Thursday, March 29, 2012

Carbon Dioxide Limit for New Power Plants

On Tuesday the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide. Under the new rule, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard effectively changes the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies). All existing plants and currently permitted and built in the next 12 months will be grandfathered and exempt from this new rule. According to the EPA a coal plant currently produces about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity. EPA says the rule that requires new plants to produce no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour as creating “a path forward for new technologies to be deployed at future facilities that will allow companies to burn coal, while emitting less carbon pollution.” Nonsense, there is no proven commercial technology that can meet this carbon standard for coal fired plants. EPA intends that the current crop of coal fired power plants will be the last.

During the past year, EPA finalized two regulations that were specifically targeting coal fired power plants. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) regulates mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. MATS was finalized on December 21. 2011. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, CSAPR, which requires reductions of sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions in coal fired plants, was made final in July but at the end of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit granted a stay to the implementation of the CSAPR pending resolution of the legal challenges. The case is scheduled to be heard in mid-April 2012. CSAPR, if eventually implemented will reduce SO2 emissions by 73% from 2005 levels and NOx emissions by 54% at the approximately 1,000 coal fired electrical generation plants in the eastern half of the country.

Our modern society requires power and the new regulation by grandfathering the existing power plants ensures that we will not be sitting in the dark any time soon. In the U.S. in 2010 over 90% of electrical power was produced by steam turbines powered by coal, oil, gas, and bio fuels. Wind and water may be used to spin the turbines as well. In 2010 Coal produced 45 % of electricity, nuclear power generated 20% of the electricity used, natural gas generated 24% of the electricity used, hydroelectric generated 6%, wind 1% and oil, wood, biomass, geothermal solar and other generated the rest. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will reshape the industry reducing coal fired plants. The new source carbon dioxide rule will ensure that any additional electrical capacity built will not be coal and MATS and CASPR will reduce the existing capacity of coal produced electricity. There will be impacts to the economy and our society to the reduction in demand for coal in the United States, the costs to convert, replace and upgrade power plants, and increasing the demand for natural gas which appears to be at this moment the fuel of choice.

In 2010, U.S. coal production was 1,050 million metric tons with 92.5% of the coal used to generate electricity. Without electrical generation there is little demand for coal and coal miners. The EPA’s MATS and CSPAR regulation and the greenhouse gas regulations will reduce and possibly someday eliminate the economic feasibility of coal fired electrical generation plants. However our nation requires power, and the current coal fired power plants will continue to need coal for the short term. The use of coal to generate electrical power has an interesting history. There was a time when petroleum was widely used for electrical generation. In an attempt to regain energy independence after the gas rationing and oil shortages of the 1973 Oil Embargo, the nation turned to its vast coal reserves. Between 1973 and 1976, coal production increased by 14.4%. In 1978, the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act mandated conversion of most existing oil-burning power plants to coal or natural gas. Thought the act was repealed in 1987, the impact on our nation and its economy extends to today, though the goals and values of our government have changed. Now the EPA is reshaping the future, clearly away from coal though the impacts on our environment and economy intended and any unintended are yet to be seen.

Looking at the economy as a whole and not just the electrical power sector, in 2010 the major energy sources in the United States are petroleum-gas and oil (37%), natural gas (25%), coal (21%), nuclear (9%), and renewable energy primarily biomass and hydro power generation (8%). The United States only produces about 75% of the energy we consume, the shortfall is imported petroleum. The major users of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%).

Natural gas appears to be the current fuel of choice. It is the source of 25% of the energy consumed in the United States and in 2010 was used almost equally for industry, electrical generations and residential and commercial heating. Most, but not yet all, of the natural gas consumed in the United States is produced in the United States. Domestic natural gas production and consumption were nearly in balance through 1986, though U.S. production of natural gas peaked in 1973. From 1986 to 2006 consumption of natural gas outpaced domestic production, and imports rose. Then in 2006 U.S. production of natural gas began to increase as a result of the development of more efficient and cost effective hydraulic fracturing techniques. In 2010 natural gas production in the United States reached the highest recorded annual total since 1973 and continues to climb. Regulation and control of hydraulic fracturing will impact the cost of natural gas production in the United States, the availability of gas and the environmental impact to our natural resources.

The earth’s atmosphere is interconnected. The EPA has estimated that just one-quarter of U.S. mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants are deposited within the contiguous U.S. The remainder enters the global cycle. Conversely, current estimates are that less than half of all mercury deposition within the United States comes from American sources. Worldwide CO2 emissions are up 6%, to over 30 billion tons, in 2010 40% above the 1990 level. As you can see above the increase in CO2 emissions in the United States was far more modest, increasing 8% over 19 years. The worldwide level of CO2 is higher than the worst-case scenario outlined by climate experts just five years ago, but temperatures have not (yet) risen as projected by the climate models. The relationship of climate change to worldwide CO2 levels may not be the one assumed in the climate models. Nonetheless, the EPA continues to work diligently to achieve President Obama’s commitment in Copenhagen to reduce United States emissions of CO2 17% by 2020.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Is Our Drinking Water Safe?

The short answer is it depends on where your water comes from, and how it is treated. The drinking water supply can be broken down into three parts: the source water, the drinking water treatment system, and the distribution system which carries the treated water to homes and other buildings. The first steps towards a clean water supply and public health was to disinfect drinking water in the cities (and develop sewer systems). Treating drinking water with either Chloramine or chlorine lowered microbial densities of coliform bacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, Legionella bacteria preventing disease and death. However, these bacteria and the other substances on the primary drinking water list are not the whole story, nor are they the only substances in our water today. Our modern world is filled with chemicals, they exist in pharmaceuticals, household products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, human and animal waste; they are in short, all around us. According to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory of chemicals there are more than 84,000 chemical substances, as defined in TSCA today (or the last time they updated it). These chemicals include organics, inorganic, polymers, and UVCBs (chemical substances of Unknown or Variable composition, Complex reaction products, and Biological materials).

Public drinking water supplies are still typically treated with either Chloramine or chlorine both are disinfectants. (Disinfection by products are tested for in drinking water supplies.) Chloramine is a combination of chlorine and ammonia that is currently considered best technology for controlling the formation of certain regulated organic disinfection byproducts and has come to replace the use of chlorine in many locations. Since the revisions to the clean water act in the 1990’s chloramine has returned to common use as a distribution system disinfectant after being replaced in 1940’s with chlorine when there were ammonia shortages. Chloramine lowers microbial densities of coliform bacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, Legionella bacteria in the source water and distribution system while minimizing the formation of regulated disinfection by-products.

