Monday, April 29, 2013

Prince William County the Retirement Mecca that will Survive Climate Change

The climate of the earth is constantly changing. Scientific studies have indicated that over the past century the earth has warmed 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. This warming is not particularly alarming in itself given our planetary history, but the speed of this temperature increase and the fact that the warming is projected to continue at an accelerated pace is worrisome. The planetary warming is forecast to cause sea levels to rise due to melting of sea ice in parts of the world, and changes in weather and patterns and precipitation. If carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere are the driving force in earth’s temperature that many scientists believe, then these trends are likely to continue. On a whole earth basis the climate models show at this point there is nothing that we can do to stop global warming and climate change.

As the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increase, the warming produced by the greenhouse gas effect is strengthened. Computer modeling of the climate predicts that there will be feedbacks that significantly increase the impact from the increasing CO2. Even if the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere were to stabilize at this level, the changes in the climate of the earth in response to the atmospheric CO2 levels would continue for hundreds of years. In reality, the global emissions of CO2 will not stabilize or decrease any time soon and will continue to rise for at least a generation. What is going to happen will happen, so we need to plan for change and make decisions for the next 30-50 years based on likely outcomes.

It is my plan to live for another 40 years. My relatives do pretty well and I am an optimist and a “real food” and exercise devotee. So when it came time to select a place to live in retirement, climate change was one of the factors taken into consideration- water availability, distance from the coast, elevation, along with proximity to family, medical service and an airport and several other factors. Now, I find myself in northwest Prince William County a place that the Washington Post recently described as becoming “a regional retirement mecca, a small-scale version of Florida on the outskirts of Washington.” I made my choices based to a large extent on general projections of climate released by various groups, not having the tools or resources to do much more.

Now, however, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) has completed a study in water supply availability and the health of the Potomac Watershed for various climate scenarios. The focus of their study was the Potomac River, which supplies water to the Washington Aqueduct, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), and Fairfax Water who all funded the study. The Potomac River supplies 78% of the regions drinking water and the water utilities of the region must plan for the future. In addition, there must be adequate flow of the Potomac below Little Falls to ensure that the balance of saline and fresh water for the health of the Chesapeake Bay estuary. So, on the water rate payer’s nickel I get to see what the future might look like here in in Prince William County.

The National Research Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) actually performed the study using six of the global climate models and three atmospheric CO2 scenarios to create 18 separate possible scenarios. The USGS then “downscaled” the 18 global climate predictions to the Potomac River basin and to other areas as part of a separate project on climate change being conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Program Office and the USGS’s Virginia Water Science Center (your tax dollars at work). In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Phase 5 Watershed Model was used to estimate the impact of changing temperatures and precipitation on Potomac basin stream flows.

The most advanced types of models currently being used to project future global climate are general circulation models (GCMs). A GCM is a numerical model which represents the important physical, chemical, and biological processes on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, and/or in oceanic systems that affect climate. The USGS used models from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (USA), Norway, Australia, Russia and Japan as listed in the chart below.

From ICPRB publication
In addition, the three CO2 emissions scenarios were based on IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (IPCC, 2007c). The USGS used relatively low emissions (B1), medium emissions (A1B), and high emissions (A2) temperature forecasts for each model to create the 18 scenarios.

IPCC Climate Change 2007
There is tremendous uncertainty in projecting the future climate of the earth, especially at the regional scale. Though global climate models are continually being refined and improved, they do not capture complexity of the interrelations of earth’s land, water, and atmospheric systems that we do not yet fully understand. Local nuisances can be lost in the broad sweeps of mathematical modeling of a living system. Scientific confidence in global model projections is higher for temperature than for precipitation, higher for global scales rather than small regional scales, and higher for longer time frames than shorter ones. Nonetheless, with all those disclaimers, the USGS did get some predictions out of their 18 scenarios.

Though it is predicted by the climate models that precipitation will increase on a global scale, when dealing with only the Potomac River basin, the models differed on whether precipitation will increase or decrease. The models project that the total annual precipitation varies from plus 9% to minus 9% or that the rainfall/ snowmelt that averaged 42.2 inches during the reference period (1988-1999) may stay within 4 inches of that average. Though, it is to be noted, that year to year weather variations in rainfall in the region are large, precipitation has varied from over 80 inches to below 20 inches in the past. Also, in the 18 climate scenarios, the increase in annual average temperature by 2040 increases for the area from 1.3 to 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit when compared with the reference period of 1988 to 1999. The average increase, over all scenarios is 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. (These temperature predictions were the basis of the energy savings and water savings projects for my home that were geared for a slightly warmer, drier climate, though I am still hoping for wetter.)

Though annual rainfall increases in half of the climate change scenarios, flow in the Potomac River falls in most scenarios. Changes in both temperature and precipitation affect stream flows. Changes in rain or snow affect the amount of water that runs off the land surface and enters streams during rainfall. Precipitation also affects the amount of water recharging groundwater aquifers, which are the primary source of stream flow during dry weather periods. Increasing temperatures will cause more rain to be lost to evaporation from the soil, streams, and will increase transpiration, the water released to the atmosphere by plants. These increases in evaporation and transpiration will tend to reduce flow in streams which in turn reduces flow in the Potomac. With rising population, this could require changes in water use and supply for the area and reduce groundwater availability for private well owners like me.

Average annual basin-wide evaporation and transpiration is predicted to increase by 6-8%. Groundwater recharge decreases under all but three of the climate scenarios, and as I watch the statistically low water level in the monitoring well up the road, I worry about my well water supply. According to study results, the seasonal pattern of groundwater recharge does not change significantly under climate change, with January, February, and March remaining the months of greatest recharge. However, the average annual amount of groundwater that provides base flow to streams and the water in my well, is predicted to decrease in 16 out of the 18 scenarios by as much as 34% in one case.

