list of primary and secondary contaminants that the US EPA regulates under the Safe Drinking Water Act and pesticides. This would cover total Coliform and E. Coli bacteria, heavy metals, inorganic chemicals, physical factors (like harness, pH, turbidity, etc.), trihalo methanes, volatile organic chemicals (solvents), and common pesticides, herbicides and PCB’s. These tests are not cheap, but should not be skipped. The Minimum Detection Levels, which are the lowest levels at which the laboratory detects a contaminant with an acceptable degree of accuracy should be below the levels established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Once the initial full test is completed annual testing of solvents and pesticides may not be necessary unless a local problem is identified or a spill occurs. Occasional testing for these substances should still be done. As development in our modern society increases, there are a growing number of activities that can contaminate our drinking water. Increased population density brings more opportunities for nutrients and chemicals from land disposal practices, septic systems, lawn fertilizers, household cleaners and pest treatments to contribute to water pollution. In reality, the nearest ongoing sources of potential contamination to your drinking water supply is your own or your neighbors septic system drain field.

However, all private water wells should be tested every year for total coliform bacteria, and E Coli, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels at a minimum. Part of the price of your own water supply is maintaining it and testing it. You can not taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste and you can not taste nitrate nitrite contamination. Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Due to the extra cost (under $20) most health departments only recommend total coliform testing. Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply and nothing more. Total coliform includes bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. Fecal coliform is the group of the total coliform that is considered to be present specifically in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is considered to be the species of coliform bacteria that is the best indicator of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens. If a sample is positive for coliform bacteria a second test for fecal coliform and E Coli can be performed.

Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be real health hazards and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. These are contaminants or impurities that are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology. 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, sometimes one symptom can be confused with another. Never buy a treatment system until you have tested your water fully for all heavy metals and hardness, determined if there is a problem and identified the correct solution. Other contaminants may be present that need to be addressed. 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 MWON volunteers can help you obtain sampling, and interpret your test results. Do not rely solely on water treatment salespeople for water analysis. The tests they perform are often crude and sometimes misleading. They are selling water treatment.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wastewater Treatment in San Francisco and the SF PUC

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is a department of the City government that provides: Regional and local water, Wastewater (collection, treatment and disposal), and Power. I spoke with Idil Bereket, Public Relations Officer for the Wastewater division to gain a fuller understanding of the wastewater programs after seeing the “only rain down the drain” signs around the city and chatting up an employee testing wastewater at Saint Francis Hospital.

Treating waste water and collecting storm water are essential city services, but this function also requires that the SFPUC work to educate the public to prevent pollution and limit the trash, contaminants and waste that enters the system. The SFPUC operates and maintains 993 miles of combined sewers, which collect sanitary sewage from toilets and drains in apartments, homes, schools, offices and other businesses, and street runoff throughout the city. Most of San Francisco operates under a combined sewage storage and treatment system. That means for most of the city, all sanitary sewage and stormwater is collected into the same pipes and catch basins and treated in the three treatment plants. There are a few areas of the city that were developed with a separate stormwater sewage system and those are controlled and discharge separately to the Bay.

The SFPUC operates three twenty-four hour a day waste treatment plants and one occasional plant that is used during rainy weather when the combined system collects more water. San Francisco is unusual in that it operates with a combined sewer system that collects and treats both wastewater and stormwater in the same system. Though stormwater is relatively clean, it does wash street pollutants into the sewer system that should not be directly released into the Bay or the Pacific. However, the processes needed to address street pollutants-motor oil, pesticides, metals, dirt and litter are different from the processes to separate toilet paper and sewage, and the pollutants of concern are different. That means the rain that runs off streets and buildings gets treated at the wastewater treatment plants just like sanitary sewage. That is expensive. Rain water is relatively clean and could be treated with a filter and oil and grease separators, but combining the stormwater with the sewage creates a large volume of water that goes through the wastewater treatment plants.