Under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA sets standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water including bacteria from human waste, industrial discharge streams (of great concern back in 1974 when the SDWA was first created) and water disinfection by-products and distribution system contaminants. For each of these contaminants, EPA sets a legal limit, called a maximum contaminant level. EPA requires that all public water supplies be tested for this list of contaminants on a regular basis (from daily, to quarterly, to every other year or longer depending on the contaminant and water system) and meet these minimum standards on average. In addition, EPA sets secondary standards for less hazardous substances based on aesthetic characteristics of taste, smell and appearance, which public water systems and states can choose to adopt or not. Though 90 contaminants is a lot, it is just a small fraction of the chemicals in large scale commercial production in the United States which EPA estimates to be over 7,000 chemicals.

Several of the substance controlled under the SDWA are natural occurring contaminants, 6 are bacteria and 8 are by-products or additives of water treatment; however, the greatest problem is pollution caused by mankind. Anthropogenic pollutants contaminate surface and groundwater as a result of manufacturing, combustion and incinerations air emissions, landfills and spills, stormwater runoff carrying agricultural and surface pollutants and waste water treatment water carrying a wide range of chemical containing substances into surface water and groundwater. The SDWA is a product of its time, in 1974 industrial waste discharge and release was far more common, and the last significant review of the SDWA was 1991. Six of the chemicals regulated under the SDWA have been banned for more than 20 years, but the US Geological Survey (USGS) found traces of at least one banned pesticide in groundwater during the recent study of the quality of the nation’s ground water supply.

The USGS ground water testing found that 10 contaminants were detected at concentrations greater than human-health recommended levels in 1% of the groundwater. Of the ten contaminants, seven were from natural sources and three were man-made. The seven contaminants from natural sources included four geological trace elements (arsenic, manganese, strontium, and boron) and three radionuclides (radon, radium, and gross alpha-particle radioactivity). The three contaminants that exceeded MCLs that were from man-made sources were nitrate (a nutrient), dieldrin (an insecticide that has been banned by the US EPA), and perchloroethene (PCE). Naturally occurring elements, radionuclides and pesticide compounds were extensively found at extremely low concentrations (about 10% of any existing health standard). Trace levels of an herbicide (atrazine or simazine) or an herbicide degradate (deethylatrazine), and the solvents perchlorethene or trichloroethene were widely found in samples from shallow unconfined aquifers without a confining geological layer, though the deeper confined groundwater aquifers remained mostly free of man-made contamination.

In their study of surface water used for drinking water supplies the USGS found a diverse group of contaminants in the source water. The concentrations were low, but the contaminants were ubiquitous. This would indicate a variety of different sources and pathways for these contaminants to reach our drinking water supplies. The concentrations were low, (about 95% of the concentrations were less than one-part per billion); nonetheless, the most commonly detected contaminants in source water were generally detected in finished water at about the same frequency and concentration. Our drinking water treatment systems do not remove these contaminants. The USGS found that as the amount of urban and agri-lands increased within the water shed, the numbers of contaminants in the rivers also increased. Rivers receiving municipal and industrial discharge, as well as discharges from other point and non-point sources from stormwater runoff are impacted by man-made organic contaminants, most of which are unregulated. Only about 40 of the 260 substances the USGS tested for are regulated the rest are unregulated.

The safety of our drinking water system is predicated on the basic assumption of toxicology that “dose makes the poison.” This relationship between exposure and risk has been challenged in the study of endocrine disruptors. Now, there is growing concern for potential endocrine disruptors at extremely low levels. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can mimic, block, or otherwise alter animal hormone responses, sometimes affecting their reproduction, development, and behavior, this is actually, how some pest control treatments are designed to work on bugs. A diverse group of chemicals called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) come from a variety of sources. These chemical have vastly different molecular structures, and become of great concern when they are discovered to be human endocrine disruptors.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) and US Geological Survey (USGS) studied the relationship between waste water treatment plants, agricultural chemicals, and the immune-suppressed and inter-sexed fish in the Potomac River (and other locations). Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals throughout the sections of the rivers tested, yet their specific source has not yet been identified. The extremely low concentrations of chemicals that was almost undetectable caused significant biological and health impacts among the fish and amphibian populations. Though they cannot identify a single chemical or group of chemicals responsible, the USFW and USGS have embarked on further study to gain greater understanding of the implications of their findings to the earth’s ecosystem.

The structural diversity of potential endocrine disruptors is enormous and it is not known which of these substances might adversely affect living things in subtle ways. Testing for new chemicals is for gross and acute impact, subtle impact is very difficult to identify. The growing class of known endocrine disrupting chemicals can disturb a staggering range of hormonal processes. Like natural hormones, some EDCs bind directly with hormone receptors. The impostors can mimic or block hormone messages with the same, weaker, or stronger responses. Others are more subtle, they interfere with hormone maintenance to prevent or enhance hormones from being made, broken apart, or carried in the bloodstream.

Recycled or reclaimed water is former wastewater (sewage) that has been treated to remove solids, bacteria and certain impurities, and then is used in irrigation, discharged to surface water that is a source of drinking water or injected into the ground to recharge groundwater aquifers. In order to make our river, lake, stream and ocean water safe for fishing and recreation, the Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated elimination of the discharge of untreated waste from municipal and industrial sources. This was the first great success of environmental regulations. Modern waste water treatment plants, usually using sand filtration and chlorination in addition to primary and secondary treatment, were required to meet certain standards. These standards were never designed to render the waste water potable nor to remove the vast number of chemicals and drugs that find their way down our drains today. The design of the combined sewer systems in the largest cities results in regular discharge of raw sewage during storm events. In the United States the cryptosporidium parasite has caused outbreaks of diarrheal disease in the 1990’s and boil water alerts are frequent occurrences in the in the 21st century. We are having difficulties maintaining our most basic water quality let alone protect the population from emerging contaminants. The Environmental Working Group has called for the EPA to do a national assessment of drinking water quality and establish new safety standards, set priorities for pollution prevention projects, and inform the public of the full range of pollutants in their water. In the meantime, while the EPA spends it time addressing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere you need to carefully consider source water quality, and treatment when selecting where to live.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Supreme Court, the EPA and Wetlands

In 2005 Mike and Chantell Sackett purchased less than an acre of land to build a home near to but not adjoining a lake. The lake front homes had already been built. After obtaining building permits from the county, they began the building process by spreading fill material over the lot. Two people from the U.S. EPA and one person from the Army Corps of Engineers appeared and issued the Sacketts an “Administrative Compliance Order” (ACO), alleging the land was a wetland subject to the Clean Water Act jurisdiction and ordered the Sacketts to restore the land to its original condition or face $37,500 in fines per day for violation of the Clean Water Act and undisclosed to the Sacketts, an additional $37,500 per day for violating the compliance order. The Sackett family appealed for a hearing believing that their land was not a wetland, but was denied by EPA and the federal court.
In addition under an agreement between the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers the Sacketts could not obtain a permit (even if they wanted to) until the open enforcement action was concluded. The Army Corp of Engineers insisted the site must be restored to its previous condition to apply for a permit to place fill material on a wetland. However, under the new guidance the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers can determine a site is a wetland subject to the Clean Water Act based on “general scientific literature,” in lieu of actual case-specific analysis of the water itself, and so the Sacketts found themselves in a Catch 22.