Results for the 18 climate scenarios fell into three categories: minor impact, moderate impact, and major impact. The biggest impact is the ability of the regional water utilities to continue to supply water on demand during droughts as the climate changes. Six of the scenarios are predicted to have little impact on the system during a moderate drought and the projected population of the region can be supplied with drinking water from the Potomac River and current systems and operations. Six of the climate change scenarios fall into the “moderate impact” category. Under these scenarios the region is predicted to experience more frequent and stricter water use restrictions, but no water supply shortages during a moderate drought. Reservoir levels are predicted to fall to significantly lower levels during a drought than would occur in the absence of climate change with the projected and assumed increase in population.

However, the remaining six climate change scenarios are scary. Under these dreadful six scenarios, unless we make changes in the water supply systems we run out of water. These scenarios predict that both mandatory and emergency water use restrictions would be imposed and most system reservoirs would become empty or close to empty during a moderate drought. In addition, these six scenarios predict on some days of the drought the Potomac River would fail to provide sufficient water to meet demand and environmental needs. Our regional water utilities: The Washington Aqueduct, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), and Fairfax Water working together with the ICPRB can make changes to the structure and operation of the water supply system to make it more robust. The Potomac River will continue to supply water to the region, we will have to use it more wisely to ensure adequate water supply in the future, but there will be water.  Clearly though, development in the groundwater recharge zones (mostly the Rural Crescent in Prince William County) and open areas needs to be limited to protect the groundwater and stream base flow that supplies our water.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

PW Landfill and Piedmont Environmental Council Win Environmental Awards

The 2013 Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards were announced on April 10, 2013, at the Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington, VA. Among the nine Gold Medal Winners were two wonderful local organizations: Prince William County’s Solid Waste Division for its Sustainability Program and the Piedmont Environmental Council for its Land Conservation Program.

Prince William County’s Sustainability Program at the landfill encompasses recycling, groundwater protection, storm water management, erosion control, air quality monitory, alternative energy generation, material reuse and habitat development. As a part of its community outreach efforts, the landfill facilities have been opened to citizens, school groups, bird watchers, business groups and professional organizations. The Solid Waste Division shares credit for the program’s success with county management support, a strong working relationship with regulatory agencies, and community involvement and pride. Tom Smith, chief of the County’s Solid Waste Division, said, “Prince William County recognizes the importance of protecting the health, safety, and environment of the community we serve. I’m very proud of what the County has accomplished with regards to environmental sustainability.”

In 2012 the landfill was designated an “Audubon at Home” wildlife sanctuary. According to the Prince William Conservation Alliance, who organizes the annual Nokesville Christmas Bird Count, the Prince William County Landfill has the largest numbers of Bald Eagles in the county. On Christmas day 2012 the Birders counted 10 adults and 10 immature Bald Eagles, along with many gulls including 650 Ring-billed Gulls and three Great Black-backed Gulls.

The life expectancy of the landfill has been prolonged to 2065 through expanding recycling and composting in the county. The landfill is targeting to achieve 40% recycling countywide by 2015. The landfill is built as a series of cells that include liners of plastic membranes and watertight geo-synthetic clay liner fabric on the bottom along with a leachate collection system. At the end of each day, earth covers the trash deposited in the cell, to keep animals away and improve aesthetics. When a cell if full, it is capped to prevent (or at least limit) the rain that percolates through the landfill and covered in soil.

The PW Landfill has 48 groundwater monitoring wells, and 78 landfill gas extraction wells. Landfill gas is generated during the natural process of bacterial decomposition of organic material contained in the trash buried in the landfill. Landfill gas is approximately forty to sixty percent methane, with the remainder being mostly carbon dioxide with varying amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, sulfur, and other contaminants. The gases produced within the landfill are either collected and flared off or used to produce heat and electricity. The landfill gas cannot be allowed to build up in the landfill because of the risk of explosion. More than 7 million tons of trash buried at the landfill. That trash currently generates 2,700 standard cubic feet per minute of landfill gas and will increase. Flaring the gas releases greenhouse gases to no purpose.

In 1998 the County formed a partnership with Fortistar to install a landfill gas collection system and a 1.9 MW energy recover facility which is a two engine turbine that burns the gas to make electricity that is sold to NOVEC, the local electric cooperative. The 1.9 MW energy recovery system is currently operational, but the amount of landfill gas generated has increased from 1600 scfm in 1999, to the current amount of 2600 scfm, and is utilizing less than 25% of the currently available landfill gas for energy recovery. Three (3) additional turbine engines are scheduled to be installed by August 2013 to produce additional 4.8 MW of electricity. Additional gas will be available even after the new engines are installed and will provide landfill gas to heat the Fleet Maintenance Building and provide fuel to the Animal Shelter through a new gas pipeline. The landfill is moving forward to develop plans to create an “ECO Park” at the landfill.

The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) located in Warrenton received their award for their land conservation work combining public and private initiatives with market-based solutions to achieve regional conservation goals. Heather Richards, accepted the award on behalf of the Piedmont Environmental Council and said, “We are honored to be recognized for over 40 years of work in preserving the scenic, cultural, and natural resources of the Piedmont. The need for land conservation remains strong throughout our region and all of Virginia, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with landowners and the community to protect the landscape that makes this place special to us all.”