The smallest of the waste treatment plants is the Treasure Island plant that serves only Treasure Island and will be ignored for the rest of the discussion. The two major waste water treatment plants that serve the city of San Francisco are the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant in Bayview built in 1950’s and the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant built in 1993. On a typical day the Southeast Water Pollution Control plant treats about 80% of the wastewater in the city. On a dry day the San Francisco combined sewage system treats about 80,000,000 gallons a day of sanitary sewage, during storms the treatment load can increase to up to 500,000,000 gallons of combined sewage. That six fold increase in water volume is more than can be handled by using the North Point Weather Treatment Plant.

What makes the system so expandable is the system of storage/transport boxes. The storage/transport boxes are huge underground rectangular tanks or tunnels that surround the City, the SFPUC describes it as a moat, a fitting image. The storage/transport boxes catch the combined stormwater and sewage as it overflows the sewer system, but before it reaches the shoreline of the Bay or Pacific Ocean. The storage/transport boxes have a total storage capacity of 200,000,000 gallons and hold stormwater and sewage for later treatment at wastewater treatment plants. If the capacity of the storage/transport boxes should be exceeded, the wastewater including sewage would be released into the Bay or the Pacific Ocean.

The storage/transport boxes provide the fist step of treatment, settling and screening of floatable materials inside the boxes. This step is equivalent to primary treatment that takes place at the wastewater treatment plants. When wastewater reaches the wastewater treatment plant, it passes through a screen used to remove large objects and debris. (You would not believe some of the debris which gets into the system despite the “only rain down the drain” signs.) Then the wastewater enters large settling tanks where heavier solids settle to the bottom, and floatables like oil and grease are scraped off the top.

Secondary treatment is bacterial digestion of organic waste. This process is enhanced by using blown oxygen to increase microorganism population enhancing the speed that the bacteria consume organic material in the wastewater. Afterwards, the wastewater is put into a second round of settling tanks where the microorganisms are separated from the purified water. Treated wastewater, is disinfected before being discharged into the San Francisco Bay from the Southeast Plant and into the Pacific Ocean from the Oceanside plant where the high salt concentration and cold temperatures help to kill any remaining bacteria. Effluent at North Point Facility is also disinfected before being discharged into the San Francisco Bay.

Sludge separated from wastewater during primary and secondary treatment is further processed on a “Gravity Belt Thickeners” to remove more water from the sludge. The thickened sludge is pumped into enclosed digester tanks. It is mixed for 15-25 days and heated at a constant temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit to allow anaerobic bacteria to break down remaining organic material in the sludge. Once treated, sludge is transformed into bio-solids. San Francisco produces 160,000,000 pounds of bio-solids every year that are recycled as fertilizer. The methane given off by the anaerobic bacteria is captured and used to power the system heaters.

The wastewater treatment system is not designed to do any more than screen out trash, skim off scum and grease and use bacterial action to digest toilet paper and bio-solids. Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, hydrocarbons and anything else the residents can think to pour down the drain or dump into the storm drains will either clog the system or be released into the Bay or Ocean. Cooking grease hardens when it cools in the sewer pipes. This can constrict the sewer pipes or form blockages that increasing pressure and often causing sewer pipe failure. Pharmaceuticals pass through the system untreated and pollute the Bay and estuary habitat. Pesticides and other chemicals can damage the bacterial habitat preventing adequate treatment of the sewage or be released to the Bay. As the SFPUC points out with their educational campaign, water pollution prevention begins with using your toilet to dispose of the three “P’s” (do you really need me to tell you?), recycling cooking oil, and remembering that everything that goes down the drain goes right out into the bay. A toilet is not a trash can and neither is a storm drain. To optimize the operations of the wastewater system at least expense, utilize rain barrels and cisterns to reduce overall flow to the system, and only allow the intended wastewater to enter toilets and drains and only rain should go down the stormwater drains.