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Sacketts may seek pre-enforcement judicial review of ACOs and that their inability to seek pre-enforcement judicial review of the ACO violated their rights under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The EPA had maintained that the ability to issue compliance orders with huge financial penalties without the ability to seek recourse was an effective means to obtain compliance. However, the Supreme Court disagreed. The effective scope of the federal regulations and power were expanded by the 2011 Guidance to include any conceivable naturally occurring water.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 makes it a crime to discharge pollutants into the "navigable waters of the United States." However, what constitutes a "pollutant" or "navigable water" has been open to interpretation and a series of guidance documents over the years have continually expanded the definition of “navigable waters of the United States” until it is now defined by the US EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers as:
Traditional navigable waters
Interstate waters
Tributaries to navigable waters and interstate waters
Seasonal tributaries, steams or creeks
Wetlands adjacent to any of the above
And last year the agency added the “other” category that seems to include everything but swimming pools, fountains, irrigation ditches and stock watering systems. This Supreme Court ruling did not in any way narrow this interpretation of the reach of the Clean Water Act.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the American Petroleum Institute and the Public Lands Council (PLC) filed amicus (friend of the court) briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Sackett case because according to NCBA Deputy Environmental Counsel Ashley Lyon, this case could have far-reaching impacts on farmers and ranchers and all private landowners. Few of us can afford the legal resources to address an EPA enforcement action, or afford to restore properties to apply for a Clean Water Act permit if our property is deemed to be subject to the Clean Water Act under the guidance. The guidance is open to inconsistent interpretation and could be used unfairly as it was in this case. Now it is possible to obtain a decision that land is not subject to Clean Water Act before an ACO or enforcement action by the EPA. Though there are still no objective standards to determine which waters fall under the act.
There needs to be a consistency of standards in making a wetland determination. The degree of latitude that exits is unacceptable and results in inconsistent determinations and a Kafkaesque regulatory process. That is unacceptable in America. There should be standards like distance, hydrologic connection, and flow connection, size of watershed and storm impact that can be measured and considered in a consistent and quantified way so that a determination could be easily made and reviewed. The EPA Guidance has divorced the law from fact and abused their power potentially putting ordinary home owners at the mercy of EPA employees. It is time for congress to clarify the scope and jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

Board Vote Stops Mid-County Project in the Prince William Rural Crescent

On Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 at their regular meeting the Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted on the 2012 Annual Comprehensive Plan Amendments that were submitted to the planning office this past January. There were six changes in zoning requested, only two of the requests that appeared to fit within the long term goals of the comprehensive plan had the staff recommendation for approval: the New Dominion Square and Bradley Square both in the Coles District. These were requests to change from community employment center to building townhouses and included the redevelopment of the speedway property. However, the Mid-County Park and Estate Homes request for a rezoning in the Rural Crescent (also in the Coles District) was stopped by the motion and presentation of Supervisor Nohe and the support of the majority of the BOCS. This project would have effectively removed this property from the Rural Crescent to increase density from 33 homes to 104 single-family homes connected to the public sewer system, but would have also created 195 acres of public open space. The project had received considerable publicity and raised passions on both sides as evidenced by the citizens comments earlier in the meeting.

The plan for long range land use in Prince William County is designed to develop employment centers in the community, revitalize the Route 1 corridor, preserve the rural areas and areas of environmental sensitivity including lands regulated under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act and preserve our existing neighborhoods. In short the comprehensive plan is really a forward looking document for sustainable development that needs to continue to evolve over time. Prince William has learned from Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington to carefully plan the growth of our community. The Supervisors seemed to feel that it was time to reconsider some of the planning and development decisions that had been made in the past and asked for additional study as the best way to achieve employment, transportation and open space goals of the county, asking for analysis of the usefulness of the Rural Crescent in achieving those goals and the future of the last contiguous large (864 acre) parcel in the development area of the western half of the county.

In the next several years the county will have to find ways to meet the ever tightening requirements under the Virginia Watershed Implementation Plan for the mandated Chesapeake Bay TMDL and we need to make sure that there will be adequate drinking water for the county. The first half of sustainable development is the redevelopment of the Brownfields along the Route 1 corridor rather than Greenfield development in rural areas where there is no existing infrastructure as highlighted by Supervisor Nohe’s presentations. Redevelopment along Route 1 would help Prince William County to reduce storm water damage by instituting storm water management in locations where storm water management is inadequate (and score nutrient reduction points under the Watershed Implementation Plan) as well as revitalize these older areas of the county. This redevelopment would take place without significantly increasing pavement and impervious surfaces. The second portion of sustainable development is to ensure adequate water for our county now and in the future. Preserving the open land in the Rural Crescent is essential to sustainable development of Prince William County. According to the EPA, in order to maintain the natural hydrology the impervious cover of a region must remain below 10%.

The Rural Crescent in Prince William County aligns roughly with the Mesozoic basin aquifer of the Culpeper groundwater basin, one of the more important watersheds in Virginia. The rocks of the Culpeper basin are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. These sedimentary rocks are productive aquifers and feed not only the groundwater wells that provide drinking water to Manassas and other communities, but also feeds the tributaries to Bull Run and the Potomac. The fractured rock system that is so rich in water is also our weakness; there is no natural attenuation in a fractured system so that the groundwater as a drinking water resource can be easily contaminated without any real ability to recover. Any malfunctioning septic system, underground fuel storage tank, improper disposal, improperly managed horse property or hobby farm or hazardous spill on any property within this area has the potential to impact the drinking water wells to the south, southeast or east. Development and improper use in this area introduces potential sources of contamination that could never (in our lifetimes) be remediated. In addition, ground cover, roads and pavement will impact recharge of the groundwater reducing the total amount of water available.

A small portion of Prince William County is located within the Coastal Plain and should serve as a warning to us of what happens if you do not protect your watershed and its recharge zone. The Coastal Plain of Virginia is composed mostly of unconsolidated geologic deposits and extends from the Atlantic coast to the “fall zone” a geological line that runs north-south through Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg along Route 95. There are two groundwater systems, an unconfined aquifer and a lower artesian aquifer both flow in the general direction of the topography slope towards the ocean. The fall zone was the area of recharge for the artesian aquifer, it was the geologic area where the earth folded and the lower mostly isolated artesian aquifer reached the surface and could be recharged with rainfall. By building Route 95 along the fall zone and developing the adjacent areas Virginia essentially paved over a significant portion of the recharge zone for the artesian groundwater aquifer-permanently reducing water supply while increasing water demand. In addition, poor storm water management in older developed areas has created a significant erosion and sediment problem in the Quantico Watershed, for example, where on-site stormwater capture and retention needs to be beefed up and repaired, and the streams need debris removal, channel restoration or enhancements, and riparian buffer restoration to stabilize the watershed.