PEC staff work with landowners bringing a holistic approach to land conservation. They see the decisions of individual landowners to protect their land in a larger, collective context. PEC reaches out to landowners to raise the idea of land conservation and meeting with those who are interested in conserving their land bringing experience and knowledge to help the landowners through the process. As an accredited land trust, they also hold conservation easements directly. PEC currently holds 47 easements -- protecting over 6,600 acres in our region.

I know PEC through their Sustainable Habitat Program. PEC works with landowners throughout the region on land management strategies to improve wildlife habitat and water quality. PEC works to educate all types of landowners about our region’s crucial ecosystems and the small and large steps we can all take to protect our wildlife corridors and watershed. PEC staff stays up to date with local, state and federal policy regarding land conservation. This year, PEC played a major role in writing and introducing a bill in the Virginia General Assembly, HB 1398, which protects and expands the tools available for helping landowners conserve their land in perpetuity. The bill passed with board bi-partisan support.
Photo of native plant and grasses in Loudoun is by Katherine Vance
Also receiving a Gold Medal Award was Virginia Tech for its Sustainability Program, with four components targeting improving the efficiency of facilities and operations, enhancing academic programs related to sustainability, engaging the larger community, and changing campus culture and behavior to conserve energy, water and materials. (Green Risks supplies content for the Extension newsletter published at Virginia Tech.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Global CO2 Soars Past 400 ppm

Data from IEA
The International Energy Agency (IEA) released their 2012 edition of the CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion Statistics Highlights. World CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels have climbed past 396 ppm (parts per million) in the atmosphere and will hit 400 ppm in early spring before retreating slightly over the summer. Global CO2 emissions have grown by 47% since 1990 (based on IEA estimates for 2011). The CO2 levels on earth had averaged 280 ppm for hundreds of thousands of years, but in the past century they began rising. 

As the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increase the warming produced by the greenhouse gas effect is strengthened. Computer modeling of the climate predicts that there will be feedbacks that significantly increase the impact from the increasing CO2. This is a feedback control loop on a global scale. Mankind produces carbon dioxide from power plants, transportation (cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships), heating, cement manufacture, deforestation, and breathing. Methane is produced from agriculture, livestock, mining, gas pipeline leaks and well heads, landfills, and sewage plants. Nitrous oxide is produced by fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, animal waste, polluted waters, and chemical processes. CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor are the major greenhouse gases. The IEA tells us that 65% of the global greenhouse gas emissions by mankind are from the burning of fossil fuels for energy production and in industrialized nations 83% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from power generation, heating and cooling and transportation, but it is clear that both population and industrialization drive CO2 production.  
Data from IEA
The climate models show that there is nothing that we can do to stop global warming and climate change. Even if the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere were to stabilize at this level, global warming and sea level rising would continue for hundreds of years because of the time scales associated with climate and planetary feedback loops. In reality, the global emissions of CO2 will continue to rise for at least a generation. What is going to happen will happen. I will leave it to others to argue the case for the accuracy of climate models; however, both mankind and the earth itself will respond to changes in CO2 concentrations and temperature, but not before it becomes the pressing concern of the currently emerging nations. Though we constantly argue, discuss and meet, there is virtually nothing we can do to change what is going to happen in the next dozen generations. We can hope that mankind will move to a more sustainable course without the need for catastrophe to motivate us, but that will not change what is going to happen. 
Sorry, the scale is off.  I could not get 2011 to slide over. 
We need to face some tough realities. We cannot even stabilize the world CO2 emissions. As each region or county industrializes the world CO2 emissions have grown. World CO2 emissions are 146% of 1990 levels. Europe has stabilized their emissions and with effort under the Kyoto Treaty has decreased them 2.8% from 1990 levels. The U.S. seems to have finally begun its stabilization and reduction process in the past few years, but since 1990 has increased emissions by 9.5%. The far more populous emerging nations have blown past us in CO2 emissions. Asia (including India) has increased their CO2 emissions by 270% since 1990, and China has increased their CO2 emissions by 352% since 1990. Once the phenomenal growth in their economies that has driven the growth in CO2 emissions, slows down, the C02 emissions will stabilize at a higher level. As a county industrializes its emissions rise as Industrialization typically begins with coal fired power generation. Though coal fired power plants produce twice the CO2 as gas fired power plants they are the source of most power in China and India and still provide over 42% of power generation in the U.S. Nonetheless, except for the fall the Russian Federation, the CO2 emissions of a region or nation do not fall significantly. When populations get cars, homes with heating, air conditioning, on-demand water and power- become first world nations, they like to stay that way.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Earth Day is April 22

This coming Monday, April 22 marks the 43rd Earth Day. The first U.S. celebration of Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. Back in the 1970's early Earth Days celebrated at Waterside Mall (the old home of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) were more like solar festivals- one year we built a solar oven, but it ended up taking hours to cook lunch! Things change.
The 2012 River cleanup. Image from PWSWCD
Like Arbor Day which is also celebrated at this time of year, Earth Day is a way to remind ourselves that we are citizens of the earth and our address is our watershed. Solar “Happenings” are a thing of the past and today we plan events and engage our children so that we all may step back from our  lives (or handheld devices) and see how our actions and choices can impact our watershed (land and air) and onto to the greater earth beyond.   

Earth Day has evolved into an opportunity to spend a few hours outside with others cleaning up the trash from our water ways and road ways, planting trees and nature walks in our many regional parks to appreciate the trees. The trees act as natural pollution filters. Their canopies, trunks, roots, and associated soil filter polluted sediment from the runoff to our Chesapeake Bay. Trees also use and recycle nitrogen and phosphorus which contribute to the decay of the Chesapeake Bay and its estuary. Cleaning our roadways prevents the trash from being carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks disrupting the natural water flow and beauty of our natural world.

The Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools happens this time of year. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind and happens over several weekends so that you or your group can participate. Though the big Occoquan Bay cleanup was last weekend, the Occoquan River and Belmont Bay cleanups are on April 27th 2013.

You can join the Fairfax County Water Authority, the Virginia Department Conservation and Recreation, American Water, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and Friends of the Occoquan to plant trees and cleanup the Occoquan River and Belmont Bay. They will be collecting trash along the banks and those volunteers that have boats, kayaks or canoes are encouraged to bring them and remove trash from the water.  (You can sign up and get more information from their web site.) The cleanup begins from five different sites along the Occoquan beginning at 9 am and running to noon.
The five locations are:
  • Lake Ridge Marina at 12350 Cotton Mill Drive, Lake Ridge, VA 22192. The coordinator for this location is Renate G. Vanegas Tel. (703) 674-6659.
  • Town of Occoquan location is at  314 Mill Street, Occoquan, VA 22125. The coordinator for this location is Claudia A. Cruise Tel. (703) 491-1918, Ext. 11.  
  • Occoquan Regional Park at 9751 Ox Road, Lorton, VA 22079. The coordinator for this location is Alex Vanegas Tel. (703) 674-7847.
  • Bull Run Marina at 12619 Old Yates Ford Rd., Clifton, VA 20124. The coordinator for this location is John Rothrock Tel. (703) 887-1124.  
  • The fifth location is Fountainhead Park at10875 Hampton Rd., Fairfax Station, VA 22039. The coordinator for this location is Sarah Hutton (703) 624-6124.

 Around Prince William County there are a spattering of upcoming activities to celebrate Earth Day. The only event actually on Earth Day seems to be the Kerxton Insurance Agency highway cleanup for their adopted  section of Route 29 (Lee Highway) between Pageland Road and Linden Hall Road in Gainesville, VA. They adopted this section of Lee Highway last winter and is holding  their first cleanup on April 22, 2013 between 2 pm and 4 pm. “Team” Kerxton will be cleaning up their stretch of Lee Highway between Route 66 and Pageland Road (for safety reasons they are avoiding the construction zone between Route 66 and Linden Hall Road.  Kerxton has committed to clean up their stretch of highway four times a year and welcome community help. Contact Tina Stein at (703) 652-6198 or The adopt a highway cleanup and the river cleanups are a great way to show our community spirit and help the earth and actually live our values.

In case it’s beautiful out this weekend there are other happenings this week end relating to nature:
On Saturday, April 20th 2013 the Master Gardeners (trained and certified by the Extension Office) will be having two events:
“Wildflower Walk and Talk,” master gardener Jeannie Couch leads a one-mile walk among native wildflowers. 1pm – 3 pm, at the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, 12229 Bristow Rd., Bristow. The event is free, but  registration  is required. 703-792-7747.
“Saturday in the Garden,” master gardener volunteers discuss growing plants in pots. 9 am.-noon, in the garden at St. Benedict Monastery, 9535 Linton Hall Rd., Bristow. The event is free, but registration required. 703-792-7747.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Basics of Living with a Well and Septic System

First, locate your well and septic system if you do not already know where they are (the as built diagram from the building department, or County Health District information can tell you this). Next you need to know the type of septic system you have: traditional or alternative. An alternative septic system is also known as an AOSS (alternative on-site sewage system). In Virginia AOSS are subject to regulations requiring annual inspections and maintenance.  Likewise you need to know the type of well, information on the construction of the well and the aquifer that supplies the well. Here in Prince William County information on all private wells drilled in the county after 1977 are in the files of the Prince William County Health District. The PW Health District has detailed files on over 20,000 wells. The “Water Well Completion Report” can tell you the age of the well, the depth of the well and casing, the approximate water zones and the yield at completion.  When a well is drilled or a home purchased the only water sampling that takes place is for a coliform bacteria test. There are many chemicals and naturally occurring contaminants that could make water unpalatable or unhealthy. In addition, a coliform test tells you almost nothing about the condition of the well.

A well should be a 6 inch diameter pipe with a bolted cap sticking a foot or more above the ground surface. What I have described is a modern drilled well. There are also dug and bored wells. Those types of wells fail sooner, are prone to go dry during droughts and because they are shallow (less than 40 feet deep) are more subject to pollution and surface contamination. If you have a dug or bored well, start saving money now to drill a new well (you will probably need it soon).  Drilled wells are more than 40 feet deep, typically more than 100. Virginia adopted statewide regulations on well construction in 1992 which conformed fairly closely to the PW County regulations. While many wells will last decades, it is reported that 20 years is the average age of well failure. Older well pumps are more likely to leak lubricating oil or fail. Well casings are subject to corrosion, pitting and perforation. Some kind of equipment failure usually occurs in the first 20 years.

Also, the well itself may fail after 20-30 years, though I personally know of a drilled well that lasted almost 50 years. You need to understand the characteristics  of the aquifer feeding your well to be aware of the factors that impact water quantity and quality. There are dry years and wet years and water availability will vary, though it is not always obvious. The groundwater aquifer tapped for water is not seen so you need to understand it to be aware of the water budget that you will have to live within before you run out of water. If a property has a low producing well, there are ways to deal with it. First is water conservation and the second is to increase water storage within the system. Water conservation involves changing water–use behavior such as taking shorter showers, but usually involves installing water saving devices like a front-loading washer (saves 20 gallons of water for each load),low flush toilets, flow restricting faucets and shower heads. Installing water saving appliances can reduce household water use by up to 30%. Water conservation is always a good idea when your water comes from a well, but increasing water storage can make a reliable 1 gallon a minute well viable for a modern household. However, it is possible that the production rate of the well itself has been falling and the well is failing. According to Marcus Haynes of the PW Health District the effective yield from a well can fall 40-50% or more over 20-30 years, so a low yielding well might have an effective life of only 25 years.