The SF PUC has labeled all 23,000 stormwater drains to remind citizens not to use the storm drains as a trash can or disposal drains. According to Idil Bereket of the SFPUC, these little reminders have been effective in reducing dumping into the storm drains. In addition, the SF PUC runs SF Greasecycle, a citywide project that collects used cooking oil primarily from restaurants and converts it to bio-fuel for biodiesel vehicles. In the past year over 124,000 gallon of used cooking oil were collected and recycled. There is a small program that collects consumer generated cooking oil at several retail outlets and at holiday drop off points. Finally, the Rainwater Harvesting Program, subsidizes rain barrels and cisterns for city residents. Last year they sold 38 cisterns and 192 rain barrels. This diverted over 21,000 gallons of rainwater from the combined sewer system.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Federal Budget and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL

Living within 60 miles of Washington DC has sparked my interest in civics and made me think much more about how the government is run than I ever did back in my days in California. Under the Constitution of the United States, funding for the federal government is provided by appropriations made by Congress every year without exceptions. Funding for government employees salaries and wages is appropriated by Congress for a fiscal year which runs from October 1 to September 30th. Congress may pass "continuing resolutions" providing some interim funding. However, when budget appropriations are not enacted and no continuing resolutions are passed the federal government will come to a screeching halt.

Congress failed to pass a budget in 2010, the federal government has been funded through temporary continuing resolutions. In February Congress couldn’t agree on a long-term continuing resolution that would fund the government for the next seven months until the end of the fiscal year. Instead Congress passed an extension that will keep the government running through March 18, 2011. Unless another continuing resolution is passed before March 18th we may be headed to the first government shutdown since 1990. Government employees who provide essential services, the army, air traffic control, Congress, corrections, fire protection, are required to continue working. Non-essential services will be shut down.

Government shutdowns in the past have been short lived, but the impact of some of the budget changes in the wind could have long term implications for us, our children and our communities. I do not pretend to know where this budget should and will end up. I am watching and thinking, but maybe the latest continuing resolution is an indication of things to come. In FY2010, the US EPA received the largest increase in funding since its inception, 34% increase over 2009 funding. However, the continuing resolution passed in February slashed EPA’s budget by $3 billion (almost 30%) and contained a number of environmental policy provisions seemingly intended to stop the expansion of the federal regulatory framework in a rejection of top down command and control environmental regulation.

The recently passed bill states that no funds made available by the continuing resolution may be used by the US EPA to implement, administer or enforce a change to a rule or guidance document in regards to the “waters of the United States.” definition under the Clean Water Act. This ensures the Clean Water Act be limited to the historic federal scope of the navigable waters of the United States and Commerce Clause authority under the Constitution. The goal of this portion of the bill was to prevent the expansion of federal control to include all waters- puddle, moist land area, seasonal stream, man-made waterway, storage facility, conveyance system, holding facility, or ditch, and prevents federal control of non-point source contamination.

The continuing resolution also prohibits its funds from being used to enforce any greenhouse gas emissions regulations effectively nullifying the EPA regulation of carbon dioxide under the April 2009, endangerment and a cause or contribute findings for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act which was an effort to implement by regulation the framework of the Waxman-Markley energy bill, which was passed by the House but died in the senate.

Several successful amendments to the continuing resolution target environmental regulations are part of the current framework.
• Rep. Kristi Noem’s (Republican from South Dakota) approved amendment stops regulation of particulate matter under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), The EPA had planned to release a draft proposal later this year. There was concern about this proposal from rural local governments that they would be considered in non-attainment due to common events, such as driving down unpaved roads, wildfires and wind storms.
• Rep. Tom Rooney’s (Republican from Florida) approved amendment forbids the EPA from using federal funds to implement new water quality Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards in Florida. New standards were issued by the EPA in November and since then, the state of Florida has filed suit against the EPA.
• Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (Republican from Virginia.) approved amendment prohibiting federal monies from being used to implement TMDLs or water implementation plans (WIPs) in the Chesapeake Bay.

After Mr. Goodlatte’s amendment was passed he posted a statement on his web site that began with: “For the past two years we have seen the Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take overzealous action in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. These actions have been taken without a cost benefit analysis to determine the overall cost of these mandates or even whether or not they will benefit the Bay. EPA has proposed arbitrary limits on the amounts of nutrients that can enter the Chesapeake Bay, and how these nutrients enter the Bay. At the same time EPA is seeking to expand their regulatory authority by seizing authority granted to the states and converting the Bay Cleanup efforts to a process that is a top down approach with mandatory regulations…”