The county may be moving towards reevaluating the zoning and land use decisions made at the end of the 20th century when the Rural Crescent was created. Owners of large tracks of land within the Rural Crescent feel (and rightly so) that limitations on development reduce land values. Many residents of the area spoke of the quality of life. The groundwater and watershed must always be considered because without water there is no property value. On any request to amend the Comprehensive Plan the Board of County Supervisors, BOCS, has the discretion to vote to initiate, initiate with a different study area, do not initiate or take no action. After citizen comments, staff presentations the BOCS discussed the proposals within the entire the land use plan and the county goals then voted to:

A. Do Not Initiate, the change of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00224 Stone Haven, but to initiate another Planning Study of the Stone Haven Project Area within the Brentsville Magisterial District with community outreach and input to determine the best use of this land and additional acreage owned by the same entity that could be the site of the needed new high school in the western end of the county. These 337 acres were proposed to convert from industrial to residential and the BOCS recalling community reaction to an industrial project that had been considered years ago felt that compatible use and community needs should be carefully considered before any decision is made for this property.
B. Do Not Initiate – Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00225, that would have allowed the building of 104 clustered homes within the Rural Crescent and have those homes hooked up to the sanitary sewer system for a development called Mid-County Park and Estate Homes and place the 77 acres that are resource protect area, RPA, under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act) and an additional 62 acres and place them as permanent open space. Supervisor Martin Nohe argued to keep the boundaries of the Rural Crescent and the BOCS voted to support him. However, Supervisor Nohe further suggested that the BOCS examine the Rural Crescent policy the tools available to achieve the county environmental goals and maintain open space. The staff was charged with examining whether maintaining the Rural Crescent as is was in conformance with the open space goals of the county and what were the results of the policy after 14 years.
C. & D. Initiate. Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00226, New Dominion Square and Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00228, Bradley Square were voted to be combined and Initiated with an expanded study area both projects are located in the Coles Magisterial District. They were appropriately viewed as combined and related. The Dominion Square is a Brownfield redevelopment of the speedway and use of the Bradley Square is impacted by the use and redevelopment of the speedway property.
E. Withdrawn. Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00227, Wheeler Estate Property was withdrawn. This property is located within the Gainesville Magisterial District and had been recommended by staff to not be initiated. It would have represented a change from flexible employment to residential eliminating a significant number of jobs and adding commuter traffic on Route 66.
F. Initiate. Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00229, Bell Property which is adjacent to the Rural Crescent leaving the RPA area undeveloped and developing the SRR planned area for 55+ housing. The staff had recommended “Do Not Initiate,” but Supervisor Candland of the Gainesville Magisterial District where the property is located supported the development and argued persuasively to move forward and the majority of the BOCS voted with him.
G. Initiate. Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2012-00301 the addition of Five Properties as County-Registered Historic Sites in the Cultural Resource Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan was voted to initiate without much discussion. The properties are located within the Gainesville and Brentsville Magisterial Districts.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bottled Water is Not the Answer

The purity of bottled water cannot be trusted. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water as a packaged food under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and has established standards for testing bottled water that are not as stringent as the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards. While the FDA has established requirements for processing and bottling water to be sold for drinking, the FDA rules do not require disinfection and require only once a year testing for bacteria and other substances. The FDA requires using an approved source of water, but without a definition or control of what an approved source of water that requirement is practically meaningless.

The safest source water is a protected groundwater aquifer with a confining geological layer. When used as the source of the bottled water a protected groundwater aquifer could go a long way to ensuring the water quality, consistency of taste and the absence of cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that lives in the intestine of infected animals and humans and occurs mainly in surface water sources, such as lakes, streams and rivers. The safest bottled water like the safest source of any drinking water is from a protected groundwater aquifer or spring, though groundwater aquifers are potentially vulnerable to a wide range of man-made and naturally occurring contaminants, including many that are not regulated in drinking water under the SDWA, or by the FDA for bottled water.

Research performed by the US Geological Survey (USGS) on the quality of the nation’s groundwater found low levels of several chemicals and compounds (at least 10% of the MCL or other human health screening levels). Naturally occurring elements, radionuclides and pesticide compounds were extensively found at these low concentrations. Trace levels of pesticide compounds or VOCs were detected in a slight majority of the groundwater samples from public wells. Pesticides and VOCs were detected in a significantly greater proportion of samples from unconfined aquifers than in samples from confined aquifers. The groundwater with the greatest number of contaminants were consistently from shallower unconfined aquifers demonstrating the natural protection provided by a confining geological layer. Knowing the source of bottled water could provide insight into the quality and safety of the water.

Back in 2007 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) had laboratory analysis performed on bottled water and found that 10 popular brands purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in 9 states and the District of Columbia, contained in total 38 chemical pollutants, with an average of 8 contaminants in each brand. The analyses was conducted by the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory and found a wide range of pollutants, including not only disinfection byproducts, but also common urban wastewater pollutants like caffeine and pharmaceuticals (Tylenol); heavy metals and minerals including arsenic and radioactive isotopes; fertilizer residue (nitrate and ammonia); and a broad range of other, tentatively identified industrial chemicals used as solvents, plasticizers, viscosity decreasing agents, and propellants. These are all contaminants that are more characteristic of large system tap water that includes surface water in their water mix rather than a protected groundwater source. In fact, it appeared likely in at least two instances that the water was tap water.

More than one-third of the chemicals identified by the EWG were substances that are not regulated in bottled water by the FDA. Whether a particular contaminant in water is potentially harmful to human health depends on the contaminant’s toxicity and concentration in drinking water. Other factors include the susceptibility of individuals, amount of water consumed, and duration of exposure. Some of the chemicals found are regulated in California in drinking water and exceeded the maximum contaminant level (MCL) under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65). California has one of the most extensive and stringent lists of chemicals with MCLs for drinking water and their list is used as a standard for human exposure of substances not regulated under the FDA or SDWA, but many substance found in the bottled water samples are not regulated in water at all. Some of the bottled water tested by the EWG was found to be contaminated with bacteria. EWG’s report did change the regulatory awareness of the problem, increase public awareness of the problem and ultimately nudged some in the bottled water industry to disclose the source of their water or some indication of the source of the water.

The EWG report was followed by a Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report criticizing the FDA and by Congressional Hearings. There seems to have been little progress the 2009-2010 EWG survey of 173 unique bottled water products found some improvements in product identification and labeling. Despite California’s bottled water law, SB 220, intended to provide transparency as to source and treatment for bottled water there seemed to be little improvement. The EWG found many popular brands of bottle water stated on their labels that water testing results were available from web sites or customer service numbers only to find that the results were, in fact, not available. The purity of bottled water remains in question yet many continue to buy bottled water. There are two independent certifications that often appear on bottled water. The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is a trade organization for water bottlers. IBWA members must meet the organization’s “model code” and are subject to annual inspections by an independent third party. Bottlers belonging to IBWA frequently indicate membership on their labels. NSF International - Bottled water certified by NSF undergoes additional testing by unannounced annual plant inspections. NSF certifications mean that the bottler complies with all applicable FDA requirements, including good manufacturing practices.