The well owner is responsible for ensuring that their 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. There are very few regulations nationally requiring the testing of private wells (New Jersey is a notable exception). In Virginia a well is only required to be tested for coliform bacteria at completion and mortgage lenders require the same test at purchase. However,at a minimum, all private water wells should be tested every year or so for total coliform bacteria, E Coli, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels. Part of the price of your own water supply is maintaining it and testing it. You cannot taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste and you cannot taste nitrate/ nitrite contamination. 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 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 is usually performed. Anything that you pour down the drain, flush down the toilet, pour into your yard or spray around your house could end up contaminating the groundwater at your own home or your neighbors’ homes, and you might want to consider testing for these if you are aware of a history of use.

A septic system has no ability to treat solvents, oils, grease, household chemicals and pesticides. These substances may damage your septic system, cause the system to back-up into your basement, untreated sewage to surface in your yard, and/or contaminate the groundwater. A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. The system is designed to remove most of the biological contamination by settling and bacterial digestion so that the soil is not overwhelmed and can “polish” the water before it is returned through the soil to the groundwater. Never dispose of anything but human biological waste (and a reasonable amount of toilet paper) in your septic system. Limit the use of household chemical cleaners, solvents, bleach, pesticides and termite treatments sprayed into the ground.  

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion takes place with the aid of bacteria that came from human digestive tracks and most of the fecal solids are converted to carbon dioxide, water and other byproducts. The process is not completely efficient and fecal solids and other materials that find their way into the septic tank will accumulate over time. To keep a septic system operating optimally, a septic tank must be pumped every few years to remove the scum and solid layers. Steady use of water throughout the day and water conservation should be practiced because too large a flow of waste water and the solids in the tank will be stirred up and be carried out to the drain field.

Also, the drain field does not have an unlimited capacity. The more water your family uses, the greater the likelihood of problems with the septic system, so it is important to fix all leaks, and stop toilets from running and practice water conservation.  In the Chesapeake Bay watershed many homes are within areas designated  resource protected areas that requires a septic tank pumpout at least every five years, but that may not be frequent enough depending primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household contributing to the volume of your wastewater, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system. Excess water flow through the septic system can cause the solid sludge buildup and floating scum (grease, oil, dead skin cells, etc.) to flow out of the tank and travel into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field. These filters and screens become clogged and need to be cleaned out regularly or the system will back up into the house.

Finally, you need to limit what goes down the drain to prevent bacterial die-off in the tank so that it will continue to function as designed. Die-off of the bacteria necessary for a septic system to perform properly has been seen in experiments where excessive amount of harsh household chemicals were added to the septic tank. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach, 5.0 gallons of liquid Lysol cleaner, or 11.3 grams of Drano drain cleaner added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank have caused die-off of the bacteria in experiments. Other factors that can cause die-off include the excessive use of anti-bacterial agents, and, in certain cases, antibiotic medications taken by members of a household. However, in normal use, you do not need to add a chemical or biological stimulator or an enhancer to a septic tank that is designed, operated, and maintained properly. The naturally occurring bacteria are already present within human fecal matter are adequate for the system to function properly. Contrary to popular belief, chemical additives, such as caustic hydroxides and sulfuric acid, should never be added to a septic system. Adding these chemicals will destroy the bacterial population in the septic tank, change the permeability characteristics of the soil absorption system, and may cause groundwater contamination.

Septic drainfields and alternative secondary treatments like peat tanks and sand mounds also have a limited life. The life of a septic drainfield is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 20-30 years may be the life of those systems- even when well managed.

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. Try to minimize the use of these substances in your home and yard.
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. Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink. Minimize the use of bleach, chemical disinfectants and antibacterial agents.
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 pump your septic tank every 3-5 years.
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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Safely Dispose of Drugs in Prince William County April 27th 2013

The 6th National DEA Prescription Drug Take-Back Day will be held on Saturday, April 27, 2013; from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.  Prince William County is again participating in the program. Simply bring your prescription drugs to the collection sites at Prince William Hospital, Heathcote Health Center and Sentara Lake Ridge between 10 am to 2:00 pm to safely dispose of unused and old drugs such as powerful narcotic, pain relievers and other controlled substances that carry FDA instructions for flushing the remainder or excess down the toilet to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and illegal abuse. Any other pills or capsules you wish to dispose of will be accepted-prescription and over the counter tablets. Intravenous solutions, injectables such as insulin, and needles will not be accepted. The service is free and anonymous, and though no questions will be asked- Illicit substances such as marijuana or methamphetamine will also not be accepted.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, but should be taken out of their original containers and mixed with coffee grinds or kitty litter or otherwise made unpalatable. A few drugs should be flushed down the toilet for safety reasons, but may impact our water supplies. Drugs such as powerful narcotic pain relievers and other controlled substances carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and abuse. This nationwide prescription drug “Take-Back” day is to prevent pill abuse and theft. According to the DEA, prescription drug abuse in the United States is increasing, as are the number of accidental poisonings and overdoses. Studies cited by the DEA show that a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet. So now is your chance to clean out your medicine cabinet without damaging the environment.