Mirroring the sentiments of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), as a conservationist, I fully support the common goal of a cleaner, healthier Chesapeake Bay watershed. I also fully support state oversight of non-point source contamination and feel that the conservation districts must continue working with landowners to prevent pollutants from reaching waterways through conservation and best farm practices that enable farmers to responsibly manage nutrients from fertilizer and manure and minimize soil loss from farmland. The Virginia (and the other five states) must fully fund the conservation districts and their programs to fully implement the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act so that we continue to work to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. It is a treasure, but estuaries are fragile ecosystems that are very susceptible to disturbances both natural and those created by man. Diverting fresh water from tributaries for irrigation and drinking water supplies changes flow and quantity of fresh water entering the estuary, and impacts the balance within the ecology. Excess nutrients and sediment from sewage treatment plants, farm fields and animal pastures, urban and suburban run off from roads and landscaping can cause eutrophication. As the ecosystem of estuaries declines, species die out, coastlines experience excessive erosion by wind, tidal action and ice. The Chesapeake Bay must be protected and restored. State initiatives have brought very slow improvement in the nutrients and sediment levels in the bay despite the huge growth in population and we need to continue and expand these efforts no matter what the happens on Capital Hill. The Chesapeake Bay is our estuary and we need to protect and restore it, starting in our own homes.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Passive Solar Design- Living in Harmony with Your Climate

Solar photovoltaic panels while extremely cool to have are a very expensive way to make electricity. Passive solar design on the other hand can be cost effective, but few of us build homes. Most people buy a pre-existing house, but passive solar and energy efficiency should be considered in selecting a home. Passive solar design is not new, it was used by ancient civilizations to make their living more comfortable in whatever climate they lived in. Passive solar heating techniques are based on three methods of heat transport: direct gain, indirect gain, and isolated gain. Direct gain is solar radiation that directly penetrates and warms the living space. Indirect gain collects, stores, and distributes solar radiation using some thermal storage material. Conduction, radiation, or convection transfers the energy indoors. Isolated gain systems collect solar radiation in an area that can be selectively closed off or opened to the rest of the house.

A passive solar home begins with the orientation of the house. The long axis of the house should run east/west. This means that the house should either face north or south. Because I wanted a roof that would be suitable for solar panels (without neighbor complaints) and I work at home and wanted my everyday living spaces to utilize daylight rather than electric lightening (kitchen, bath, family room, my office and my bedroom should all face south with adequate windows), my house is oriented so that the long axis to the south is the back of the house, the rooms we truly live in are all facing dead south to our garden and the watershed woodland beyond. It is a lovely setting and just the right orientation for passive solar design (as well as solar photovoltaic panels) . It would be difficult at this point to pick up and turn the house (especially since the drainage is also perfect for keeping my basement dry). It is my goal to maximize the passive solar design of my existing home over time.

The next step is to make sure that the house is well sealed and insulated.
Heating and cooling account for 50% to 70% of the energy used in the average American home. Inadequate insulation and air leakage through ducts, walls and roofs are the major sources of wasted energy in most homes (despite the popular notion that is the phantom loads of chargers and cable boxes). Though, my house was built in 2004 the insulation and thermal properties were not optimal. After inspecting the attic and accessible areas of the basement and crawl spaces for adequate insulation, I turned to the Building Envelop Research of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for guidance. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory performs their Building Envelop Research for the US Department of Energy, DOE, and publishes their guidance in their “Insulation Fact Sheet,” which is available on the blog home page and through this link. Following the recommendations by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory the attic, crawl spaces, eves, ductwork, underside of a large portion of the main level floor were insulated. The pipes, wall end caps, knee walls, sump pumps and all identified areas were sealed, ceiling fixtures were capped and insulated, the garage ceiling was insulated and an insulated garage door installed. I was actually surprised at the winter energy savings (25% on propane and 6% on electricity despite adding two refrigeration units) and pleased with the improved comfort in the master bedroom and bath.