People may prefer bottled water because of its taste or simply as a healthier drink choice. The taste of all water has to do with the way it is treated and the quality of its source water, including its natural mineral content. According to the EPA, most bottled water comes from groundwater, where water quality varies less from day to day. The water is treated and immediately bottled. Bottled water from a dedicated source may have a more consistent taste than tap water, which in the large population centers is mixed and predominately comes from surface sources and must travel through pipes to reach homes. One of the key taste differences between tap water and bottled water is due to how the water is disinfected. Tap water may be disinfected with chlorine, chloramine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to kill disease-causing germs. Water systems use these disinfectants chlorine and chloramine because they are effective and inexpensive, and they continue to disinfect as water travels through the system pipes and pumps. There is often a residual taste. There are many groundwater sources that do not need to be disinfected and when necessary or desirable the bottled water industry typically uses ozone or ultraviolet light to disinfect the water. These methods leave no residual taste.

EWG and Good Housekeeping recommend that consumers drink filtered tap water or well water that has also been tested and filtered. Though there are no home filters that are certified to remove pharmaceuticals and certain other (emerging) contaminants, Good Housekeeping found some home filters do a great job of removing contaminants. The GH Research Institute, working with the Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants at the University of Arizona, tested the effectiveness of a group of filters at removing a group of these emerging contaminants. The water was spiked with low levels of Atrazine (herbicide), BPA (bisphenol A, used in production of plastics and in resins in many metal can liners), Carbamazepine (anticonvulsant), DEET (insect repellent), Estrone (hormone), Fluoxetine (Prozac, an antidepressant), Ibuprofen (pain reliever), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, used to make nonstick-cookware coatings and other products), PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a key ingredient in stain repellents), Primidone (anticonvulsant), Sucralose (artificial sweetener), Sulfamethoxazole (antibiotic), TCEP (flame retardant), Tonalide (fragrance), and Trimethoprim (antibiotic) and the effective removal of contaminants by various commercially available home filters was measured. They found that many were very effective, but the best was the Whirlpool Filter 1 Refrigerator Filter which removed more than 92% for all contaminants over the life of the filter. ZeroWater 8-Cup Pitcher, $35 was found to be the best pitcher type filter. See for the full report.

Filtering your tap water and using your own stainless steel bottle saves money, it’s purer than tap water and it helps shrink the global glut of discarded plastic bottles. If your home’s water comes from a public water system, the best way to learn more about your water quality is to read your water supplier’s annual water quality report which should be sent to you annually. If your water comes from a private drinking water well, EPA recommends testing the water regularly for bacteria, nitrates, and other contaminants. At a minimum you should test your drinking water for the 90 SDWA primary contaminants at least every few years and for a shorter list of contaminants including bacteria and nitrates annually.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Raspberry Falls Bearing the Cost of Water Problems in Karst Terrain

The karst area of Loudoun County is contained within the limestone overlay district that was created in 2010 when Loudoun County Board of Supervisors approved the re-adoption and re-enactment of the Limestone Overlay District (LOD). This district is the area of the county generally north of Leesburg and east of the Catoctin Mountains which is underlain by limestone conglomerate bedrock and runs north along Route 15. The LOD is really an amendment to the zoning to try and address the ecological and environmental challenges associated with karst terrain. The LOD attempts to ensure that the groundwater supply is capable of supporting needs of the eventual inhabitants of new subdivisions and the land can support the septic needs of current and future residents without impacting the water supplies of existing residents and creating sinkholes that could endanger their properties. Karst terrain is fragile and ignoring the limits of natural systems can have serious consequences.

Raspberry Falls is a clustered development around a golf course in the LOD of Loudoun County. While clustered development usually involves fewer disturbances to natural landscape, and is encouraged in low impact development designs, golf courses are not a low impact design feature. The groundwater pumping to feed the homes and water the golf course may create or exacerbate problems in karst terrain, especially during droughts. The turf management herbicides can also be a problem. The Raspberry Falls development was originally approved for 206 homes and currently has, I believe, 134 homes that are served by a community water system consisting of two wells built out by the developer and operated by Loudoun Water. The system has been plagued by the bacterial problems that are a common problem with karst terrain. Fractures in the overlying limestone become enlarged over time and provide a direct route of surface water to groundwater. Sinkholes proved another direct path for surface contaminants to enter the groundwater as do sinking streams and rivers. The faster water moves into the ground the higher the likelihood that bacteria will remain alive and nitrate is not going to denitrify. When that happens the groundwater is deemed to be, Groundwater Under is the Direct Influence of Surface Water or GUDI. A water source is determined to be GUDI if more than 10% of total coliform numbers exceed 100 cfu/100 mL.

One of the water supply wells for Raspberry Falls was determined to be GUDI by the Department of Health and taken out of service and replaced this past year by a new well at a cost of almost a million dollars. Replacing the well solved the problem for the short term, but experience in the western third of Virginia has demonstrated that the GUDI condition could impact the other wells. Local septic systems did not appear to be the source of bacterial contamination, but E coli numbers were not broken out in the raw water data by Loudoun Water, only total coliform. However, wastewater in Raspberry Falls is collected and treated to a at the community wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Most organic material and nutrients are removed through biological treatment before being disinfected and discharged to an unnamed tributary of Limestone Branch.

Though the GUDI well was replaced with a new well (and right now the water meets all the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act), additional treatment beyond the current chlorine disinfection of the drinking water is being considered because of the relatively easy connection of surface water to groundwater, the unconfined nature of the groundwater aquifer and probably the immediate problems with turbidity that the new well experienced. Two options were considered and studied by Hazen and Sawyer (Loudoun Water’s consultant): the extension of municipal water from Leesburg into the Rural Policy Area that encompasses Raspberry Falls or the installation of membrane filtration for all Raspberry Falls water supply wells as an additional water treatment step. The extension of the municipal water pipeline would involve an amendment to the Loudoun County Revised General Plan to authorize extending the pipeline and the Town of Leesburg would need to accept ownership and operation of the Raspberry Falls Community Water System.

The costs associated with the installation of membrane filtration and operation were $4 million for purchase and installation and $67,000 additional in annual operation costs for Raspberry Falls only. Loudoun Water estimates that the cost per lot would be an additional $1,830/year for membrane filtration. The Town of Leesburg estimated the construction cost of the pipeline at $7.5-$8 million, with annual operating costs of $418,000 and an annual cost per lot of $4,260/year. The recent water rate increase does not take into consideration either of the options under consideration. The membrane filtration was the cheaper option, and would still carry significant costs that would ultimately be paid for by the water system customers. Loudoun Water appears to prefer the cheaper membrane filtration system, and though residents might suspect business concerns took precedence over water quality issues, it may be an excellent solution given what is known about the source water quality. Loudoun Water has requested that Loudoun County and the Town of Leesburg decide whether to pursue the pipeline extension no later than May 2012 otherwise they will proceed with installation of membrane filtration at Raspberry Falls.