Despite the safety reasons for flushing some drugs, waste water treatment systems were simply not designed to handle chemicals and drugs. Recent studies have found trace levels of drug residues in surface water, such as rivers and lakes, and in our drinking water supplies coming from the Potomac and Occoquan Reservoir. Waste water treatment systems including septic systems are not designed to remove drug residue and traces of contaminants are being found in some groundwater aquifers nationwide. However, many scientists report that the main way drug residues enter water systems is by human waste-people taking medications which are not complexly metabolized and then naturally allowing the drugs to pass through their bodies.

The technology used for chemical analysis has advanced to the point that it is possible to detect and quantify nearly any compound known to human kind down to less than a nanogram per liter or parts per trillion (1/1,000,000,000,000). This enhanced analytical ability has allowed scientists to discover that trace levels of pharmaceuticals, potential endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC) and other emerging contaminants exist in much of our nation’s surface water and is appearing in some groundwater and persists in the water through conventional and some advanced water treatments to also appear in our drinking water. Fairfax Water that supplies water to parts of Prince William County has examined their drinking water for some of these emerging contaminants and found traces of some contaminants in both their source water and finished water.

The implications of this ubiquitous exposure are unknown, but of concern. The detection of a chemical does not mean that it will cause health effects or disease, but we really do not know. The guiding principal of toxicology is that there is a relationship between a toxic reaction (the response) and the amount of a substance received (the dose). An important assumption in this relationship is that there is almost always a dose below which no response occurs or can be measured. So if the concentration of the contaminant was low enough there would be no toxic reaction, but that principal is being tested with endocrine disruption, and advances in analysis.

 Meanwhile, water utilities and citizens are left not knowing how to address findings of emerging contaminants in their source and finished drinking water. A study conducted by the Water Research Foundation concluded that using a combination of ozone and granular activated carbon in addition to coagulation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection is effective in removing some of the broad categories of endocrine disrupters, personal care products and pharmaceuticals found in drinking water. Both the Washington Aqueduct and Fairfax water now treat their water supplies with ozone, but it is best to keep drug and other substance out of our groundwater and surface water in the first place. Begin by not flushing chemicals and drugs down the toilet. Bring your unused pills and capsules to the 6th National DEA Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Dispose of chemicals and household hazardous waste at the Prince William Landfill on Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Air Pollution from Coal Fired Power Plants

On April 1, 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Dominion Energy Corporation to pay $3.4 million civil penalty and spend $9.75 million on environmental mitigation and community projects and close a coal fired power plant in Indiana. Reducing air pollution from coal-fired power plants and reducing the number of coal fired power plants in the United States, is one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011-2013.

In addition to the civil penalty and mitigation projects mentioned above Dominion Energy must install or upgrade pollution control technology on two coal fired power plants, and permanently retire their State Line plant. The pollution control upgrades will produce annual reductions at the Brayon Point and Kincaid plants of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions by 52,000 tons from 2010 levels. The retirement of the State Line plant will result in an additional reduction of 18,000 tons of SO2 and NOx. The State Line power plant was first put into operation in 1929 and overhauled over half a century ago. Dominion Energy decided to close the plant rather than upgrade the pollution control systems announcing that intent back in November 2010 and finally closing the plant on March 31, 2013.

The reason that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides matter to the EPA (and the rest of us) is because reacting in the atmosphere with sunlight and water vapor they form fine particulate pollution. Particles created this way tend to be fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5, which are the most dangerous to human health because the small particulates lodge in the lungs which can have both immediate and long term health impacts.  Combustion engines and coal burning power plants are key contributors to PM2.5 particles, and according to the US EPA and World Health Organization, the smaller, finer pollutant particles measured by PM2.5 are especially dangerous for human health. Studies have shown that there is an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, birth defects and premature death from these particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Coal fired power plant and other sources of pollution like refineries and cars and trucks emit both particulates and precursor pollutants that form particulates in the atmosphere. Air pollution will be significantly reduced in the immediate region of the Dominion power plants and because particulate pollution can travel significant distances downwind, air pollution will be reduced outside the immediate region. The State Line Plant which sits on Lake Michigan and supplied power into the Chicago market had 515 megawatt capacity. According to the Chicago Tribune, Illinois alone added 500 megawatts of wind power in 2010, under DOE subsidized projects. Elimination of the State Line Plant will reduce particulate pollution.

Currently, under the Clean Air Act the US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard is 12 ug/m3 (an air quality index, AQI of 50). The 24-hr standard is 35ug/m3 (an AQI of 99). These standards were last revised in December 2012 when the annual standard was lowered from 15 to 12 ug/m3. EPA’s analysis found the new lower standard for the annual exposure will prevent almost 2,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.  According to EPA seven U.S. cities averaged particulate levels higher than the 15 ug/m3, the former standard: Bakersfield, CA; Hanford, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Visalia, CA; Fresno, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; and Phoenix, AZ. The American Lung Association in their latest report states that twenty cities have average year-round particle pollution above the new EPA air quality standard of 12 ug/m3 and most are in California. Though the California cities will remain in non-attainment in the near term, the other cities are anticipated to be able to meet the standard with the implementation of the new regulations for coal fired power plants and other recent EPA regulations which will result in the closing of several power plants and the upgrade of the pollution control systems of the others.

The United States particulate levels are a small fraction of the levels in the worst areas of the world-Beijing, New Delhi, Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Cairo (Egypt), Chongqing (China), Guangzhou (China), Hong Kong, and Kabul (Afghanistan).   However, studies have shown that air currents over the Pacific are carrying elevated particulate levels into California presumably from China. Combined with their automobile density and use, California cities might have a difficult time meeting the new PM 2.5 standard despite their strict regulations.

