Thursday, October 31, 2013

Changes at the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts

During the past legislative session the water programs of the state were all consolidated and transferred to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by HB 2048 and SB 1279. Though there have been no changes in statutes or regulatory oversight, this was still a really big move to consolidate management and oversight of all water programs within the state under DEQ control. DEQ now manages; the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas, erosion and sediment control, point source and non-point source contamination, and the execution of all parts of the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) Virginia developed to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates. With these changes the 47 Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts were moved under the oversight of the DEQ.

On Monday there was a well-attended Public Meeting in Culpeper to discuss these changes and allow the various community members and stakeholders to express their concerns and support. The soil and water conservation districts (Districts) were born out of the dust bowl days to prevent erosion and preserve the soil and manage the network of small damns that were built throughout the nation. Over the years the mission evolved. Today the districts provide technical assistance to help farmers and landowners adopt conservation management practices. The districts also promote and encourage voluntary adoption of the approved storm water management, water protection strategies and soil protection and conservation measures that are known as “Best Management Practices” or BMPs. Part of the promotion of the adoption of the BMPs are various financial incentives known collectively as cost share programs that help farmers and landowners pay for the necessary improvements. Finally the Districts run a series of educational programs for both children and adults to further understanding of our watersheds, water quality and the seemingly small actions that can provide big solutions to our water quality if they are adopted by most people.

According to Neil Zahradka of the DEQ Office of Land Application Programs, the consolidation of the Districts under DEQ is intended to improved oversight and implementation of Virginia’s WIP. The WIP is the plan created to comply with the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment mandated by the EPA to Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay Watershed states and the District of the Columbia. EPA has legal authority to regulate only point source releases of contaminants and pollutants- wastewater, industrial, and municipal separate stormwater systems (MS4), and concentrated animal feeding operation permits as well as set total maximum daily load (TMDL) of those contaminants in rivers and surface waters. Under threat of EPA reducing these point source release levels to incredibly expensive to achieve or perhaps unachievable levels, Virginia produced a WIP that ultimately satisfied EPA. Though how these activities will be paid for is still unknown. EPA has never had a budget for implementation of these programs that are estimated to cost billions of dollars.

The revised and accepted WIP requires that Virginia’s Stormwater Management Regulations require redevelopments to meet reductions in nutrient and sediment loads, and to prevent nutrient pollution and sediment load increases from new development. In the future all new development appears to be required to be almost sediment and nutrient pollution free or to “pay” for their developments by reducing runoff from existing developments. The Commonwealth will reduce pollution from stormwater running off urban streets and parking lots by mandating reductions in state permits for large city stormwater systems. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stormwater runoff remains the only source of water pollution in Virginia that continues to increase. It is likely that the increase in nutrient pollution and sediment pollution from stormwater systems is partially a reflection of the expansion of suburban development out into Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties and the increasing population and road traffic in these areas.

For agricultural operations the revised WIP requires the implementation of resource management plans and BMPs on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and perennial surface waters; stream exclusion of livestock; and implemented nutrient management plans. Virginia plans to continue to provide cost-share funding to achieve these goals through the Districts and has even expanded stream exclusion funding to 100%. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation 30% of the pollution loads in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans. That is why the DEQ has consolidated the water programs, Virginia need virtually all the farmers in the state to implement BMPs.

The Districts depend on the cooperation and willingness of community partners and volunteers to work with them in order to achieve their goals. The relationships and trust that the Districts have with their communities is their greatest strength. The Districts encourage participation using established relationships, technical help and financial incentives and now have 100% funding available for their livestock exclusion program to expand the reach of their voluntary conservation activities. In the idiom of the carrot and the stick, the Districts are strictly a carrot organization. This cannot be said about the DEQ. As the representative of the Virginia’s Cattlemen’s Association pointed out the Districts has been very effective in getting BMPs on the ground and the deadlines under Chesapeake Bay TMDL leaves no time for Virginia to step back and accept the change.

The Districts that objected to the consolidation under DEQ seemed to object primarily for concern for the cultural clash between the culture that has evolved at DEQ in dealing with regulatory mandates for large businesses that have compliance officers rather than smaller and moderate sized farmers who read their paperwork in the evening. The Districts need by-in from the farmers and cattlemen (and women) to make the progress that the EPA requires under the WIP. The Districts that supported the consolidation thought that the agency responsible for implementation for the WIP and Chesapeake Bay TMDL should house the soil and water conservation districts. This was especially true for districts that had significant urban and suburban storm water and non-point source involvement. Increased funding could help the Districts.
PWSWCD 2012 River Cleanup

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Potomac River Flow

At the last meeting of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, Curtis Dalpra, Communications Manager for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) presented the results of a study to examine what the impacts of various senarios on the flow of the Potomac River which supplies much of the drinking water in the Washington Metropolitan Area. At one point in his presentation he stated that the flow of the Potomac has fallen, but did not have the data on hand to specify over what period. The region had only recently emerged from an extended drought and so I went back to the study that the ICPRB performed to examine adequacy of the Potomac River flow with projected land use and population growth without climate change to see if I could find the data. What I found did not indicate a reduction so much as a change in flow to the river.