There appears to be many residents who strongly support the pipeline/ Leesburg water solution despite the higher cost. Appropriately, many residents are only concerned about obtaining the best water supply possible, but the pipeline may not be that answer. Personally, after reviewing the US Geological Service (USGS) raw water studies and the USGS and US Fish and Wildlife (USFW) studies into skin lesion on bass in the southern branch of the Potomac River, I would hesitate to pay extra to drink water sourced from the Potomac River without advanced nanomembrane filtration. The USGS found fish suffering from a variety of lesions. 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 immunosuppressed so that any pathogen in the water could attack the fish. A series of studies were performed over a period of years. During the investigation it was discovered that male fish had immature female egg cells in their testes and the females had lowered levels of an essential protein in the formation of eggs. The bass suffering from lesions were intersexed.

It had previously been demonstrated that estrogen and estrogen mimicking compounds can cause intersex. The occurrence of intersex among the lesioned fish prompted further studies. The study found the problem of endocrine disruption in fish to be widespread in the limited study area of a portion of the Chesapeake Water Shed and Potomac River, but increased in proximity to and downstream of the waste water treatment plants. Chemical sampling that took place along with the fish sampling found higher concentrations of waste water chemicals near the waste water plants. Pesticides, herbicides and their breakdown products currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the samples, but analysis using yeast screening assays found estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals at all locations their specific source is not yet known. None of these chemicals are currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, SDWA, and so would not be tested for or treated by the Leesburg town water treatment system except by happy coincidence.

Before the residents of Raspberry Falls choose a solution to their water problems they should consider carefully the quality of the source water and finished water. USGS groundwater source studies have also found the presence of the gasoline additive MTBE, the solvent 1,1-dichloroethane, and the herbicide breakdown products from alachlor and atrazine in a significant percentage of groundwater supply wells in unconfined aquifers. The herbicide degradates are not regulated by the USEPA in drinking water under the SDWA, so these contaminants are not tested for in drinking water and there are no known health screening levels. Though these herbicides are widely used in agriculture and turf management for golf courses and the herbicide degradates may be regulated by USEPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Though whatever solution Loudoun County Supervisors and the residents of Raspberry Falls choose will have additional costs associated with it, this is a rare opportunity to select your source water and potentially your treatment method after purchasing your home. Performing extensive source and finished water analysis before making a final decision might be very worthwhile in this instance.

Monday, March 12, 2012

National Groundwater Week

It is National Groundwater Awareness Week March 11-17, 2012, and apparently Awareness Week is in its second decade of existence. Who knew, and that’s the problem, most people are unaware of groundwater despite its importance and impact on our lives. Recently, the US Geological Survey, USGS, reported that in 2007 105 million people, about a third of the population receive their drinking water from one of the 140,000 public water systems across the United States that use groundwater as their source. In addition, 15% of the population obtains their water directly from groundwater using private drinking water wells. Groundwater is also used for irrigation. Groundwater is an important natural resource, especially in those parts of the country that don't have ample surface-water sources, such as the arid West. Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not unlimited. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and other sources of infiltration.

Unlike other natural resources or raw materials, groundwater is present throughout the world varying from place to place, depending on rainfall conditions and the distribution of aquifers (rock and sand layers in whose pore spaces the groundwater sits). Precipitation and soil type determines how much the shallower groundwater is recharged annually. However the volume of water that can be stored is controlled by the reservoir characteristics of the subsurface rocks. Generally, groundwater is renewed only during a part of each year through precipitation, but can be abstracted year-round providing a reliable and clean source of drinking water to much of the population provided there is adequate replenishment, and it is protected from pollution. We need to be aware of the source of our groundwater it’s natural recharge rate and protect our aquifers from over use and contamination.

Groundwater is usually cleaner than surface water and as source water for drinking water supplies it is often superior to surface water. Groundwater is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer. This water is the only available clean drinking water in many areas. However, rising population, changes in land use, agriculture and industrialization increasingly place groundwater in jeopardy of contamination. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and often after removal of contaminated plumes only long term abandonment of use to allow for natural attenuation is the only possible course of action. Precious groundwater resources increasingly need to be protected from contamination and well managed to allow for sustainable long-term use.

Though the water quality of the public water supply systems is regulated by the US EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), drinking water supplies are only tested for slightly over 90 contaminants (many of them natural impurities) when there are over 80,000 chemicals known in the United States. In addition, the US EPA only regulates the finished water delivered to consumer through public water supply systems. The underlying groundwater quality often has not been tracked by the US EPA. In their study of the quality of groundwater sources in the United States, the USGS found trace levels of pesticide compounds (not regulated under the SCWA) or VOCs in 64% of the groundwater samples taken from public water supply wells. Three-quarters of the organic-contaminants contained an herbicide (atrazine or simazine) or an herbicide degradate (deethylatrazine), and about 40% contained the solvents perchlorethene or trichloroethene. Pesticides and VOCs were detected in a significantly greater proportion of samples from unconfined aquifers than in samples from confined aquifers. The groundwater with the greatest number of contaminants was consistently from shallower unconfined aquifers demonstrating the natural protection provided by a confining geological layer.

Groundwater typically contains geological trace elements such as arsenic, manganese, strontium, iron, and boron and radionuclides (radon, radium, and gross alpha-particle radioactivity). These contaminants originate from the rocks and sediments that contain the aquifers and are entirely natural, but there are health related maximum contaminant level standards for these elements within the SDWA. For groundwater supplies, the concentration of these geological contaminants does not change quickly over time and remains rather constant in any given region. What is changing is the appearance of modern pesticides and herbicides, substances atrazine or simazine and their breakdown products in groundwater. These chemicals slowly percolate into groundwater from land application of pesticides and herbicides used for greener lawns and gardens or for agriculture. They appear in shallower groundwater supplies. Another source of contamination of groundwater is our septic systems. It is estimated by various sources that 25-35% of all US homes use septic systems.

There are many different types of septic system designs. The most common type used for single family homes consists of a septic tank and leach field. A septic tank can be an anaerobic (without air) tank or an aerobic tank (with air). The anaerobic system is a single chamber tank that receives the toilet and drain waste from the house and allows the solids to settle down to the bottom of the tank where the anaerobic bacteria that live in the tank digest the organic materials while the effluent (water around all that stuff) flows out to the leach field to be purified by passing through soil until it reaches the groundwater. The final finishing for septic waste is the leach field or other soil absorption system, where it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. This is a natural process requiring suitable soil for successful waste water treatment, but even with the most suitable soil septic systems cannot remove chemicals from the water. Household cleaners, fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products will just pass through the system and begin to appear in the recharge to the groundwater.