Both traditional and modern passive solar design strategies vary by location and climate, but the basic goal remains constant- to maximize solar heat gain in winter and minimize the solar gain in summer. Many passive solar techniques are either or, either they are intended for cooler climates that are primarily concerned with minimizing heating costs or they are intended for hotter climates where minimizing cooling costs is the main goal. The simplest example is roof color, in Phoenix or Palm Springs a white roof would reduce cooling costs significantly, in Boston or Bangor a black roof to increase heat gain and reduce heating costs would be chosen. The problem in the moderate zones like Virginia is which strategy would produce the most benefit. Rather than count the heating days and cooling days in Virginia to determine which roof color would be optimal, I’ll stick with the dark grey that still has another 18 or so years of life in it, and the benefits of sealing the heating and cooling envelop of the house.

According to DOE, window selection, sizing, and orientation is also important. The natural properties of glass let the sun through and can eliminate the need for daytime interior lighting, but trap long-wave heat radiation which will heat the house. Trapping the sun’s heat is the greenhouse effect. The difficulty is properly sizing the south-facing glass to balance heat gain and loss especially in a four season humid environment like Virginia. In the winter the ideal would be small windows on the north side of the house (rectangular shaped homes tend to have fewer windows on the short wall) to orient most of the windows to the south and have additional thermal mass to store heat. In the summer or climates where air-conditioning is used most of the year, larger north facing windows and shading of south facing windows is ideal.

Most locations in the United States have a four season climate that needs to balance heating and cooling, so that passive solar strategies that can change with the seasons are best. In terms of energy efficiency, soaring cathedral ceilings with a massive wall of two story windows are never a good idea, because increasing the glass area can increase the heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer, and the two story rooms are difficult to heat and cool. In the variable climates, deciduous tress shading the southern side of the house allows the warmth of the winter sun while protecting the home from direct summer sun and the buildup of the greenhouse effect inside. It does take years for a tree to grow, though. Exterior solar screens will trap the heat outside the house in summer, but should be removed in winter or angled to allow only the winter sun which is lower in the sky to warm the interior. Retractable awnings (like the summer awnings we had when I was a child) can be put up or opened in summer to reduce the summer heat gain while allowing the winter sun to penetrate. Interior blinds can be used to warm a room in winter by absorbing sunlight and providing greenhouse warming in the air space between window and shade. In the summer shades continue to increase the heat is stored inside in the gap between the window and the blind due to the greenhouse effect.

Draperies that are light colored and lined can serve to allow daylight (and eliminate the need for artificial lighting) while still providing an additional layer of insulation. The old fashioned and classic combination of sheers and drapes allows you to adjust the window coverings based on season and time of day. (Grandma is looking smarter by the minute). Finally, the type of window and selective window coatings like the 3M window films can also serve to reduce infrared radiation and solar energy. I installed the 3M Prestige films on all my windows the first month I owned the home to protect my husband and his books from UV radiation in our south facing home, I have no personal data what the impact is on heating and cooling costs. The main concern these films addressed was skin cancer and fading of furniture and books; however, the product technical specifications state that the films reduce UV radiation by 99.9%, reject 97% of infrared light and improve the solar energy rejected by a double pane window by 20%.

Windows with lower solar heat gain coefficient, SHGC, values reduce heat buildup in summer, but they also reduce the free winter solar heat gain. Proper window design really is climate specific. In moderate portion of the county a mixed window strategy is best. The insulating properties of window glass are described by the U factor. Really, even the best window are poor insulators. A single pane window has a U factor of about 0.99 which is equivalent to an R-factor of about 1. A triple pane window typically has an R-value of 4 for the glass surface. Low U-factors are most important in heating dominated climates, although they are also beneficial in cooling dominated climates. In a mixed climate, maximizing the insulating properties all year and minimizing the SHGC values in summer are optimal.

Wall design and materials are an important element in the thermal performance of homes. There is little we can do to change our walls without rebuilding, but the type of wall framing, sheathing and insulation can significantly impact the heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer. Wall insulation is important and should be appropriately addressed when building a house and when replacing siding. Using traditional construction materials to provide a thermal mass, such as concrete, stone and brick (not facing) can absorb heat during days and slowly release the heat at night. This can reduce the effect of outside air temperatures and indoor temperatures. However, work at ORNL found that exterior insulation finish systems, EIFS’s, are superior on thermal performance because the insulation is applied around the outside of the framing, avoiding thermal bridging common in traditional wood framing. The EIFS’s are among the most cost-effective building technologies for improving the insulating value of walls and the energy efficiency of buildings. However, system designs for vapor control without recognition of their ramifications for humid climates, along with window and joint water leakage due to poor installation unrelated to the EIFS walls, lead some to believe that EIFS walls were causing moisture-related envelope failures. Testing by ORNL disproved this and performance of these systems should improve as building codes reflect climate specific installation needs and the building industry gains more experience with the product.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sustainable Practices and Thoughtful Energy Use