The air pollution in Beijing, home to over 20 million people, can be seen as the smog that wraps the city’s apartment complexes and office buildings on many days. The US Embassy in Beijing has their own PM2.5 monitoring station atop their building and has been reporting via an open Embassy Twitter Feed hourly PM2.5 pollutiondata. The U.S. Embassy reported a series of readings beyond the scale of the equipment air quality index, AQI, (which goes to 500) in fall of 2010. Particulates levels soared to over 700 ug/m3 last June and reportedly had levels hit 1,000 ug/m3 this past winter which sparked emergency measures in the city. All these levels are beyond the AQI scale. 

Current air quality levels from the US Embassy are “moderate,” but as Edward Wong reported in the New York Times and others reported elsewhere data from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study found that over 3.2 million premature deaths in 2010 due to PM 2.5 particle air pollution worldwide. In East Asia (China and North Korea) PM 2.5 contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and in South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) it contributed to 712,000 deaths in 2010. These numbers are more than double the deaths estimated by the World Health Organization based on 2004 data when there were fewer coal fired power plants, industrial plants and cars in these areas. Air quality in the urban centers of the United States has improved from the early days of the 20th century when our nation was the factory of the world. While the   EPA’s regulations tighten and renewable energy subsidies increased to further improve ambient air quality and reduce carbon dioxide and pollutants released in the United States, the fast growing economies of Asia are spewing pollution (not only carbon dioxide) into earth’s atmosphere. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Report Card on America’s Infrastructure

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, grades the infrastructure in the United States, from water mains, sewer systems and plants, power lines connected to homes and businesses and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; the neighborhood streets and the national highway system, dams, rail roads, airports. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, connecting businesses, communities, and people, making us a first world country. For the U.S. economy to be competitive as a place of business, we need a first class infrastructure system – transportation systems that move people and goods efficiently and at reasonable cost by land, water, and air; transmission systems that deliver reliable, low-cost power from a wide range of energy sources; and water systems that deliver clean reliable water 24/7 and remove wastewater for treatment and often reuse.

Yet much of our nation’s infrastructure was built during the 20th century, expanded during the post-World War II period, and frankly taken for granted by Baby Boomers. For some time our infrastructure systems have failed to keep pace with the current and expanding needs, and investment in infrastructure had faltered as an unseen way to cut costs- until the systems fail. However, it seems the tide has begun to turn. The 2013 Report Card grades are in, and America’s cumulative GPA for infrastructure rose slightly to a D+ from the D we received in 2009. The grades in 2013 ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees. Solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads, and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and the rail systems due to an influx of private investment jumped from a C- to a C+. No categories saw a decline in grade this year.

Highlights from the national report:
The grade for drinking water improved slightly to a D. In many parts of the nation, much of the piping that delivers water to our homes and businesses is almost a century old, nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), though new technology is being demonstrated to extend the life of older piping systems. The United States still has one of the safest drinking water systems in the world, but in many communities the pace of water main replacement will have to increase. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare because of the good treatment systems and positive pressure on the drinking water distribution systems.

The grade for wastewater improved slightly to a D. The ASCE estimates that $298 billion will be required over the next 20 years to maintain and upgrade the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems. As in the water delivery systems pipes represent the largest capital need, three quarters of the costs. Fixing and expanding the network of pipes will reduce sanitary sewer overflows, combined sewer overflows, and other pipe-related issues like urban sinkholes. Investment in wastewater treatment plants will have to increase due to new regulatory requirements as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, expands mandated nutrient and sediment management standards and water recycling programs across in the nation. In the past five years EPA regulations have required cities to invest more than $15 billion in new pipes, plants, and equipment to eliminate combined sewer overflows. Stormwater management is still small compared with sanitary pipes and treatment plants, and its growth may be managed by Low Impact and Green Infrastructure strategies. Even with these lower cost strategies, EPA programs like the Chesapeake Bay TMDL will dramatically increase that investment in wastewater infrastructure during the coming decades, but may maintain and improve water quality even with a growing population.

The grade ASCE gave for solid waste was a big bright spot improving in 2013 to a grade of B-, the highest grade for any category. In 2010, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash. Of that, 85 million tons were recycled or composted. This represents a 34% recycling rate, a vast improvement from the 14.5% recycling rate in 1980. Per capita generation rates of waste have been steady over the past 20 years and have declined since 2006. Though there is plenty of room for improvement, a generation raised on “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” seems to be having a big impact.

The grade for energy remained at a D+ despite the boom in gas and oil due to weakness in the distribution systems. The weaknesses in the electrical grid were highlighted in the extended outages during the storms that pounded the east coast in the past two years especially in New Jersey and Maryland. Investment in power transmission has increased in recent years, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions. Use of electricity in the U.S, has yet to regain the peak reached in 2007, but the demand for electricity, natural gas, and oil is forecast to increase in the next decades as the population increases and efficiency savings are used up. Though, recent booms in oil and gas production could supply the energy demand, regulation on carbon generation from electrical generation plants requiring replacement of a significant portion of the generation capacity and about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines (to expand the power grid and connect wind power generation farms and large solar power generation installations to the power grid) and significant oil and gas pipelines are needed to meet the demand for power and regulatory mandates.  Growing permitting and siting issues threaten construction of the generation and distribution systems needed.