As our homes are filled with ever more powerful and chemical laden cleaners, antibacterial soaps, pesticides, herbicides, paints, petroleum products, insecticides and drugs-all the wonders of modern life, these things find their way into our waters. Through stormwater runoff and waste water treatment plants these things easily find their way to our surface waters. Waste water treatment plants are no more equipped to treat waste water for these chemicals than a septic system is and quite frankly none of these public supplies of water are routinely tested for these substances. Waste water treatment plants do not have chemical removal processes. Through our septic systems, and gardens and yards these contaminants are appearing in our groundwater. Although each septic system and yard can make an insignificant contribution to ground water contamination, the sheer number of such systems and their wide spread use of pesticides and herbicides in every area make them serious contamination sources. What goes down the drain or is sprayed and spread in the garden goes into the groundwater. To make a difference we all need to protect our groundwater.

The following actions to protect groundwater from contamination and are based on recommendations from the National Groundwater Association:
1. Properly store hazardous household substances like paints, paint thinners, petroleum products, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and cleaning products in secure containers
2. Mix hazardous household substances over concrete or asphalt where they can be cleaned up or absorbed onto disposable media like paper towels and then properly disposed of with hazardous material waste.
3. Dispose of hazardous household wastes at an appropriate waste disposal facility or drop-off. Most landfills and city trash programs have these drop-offs.
4. Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet ever,
5. Do not put any wastes down a dry or abandoned well or use sinkholes as waste disposal holes.
6. Service your septic system regularly at a minimum service it according to local health department recommendations
7. Check your private drinking water well annually to make sure the sanitary seals are intact.
8. Decommission abandoned wells on your property using a qualified water well contractor
9. Fix or replace any leaking aboveground or underground tanks storing hazardous substances. All underground storage tanks should have secondary containment to prevent contamination of the subsurface. All tanks will eventually fail.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Promising a Wind Turbine to Get their Building Approved in Fairfax

Pohanka Stonecroft, LLC, wants to build a new car dealership and repair shop in Fairfax which requires rezoning an industrial property to commercial. The Fairfax county staff reviewed the original request and recommended denial. If you want to look it up the case is RZ 2011-SU-024 / SE 2011-SU-009. The request was initially denied because the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan's recommendations for green building practices for new uses were interpreted to require USGBC LEED certification and did not lend itself to car dealerships which due to the heating and cooling requirements per person of a car showroom do not fit easily into the LEED guidelines. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) currently offers a set of voluntary green building standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by far the most popular and well-known green building certification program in the nation. LEED operates as a point-based certification system, where building developers can reach the Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum levels of ‘greenness’ in different ways hopefully appropriate to the local conditions. While the LEEDS point-based system allows flexibility for building developers, it has limitations for unusual uses. Also, LEED certification requires an investment of money to pay for third party verification and periodic verifications.

Ultimately, Fairfax County decided that actual certification through the USGBC LEED program was not a requirement for County staff approval. Instead, the county staff agreed on what they term a “realistic and equitable commitment to green building practices from the applicant and ensuring that the resulting development contained substantial energy saving technologies.” The revised plan that was approved contained guarantees for specific energy-efficient technologies, materials, and construction practices that the applicant intends to use in building a car dealership that will hopefully be the most energy efficient care dealership in Fairfax. Most notable among these was the commitment by Pohanka to install an electricity-generating wind turbine on site to meet the energy savings requirements of Fairfax County by generating renewable energy. The news of a wind turbine in Fairfax made the Washington Post and peaked my interst.

Wind energy accounted for 2.3% of energy produced in the United States in 2010 more than doubling in capacity since 2008. New technologies have decreased the cost of producing electricity from wind, and growth in wind power has been encouraged by tax breaks for renewable energy and payments in some states for renewable energy credits, the size of a wind turbine will determine the amount of power generated and the amount of wind necessary to turn the turbine. Large industrial turbines require huge prevailing winds to spin the blades. The higher the wind speed the greater amount of power that can be generated. However there is also a growing market for small wind turbines for residential and small commercial use. These units generate between 38 kWh/month at 12 mph to over 500 kWh/month at 12 mph. My research found that for these turbines to generate power the wind speed should be at least 7mph for them to generate their minimum amount of power.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Program and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published a wind resource map for the state of Virginia. According to data collected for the Department of Energy by Pacific Northwest Laboratory, there are areas in Virginia that have prevailing wind speeds consistent with community-scale production, the Sully district of Fairfax is not one of these windy locations. Several areas of the state are estimated to have good-to-excellent wind resource. These include the Atlantic coast along the Delmarva Peninsula and the Virginia Beach area, the ridge crests in the north-central part of the state, and ridge crests near the borders of West Virginia and North Carolina. For forty years the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has monitored the monthly and average annual prevailing wind speed at Dulles Airport. The average annual wind speed at Dulles has been 7.4 miles per hour which is equal to 3.3 meters/second in wind speed.

According to the submissions made to Fairfax County, the Pohanka proposal included installation of a Renewegy, LLC VP-20 turbine to generate 1% of the site’s electricity. According to the Renewegy product literature, these products can be very effective at 6.0 meter per second and with state incentives at 20% and federal savings at 30%, depreciation, renewable energy sales at $20/REC, and electricity savings the payback would be in under 8 years. However, with average annual wind speed at 3.3 meters per second the Renewegy VP-20 will generate less than 5,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The annual energy savings for the unit would be only $500-$600 per year. In Virginia there is no mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard, RPS, so while RECs are purchased and sold the going rate is $15. Virginia does not currently have any money in state incentives so only the 30% federal tax credit would be available to subsidize this purchase. My quick estimate is the payback period for the wind turbine in Virginia would be in excess of 20 years. Pohanka should consider smaller turbines that can run optimally at the prevailing wind speed or solar panels.

Monday, March 5, 2012

No Water for Texas Rice Farmers

On Friday, March 2, 2012 the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, announced that for the first time in its 78 year history they would not be delivering irrigation water to most downstream farmers this year under emergency relief granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the obligations of the existing water contracts. According to Texas state water law, “first in time is first in right.” Downstream rice farmers were given first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to LCRA's water rights for the Highland Lakes. In fact, without the support of the rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s to reduce flooding and make water available during droughts. Nonetheless, it is most of the rice farmers who will not be receiving their water this year.

Overall, approximately 60% of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go to irrigation. Texas’ use of irrigation water falls right in that range. Without irrigation, rice could never be grown in the dry lands of Texas and the large scale farming operations could not exist. The system of water rights that developed in Texas assured for generations the allocation of water to agriculture. The water rights system as conceived and administered in Texas and 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 is contractual and has produced agricultural practices that may be unsustainable in the long term as overall water demand increases.