According to the US Department of Energy heating and cooling account for about 50-70% of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes. In addition, as was once demonstrated in a mathematical proof in an economics lecture, Americans consume too much house. (As an engineer, mathematical proofs always made great impressions on me.) My home is bigger than I want, but my husband has what I think of as “very special real estate needs.” Those needs are a book collection of that exceeds 20,000 volumes and other printed media including storage of his deceased mother’s collections. The collections sized our home and I spend time, money and personal resources trying to minimize our energy consumption.

I have looked at some of the strategies used by the Department of Energy in their Colorado demonstration project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL, reported to be the greenest office building in the nation, and at Passivhaus standards, but it is not yet clear how these could be incorporated into a house in Virginia. It has been pointed out that some of the technology used at NREL is best suited for high-sunlight, low-humidity climates like Colorado and wouldn't work well elsewhere. The building also demands that the occupants adjust to fluctuating temperatures throughout the day by opening windows, adjusting shades and other actions which require being in the space as much as possible (ideally suited for my stay at home indoor life). During warm weather, the NERL building relies heavily on the fact that temperatures Colorado cool off quickly when the sun goes down. Windows are opened at night to cool the building using the night air to store the cool in the thick concrete walls inside, keeping offices comfortable long into the next day. Such strategies would not work in the hot humid summers of Virginia and the Washington DC metropolitan area. The cost of the NREL building was $259 per square foot to build, the land and the design costs are not included in that number.

Passive solar design is not new, it was used by ancient civilizations to make their living more comfortable in whatever environment they lived in. Passive solar heating techniques are based on three methods of heat transport: direct gain, indirect gain, and isolated gain. Direct gain is solar radiation that directly penetrates and warms the living space (opening the southern facing drapes on a sunny winter’s day to warm a room). Indirect gain collects, stores, and distributes solar radiation using some thermal storage material (maybe the books could be a thermal storage mass, but I have to be careful to keep direct sunlight away from the collection). Conduction, radiation, or convection transfers the energy indoors. Isolated gain systems (like the ubiquitous Virginia sunroom or conservatory) collect solar radiation in an area that can be selectively closed off or opened to the rest of the house, though the cat literally begs to have the sunroom door opened in the dead of summer when it is an oven so she can curl up and sleep out there.

A popular German design concept is the Passivhaus or Passive House in English is simply a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by a small heat exchanger. An energy recovery ventilator provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply. Overall, a Passivhaus is reported to have an R-value of 60. Though the concept was first pursued in New England in the 1970’s, the first Passivhaus were built in Darmstadt, Germany in 1990 and the standards were developed out of those projects and tilted towards the colder climates.The first certified passive energy home in California cost $500/sqft to retrofit, my house cost less than one fifth of that to purchase and came with acres of land. It is fair to say that I will never spend $500/ft sq to retrofit my home as a certified passive house (Passivhaus) nor for that matter a LEEDs certified home. (About 39-percent of the points for LEED certification are energy related.) However, I might incorporate more passive solar heating techniques and additional insulation into my home.

Despite the current fashionable push into renewable energy, the real progress in reduction of energy use will be in insulation, strategies to reduce thermal bridging, and passive house techniques. Modifying our transportation behavior and reducing the energy used in our homes and buildings could change our national energy use significantly and it is within our control. My first energy project was to take care of the attic insulation retrofit, I suspect that thermal bridging on the exterior walls combined with air leakage are the primary locations of heat loss and gain for my home and many others. To maximize the effectiveness of any future planned energy use improvement projects, I plan to investigate and incorporate (if possible) some of the design principals gleaned from the new Passive House retrofit standard and US Department of Energy recommendations in my next energy project.