Both Images from ICPRB
As shown in the two charts above taken from the ICPRB, there appears to be an increase in both precipitation and runoff (surface flow to the rivers) over the past century rather than a decrease. Mr. Dalpra might have been referring to the recent drought and changes in flow patterns. Low flows have been lower, and high flows higher, in the past than they are now. These flow changes are the result of some combination of changes in land use, consumptive water use, augmentation of low flows using reservoir water and possibly changes in the climate or to the extensive drought that hit this region several years ago and expanded to a multi-year drought.

The region seems to have recovered from that drought according to the Drought Monitor. However, in reviewing the data I did discover that about 70% of the Potomac is used in power generation, though it is not clear what proportion of that use is consumptive. In the United States over 90% of all power is generated by using the power source (coal, gas, nuclear and even solar) to heat water to create steam that drives the turbines and generates electricity. Nationally, less than half of the fresh water is used in power generation, but that is because irrigation water usage is much lower in the Potomac River basin where agriculture is much less dependent on irrigation.

The Potomac is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic seaboard. The Potomac River starts life as a spring at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia. The river flows approximately 385 miles to the Chesapeake Bay increasing in size and flow from its tributary streams and rivers in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The Potomac River grows to become the Chesapeake Bay's second largest Tributary. The River provides more than 500 million gallons of freshwater daily to those living in its watershed, as well as irrigation water , and the more than 2 billion gallons of water a day for power plants.

The Potomac River is one of the least dammed large river systems in the Eastern United States. The combined storage capacity of all major reservoirs upstream of Washington, DC makes up less than 7% of median flow. Nonetheless, the Potomac River’s flow needs to be managed to assure the 500 million gallons per day the river supplies for drinking water to the region and the essential environmental services. The ICPRB was born out of the severe and extended drought in the 1960's when water withdrawls to supply drinking water to the region from the River reduced flows to such an extent that the River practically ran dry, leaving only mud between Great Falls and the tidal river.

Ultimately (after more than a decade) the ICPRB was created to manage the water withdrawls from the Potomac to ensure that essential services like wastewater assimilation and habitat maintenance. The ICPRB monitors river flows and withdrawls to ensure the 100 million gallons per day minimum flow- at Little Falls and the 300 million gallons per day from Great Falls to Little Falls. These minimum flow levels have been observed since the early 1980's, but during that time flows have rarely been that low.

It is possible that River median flows at the measuring points of Little Falls and Great Falls is changing and may be decreasing due to population growth and associated land use changes that have taken place in the past 15 years. Population growth accelerates loss of forest and farmland, hardens surfaces, increases demand for water. Urbanization can significantly alter a river’s flow. Impervious surfaces of roadways, sidewalks, parking lots and building foundations increase stormflow peaks, frequency, and duration, impart greater erosive power to the water by increasing velocity, and reshaping stream contours. Rivers are sustained by groundwater between in drier periods, but urban and suburban development reduces recharge of the groundwater. Deforestation increases the proportions of rainfall running off the landscape instead of seeping into the ground where it can be taken up by plants or enter the groundwater.

The original old growth forests of the region were largely destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture and by logging to build the region. After destroying 60%-70% of the original forest cover by the 1890’s the trend reversed. Marginal agricultural lands were abandoned and young forest began to reestablish. The new forests that grew up in the 20th century helped restore ecological and hydrological functions. Increases in forest acreage continued until the late 1900s, when expanding urbanization began to reverse that trend and the wooded lands at the suburban edge began to be developed in increasing numbers.

Increased development reduces groundwater infiltration, increases the demand for drinking water and the demand for power. Even without climate change impact, human uses of land and water can interrupt or break many of the natural connections between river flow and precipitation. Analysis by the ICPRB found that land use change is a greater source of hydrologic alteration than dams, impoundments or water withdrawals.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Using Chlorine to Fix Problematic Well Water

I have been rethinking water treatment after working with some local well owners to solve their problems. Water softeners are the most often sold to treat well water. Water softeners work by replacing hard water ions (calcium and magnesium, which are positively charged ions) with sodium ions. This ion exchange occurs as water flows through the ion-exchange resin in the softener tank. Water softener systems require the regular addition of sodium pellets and are expensive to install. To a limited extent these systems can address low levels of iron and manganese, but really only soften water. However, water softeners can create a slew of problems by offering a hospitable environment for nuisance bacteria to thrive.