Texas rice farmers count on their water allocations to irrigate the land along the Gulf Coast. Texas usually ranks as the nation's fourth or fifth highest producing rice-growing state, producing about 7% of the nation's rice. The farmers in the Colorado River basin make up almost three-quarters of the state's total rice acreage. Without surface irrigation water, many farmers will be able to plant only a fraction of the rice they usually grow, and some farmers won't plant any. Farmer who plan on planting this year will pump groundwater to irrigate the rice. Last year downstream farmers received about 368,000 acre-feet of Highland Lakes water. LCRA operates the storage and pumping plants that supply water through a 1,100-miles of irrigation canals in Matagorda, Wharton and Colorado counties. The facilities are organized into four service areas, Gulf Coast, Lakeside, Garwood and Pierce Ranch, and are capable of transporting water to 91,500 acres of farm land annually.

Even with the recent rains, lakes Buchanan and Travis, the region’s reservoirs, are at only 42% capacity. The combined storage of the lakes was 847,000 acre-feet on March 1, 2012. This was below the 850,000 acre-feet level required to be in the lakes on March 1st to allow the release of irrigation water to farmers in the Lakeside, Gulf Coast and Pierce Ranch irrigation districts under the September 2011 agreement to void the existing water contract obligations to those farmers. Farmers in the Garwood irrigation operation will still receive some water from the Highland Lakes this year, up to 20,000 acre-feet, because they hold senior water rights that were cut back, not cancelled. Had LCRA released irrigation water to the bulk of the rice farmers it would only have been 25% of the allocation, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted LCRA's request for emergency relief from contract obligations this past December, otherwise downstream farmers would have been entitled to as much as 178,000 acre-feet of water from the Highland Lakes this year.

LCRA operates lakes Buchanan and Travis under a state-approved Water Management Plan that allocates water amongst users. Last fall a stakeholder group determined that the 850,000 acre-feet level was the minimum level necessary to protect the cities and industries from water shortages. If water levels fall below 600,000 acre-feet and the LCRA Board of Directors are required under the Water Management Plan to declare a drought worse than the “Drought of Record”, the 10-year drought of the 1940s and 50s that is considered the worst drought in state history. When a Drought of Record is declared, the cities and industry are required to reduce water use by 20%. The 850,000 acre-feet level was chosen to ensure that water would not be released for irrigation in 2012 and then cut off mid-crop wasting the water if the combined storage fell to 600,000 acre-feet triggering the Drought of Record condition. Farmers pay considerably less for water than cities and industry and, therefore, their water is considered "interruptible" during a severe drought.

This is a another step in changing the historic rights to and allocations of water in the west as regional droughts and ever increasing demand stress the water supply. Though “on average” the United States uses less than 8% of the water that falls as precipitation within our borders annually, unfortunately, precipitation varies from the average significantly on a regional basis and thus, allocations and supply on a regional basis will remain a problem especially in locations where irrigations is the major water use (mostly the western states). The demand for water is not responsive to supply variations, and the margin for error decreases as demand for water grows. Yet, unbelievable enough Texas grown brown rice was on sale yesterday at Giant. I bought 15 pounds.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Keystone Pipeline the Never Ending Story

On February 27th 2012 TransCanada Corporation announced their intension to build the Cushing Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Keystone Phase III, a 435 mile extension of the existing Keystone pipeline to Port Arthur and Houston. The existing Keystone Pipeline Phase I runs from Hardesty, Canada to Steel City, Nebraska near the Kansas and Nebraska border. Keystone Phase II runs from Steel City to Cushing, Oklahoma where it terminates, leaving the Canadian crude oil stranded in Oklahoma along with U.S. domestic production from North Dakota that has been using the pipeline to reach the Oklahoma storage facilities. As oil prices have climbed recently the 55 million barrels of oil that can be stored in Cushing have produced a glut of oil waiting to be refined and the lowest gas prices in the nation for the mid-west.

In response to the glut of oil in Cushing, Enbridge Inc. and Enterprise Products Partners (who purchased a 50% interest in November) owners of the Seaway pipeline that runs from the gulf coast area to Cushing, Oklahoma, announced their intention to reverse the flow in their gas pipeline to move crude from Cushing to the gulf coast refineries. The reversal requires pump station additions and modifications, scheduled to be completed by June 2012, the capacity of the reversed Seaway Pipeline will be up to 150,000 barrels per day and further expansions could increase that volume. Now, TransCanada Corp. has announced that it will build a portion of the Keystone XL pipeline from the Cushing oil hub south to the Gulf Coast to compete with the Seaway pipeline while attempting to obtain approval of a revised route for the Keystone Phase IV leg to increase flow from Canada to Steel City, Nebraska.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been very controversial. Most of the environmental controversy has focused on the porous soils of the Sandhills and fears of a possible oil leak into one of the nation's most important agricultural aquifers, TransCanada is reapplying for State Department and Presidential approval of a revised rout for the northern portion that bypasses the Sandhills. However, many who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline want to prevent the development of the oil sands resources in Canada to prevent the acceleration of global warming. The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades. Until the recent protests against the Keystone XL pipeline that labeled these oil reserves “Canadian Oil Sands,” they had been variously known as unconventional oil or crude bitumen. These oil sands have been surfaced mined in Canada with drag lines and power shovels since the late 1960’s, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the extraction of oil sand possible.

Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) is the current method of extraction. In SAGD, two horizontal wells are drilled in the oil sands, one at the bottom of the formation and another about 15-20 feet above it. In each well pair, steam is injected into the upper well melting the bitumen, which flows into the lower well and is pumped to the surface. SAGD was the breakthrough that has quadrupled recoverable oil reserves and moved Canada into second place in proved world oil reserves. SAGD is cheaper than previous methods, allows very high oil production rates, and recovers up to 60% of the oil in place. It is the SAGD method that has created the need for a pipeline to deliver the oil to the American markets and the controversy. SAGD requires more energy to produce the oil and increases the carbon footprint of the crude. Those who believe completely in the positive feedback global warming model where increased CO2 raises global temperature, increases evaporation of water vapor to the atmosphere, and in turn increases the functional impact of CO2 on global warming see any increase in carbon as quickening the destruction of the earth. The Canadian oil sands increase the CO2 released in every gallon of gas adding to man’s carbon footprint. In addition, older methods of mining the oil sands left open pits that still need to be reclaimed, thought today groups of wells are typically drilled off a central pad and like fracking wells and can extend for miles in all directions. This reduces surface disturbances of the land and the footprint of the area to be reclaimed..

In June 2010 TransCanada commenced commercial operation of the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline System. Keystone's Phase I was the conversion of natural gas pipeline to crude oil pipeline and construction of a bullet line that brings the crude oil non-stop from Canada to Steel City at 435,000 barrels a day. Phase II of Keystone was an extension of the pipeline from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma and began operations in February 2011. Keystone Phase II increased the volume per day of Keystone Phase I with the addition of pumping stations, the system now runs at 591,000 barrels a day. The Seaway pipeline will begin operations in June completing the ability to pipe crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast carrying 150,000 barrels a day. The Keystone Phase III when it is completed will simply increase volume. The Keystone Phase IV when and if approved will increase volume of the upper portion of the pipeline from the current 591,000 barrels a day to 1.3 million barrels a day.