Railroads are experiencing a resurgence in both freight transportation and passenger service. As a result freight and passenger rail have been investing heavily in their tracks, bridges, and tunnels as well as adding new capacity spending more than $75 billion since 2009. Increasing investment and utilization was highlighted by the purchase of Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, the largest U.S. railroad, by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. That company alone spent $400 million on terminals in 2012 while a group of oil and gas pipeline operators, Plains All American Pipeline LP plans to spend about $1 billion on rail depot projects to substitute for stalled pipeline projects to move oil and gas from drilling sites to processing locations. Private investment resulted in the grade for rail moving up to a C+ in 2013.

Much of the transportation infrastructure-bridges, inland waterways, ports, roads, airports are far more visible and have a much higher public awareness of the needs of the systems, but are primarily funded by public monies. The nation’s infrastructure needs a strong representation for budget allocations because it is our future. The maintenance of the power grid and the water treatment and distribution systems have suffered from neglect due to the way that utility rates are calculated from costs. Regulated monopolies that supply electricity, water, sewage have been cutting maintenance capital budgets to cut overhead while maintaining or increasing profits while limiting rate increases.

Virginia’s 2013 report card has not yet been completed. We received an overall grade of D+ in 2009, but I am hopeful that when the new report is complete that we will have improved to match (or crush) the C- that Maryland received.  Maryland’s report card appears below. 
ASCE report card

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Middle East -Using Up their Groundwater

Chart taken from Voss et al
Water management in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin has been always been very challenging for the water managers in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Iran for two reasons. First, there are no formal allocation of water rights for both surface and groundwater; and second, the lack of hydrologic data for the region. Inconsistent monitoring combined with a lack sharing, no clear allocation and a lack trust has plagued the region. Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers contain an extensive system of dams and reservoirs, and the surface water provided by the rivers are essential to the agricultural economies of the region. All agriculture is irrigated agriculture and agriculture is an important element of the economies.

Unfortunately, international water law fails to provide a guiding principle for water resource allocation and management of water across national borders. As a result, there are not legally binding water allocation agreements among the nations and Turkey, located up river of the others, acted unilaterally to construct over 20 dams on both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This intensive infrastructure development not only increased political tensions in the regions it has significantly altered the Tigris and Euphrates Basins in many ways. Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi water managers now dictate the river flows with timed releases from the reservoirs. Turkey used their water infrastructure to ensure their water supply during the drought period from 2007-2009. The result was the Euphrates River flow had decreased to approximately 70% of its normal flow by the time it crossed into Iraq. This forces Iraq to increase their use of groundwater to supplement the depleted river flow.

Observing the groundwater buried beneath layers of soil and rock was almost impossible until, the twin satellites known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, were launched in March 2002. At the time few believed the satellites could measure changes in groundwater, but thanks to work of Dr. Jay Famiglietti and his graduate student Matt Rodell, who were working at that time at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) the techniques for measuring groundwater using the GRACE satellites were developed and proven. Expanding on this earlier work is a new study lead by Kate Voss and Jay Famiglietti and is the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region.

GRACE data is providing a global picture of water storage trends and could be an invaluable tool for understanding water resource availability when hydrologic data and observations are not collected or shared beyond political boundaries. This information someday could be used to develop a unifying principal of cross border water resource allocation. Now, though, the first use has been to study the consequences of Turkey’s diversion of the lions’ share of the water on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during a period of drought.

Over the first 7 years of data collected ( January 2003 through December 2009) from GRACE, water stored in the 291,000-square-mileTigris and Euphrates basin shrunk by an average of 16 million acre feet a year, among the largest liquid freshwater losses on the planet (as recorded by GRACE). Meanwhile, the region’s demand for fresh water continues to grow. These nations are using their water unsustainably and using water beyond what should be their water budget. Drs. Voss, Frmiglietti et al used the GRACE data to calculate that nearly 144 km3 of water was lost in the Tigris and Euphrates water basin from 2003 to 2009. Approximately 91 km3 of the total amount of water lost during this time came from groundwater. 
Chart taken from Voss et al

The Tigris-Euphrates water basin is already facing severe water scarcity. The analyses presented by Drs. Voss, Famiglietti et al shows that groundwater depletion accounts for approximately 60% of the total water volume lost over the seven year period. Land subsidence due to over pumping of groundwater near Tehran, Iran, was documented by studies done by others. Once the land subsides it can no longer store water. A Brookings Institution report in 2012 (Michel et al) highlighted the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from northern Iraq due to lack of water.

The consequences of this lack regional water allocation and management have left the downstream nation of Iraq with little surface water flow and to survive the government drilled more than 1,000 well over the period that have resulted in the observed depletion of the nonrenewable groundwater reserves. After the drought began in 2007, agricultural productivity for the region declined, but Turkey controlling the dams upstream was least affected. However, downstream in Syria and Iraq, significant, larger declines occurred in all crops, particularly barley production. Agricultural output and water availability significantly influence economic stability and in turn peace in the region.

Advances in hydrologic remote sensing using satellites, and hydrological models, make it possible to construct accurate and holistic picture of freshwater availability, for this region or across the globe. The challenge is to use this information to manage water resources sustainably. Unless we learn to live within the water budget available, the more arid portions of the globe may descend into water and food wars.

All this information is from a recently published article “Groundwater depletion in the Middle East from GRACE with implications for trans-boundary water management in the Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region” by K. A. Voss, J. S. Famiglietti, M. Lo, C. de Linage, M. Rodell, and S. C. Swenson, and published in Water Resources Research in 2013. Like all scholarly, peer reviewed articles this one took several years to go from data gathering to publication so the data collection was from January 2003 through December 2009.