Though there are frequently more issues to consider than if the water is hard or soft, water containing approximately 125 milligrams of calcium, magnesium and iron per liter of water (or 8 grains per gallon) is considered hard. Concentration of magnesium and calcium above 180 milligrams per liter is considered very hard. As the mineral level climbs, bath soap combines with the minerals and forms a pasty scum that accumulates on bathtubs and sinks. You either must use more soap and detergent in washing or use specially formulated hard water soap solutions which are available in most locations. These hard water minerals also combine with soap in the laundry, and the residue doesn’t rinse well from fabric, leaving clothes dull. Hard water spots appear on everything that is washed in and around the home from dishes and silverware to the floor tiles and car, but adding a half cup of white vinegar to laundry and dishwasher, occasionally boiling your kettle with vinegar solves many of these problems. Hard water is likely to reduce the life of your hot water heater due to the buildup of sediment in the tank. Nonetheless, I, like many people, have a personal preference for the taste and feel of slightly hard water, so I have never considered softening.

In many parts of the country (including mine) the water contains high levels of dissolved minerals beyond just calcium. Groundwater very slowly wears away at the rocks and minerals picking up small amounts of calcium, iron and magnesium ions as well as other elements in the rock and soil. Water analysis should be performed before any treatment is considered to make sure the selected treatment is necessary and appropriate for your water. Remember a treatment system not only has to be maintained, but curing one problem may cause another. No treatment is without consequences and an inappropriate treatment could create other problems.

That said, I have been thinking about chlorination, the oldest method of disinfection to solve the most vexing problems in private wells- especially here in Prince William County. Iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide are together responsible for more people labeling their water “bad” than hard water, or for that matter water that contains coliform bacteria. Chlorine will oxidize iron and manganese so they can be filtered out and also oxidize hydrogen sulfide to reduce or eliminate the rotten egg order that can render well water here undrinkable. Chlorination followed by a media filter or a rechargeable carbon filter to capture particles and precipitate and the free chlorine can produce pleasant, sanitary water.

Typically, I recommend shock chlorination to address storm related flooding or a significant infestation of iron bacteria, and have used it for that myself. Continuous chlorination can be used to ensure a bacterial free well when coliform bacteria are a recurring seasonal problem. However, if fecal coliform or E-coli bacteria have entered your well water supply, it is recommended that the source of contamination be eliminated- find the leaking septic system and repair it or drill a new well. Chlorine will not remove nitrates from water and the elevated levels of nitrates associated with septic contamination can kill infants. Adding chlorine may prevent nitrates from being reduced to the toxic nitrite form; however, nitrates are not removed from water by chlorination.

In addition, chlorine does not kill Giardia or Cryptosporidium, two microscopic parasites that can be found in surface water and groundwater that has been impacted by surface water in karst terrain. Both parasites produce cysts that cause illness and sometimes death. After feeding, the parasites form new cysts, which are then passed in the feces of the host. Giardia are often found in human, beaver, muskrat, and dog feces. Cattle feces appear to be the primary source of Cryptosporidium, although these parasites have also been found in humans and other animals. Drinking water can become contaminated when feces containing the parasites are deposited or flushed into water. Membrane filtration is the usual treatment for these parasites- a one micron membrane is required.

Chlorine in water at the concentrations used for treatment is not poisonous to humans or animals. However, chlorine can impact the smell and/or taste of water even in very low concentrations. Household chlorination systems often use higher chlorine concentration than the typical 0.3 - 0.5 ppm (parts per million) concentration used for chlorination of public water supplies because the contact time is much shorter in home systems. The typical home system uses 1-2 ppm. This elevated level of chlorine can result in the swimming pool smell and can impact the taste of food and my beloved cup of coffee. This smell can be removed using an activated carbon or charcoal filter. Trihalomethanes (THMs) are organic chemicals that may form when chlorine is used to treat water supplies that contain humic compounds. This is often the concern in large water systems that use surface water for their supply. Humic compounds form as a part of the decomposition of organic materials such as leaves, grass, wood or animal wastes. Because THMs are very seldom associated with groundwater, they are primarily a concern where surface water supplies are used. THMs can be removed from drinking water through use of an activated carbon filter.

Chlorine treatment will control nuisance organisms such as iron, iron bacteria and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Iron bacteria feed on the iron in the water. They may appear as a slimy, reddish mass in the toilet tank but microscopic examination is needed to confirm their presence. Iron bacteria that have penetrated the water-bearing formation are extremely difficult to eliminate using shock chlorination of the well and will likely re-infest the system over time. In this situation you will need to repeat chlorination treatment periodically. Sulfate-reducing bacteria produce hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) which has that horrible “rotten egg” smell and awful taste. Your nose alone can verify the presence of hydrogen sulfide, but not its cause. Nuisance bacteria do not cause disease. Low levels of chlorine are able to oxidize large concentrations of iron, manganese and sulfate or hydrogen sulfide into an insoluble form that can then be filtered out.

When installing a continuous chlorination system a chemical feed pump chlorinator is installed before the pressure tank in the basement and wired to water pump pressure switch. A fixed amount of chlorine solution is delivered with each pump discharge stroke. The chlorination system should be tested for free chlorine with test strips to adjust the dose. When the filter is in line the residual free chlorine should be under 1 ppm. You adjust the amount of chlorine by changing the length of the discharge stroke, the speed of the pump, or the running time of the pump to optimize performance of the system. Keeping a supply of good chlorine test strips and monitoring your water will allow you to optimize your system.
from Excel Water Web Site
A contact tank for additional contact time, and a carbon media filter, for de-chlorination and removal of precipitated contaminants should be installed after the pressure tank. It might be necessary to install a larger pressure tank since to operate optimally a garnet media filter typically requires 50 pounds of pressure and small pressure tanks typically operate in 40-60 pound range. A larger pressure tank might eliminate the need for a contact tank, but be aware that the rubberized bladder can be oxidized by the chlorine over time. If you are removing large quantities of particulates from oxidized iron, manganese and sulfate a media filter that uses a graded from coarse to fine media to trap the suspended particles is necessary followed by activated carbon will deliver the best tasting water. Monitoring chlorine levels in the finished water (at the tap) assures you a supply of disinfected, water free from iron and manganese staining and hydrogen sulfide.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Test and Think Before Treating Well Water

When I first bought my home here in the Rural Crescent of Prince William County several people tried to sell me water treatment systems, from the carpeting contractor who wanted to also sell me a whole house filter to the water softening system salesman offering “free water testing.” The free testing offered by these companies usually only tests for hardness and other contaminants that they sell treatment systems for, but there has recently come on the market home testing kits that are quite good and can test wells for health related impurities. However, because I had fully tested the well water for every primary and secondary drinking water contaminant before purchase and liked the taste of my water, I knew that water treatment was not necessary.

Private drinking water wells should be tested annually for bacteria and every 1-3 years for other common regional groundwater contaminants especially if you install treatment systems. Groundwater is dynamic and can change over time, and it is important to make sure that any treatment is still appropriate and effective. Though I know that there is a tendency to not test water because you worry about what you might find, you need to monitory your water quality. Water treatment systems are not an install and forget piece of equipment, they are systems that need to be maintained and adjusted to keep the water within ideal parameters. Improperly treated water can be as problematic as not treating water.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Offices in Virginia occasionally holds drinking water clinics for well, spring and cistern owners as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program. The VCE subsidizes the analysis cost for these clinics and Prince William Extension is planning on holding its next clinic on March 31, 2014. Currently, samples are analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria at a cost of $49 to the well owner. This is far from an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, but with one or two exceptions these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells in Virginia. These are mostly the naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion from slightly acidic water.

There are other contaminants that can be found in ground water in certain regions that can cause illness when exposed to small amounts over long periods of time Uranium is an example. There are also nuisance contaminants for which there is not an approved EPA methodology, iron bacteria is an example. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program has been sponsoring water clinics and collecting well data in Virginia for years. They have used their database to expand their knowledge of regional water quality problems and natural contaminants. Water analysis should be performed before any treatment is considered to make sure the selected treatment is necessary and appropriate. Remember a treatment system not only has to be maintained, but curing one problem may cause another.

I have tested my well at different times of year and sometimes my water is harder than others, but also there are times when my sulfate levels have been higher than others. According to the water clinic statistics, Prince William County has very high naturally occurring levels of sulfate and elevated levels are not uncommon. The EPA guidance for sulfate is 250 ppm for taste, but may be unnoticeable at higher levels, but truly excessive levels can have a laxative effect. Hydrogen Sulfide gas (H2S) gives water that awful “rotten egg” taste and smell and can render water undrinkable because of the taste and smell. Unless you have hydrogen sulfide, sulfate concentrations can be ignored at levels up to (and possibly beyond) twice the EPA secondary limit.

Hydrogen sulfide can never be ignored and is probably the reason some wells are considered to have bad water. Hydrogen sulfide can end up in your tap water by four different routes: (1) It can occur naturally in groundwater in oil rich shale and coal seams. (2) It can be produced within the well or plumbing systems by sulfur reducing bacteria. (3) Hydrogen sulfide can form in hot water heater by either supplying a pleasant environment for the sulfate reducing bacteria or by the reaction of magnesium rod intended to prevent corrosion of the heating tank with the sulfate in the water. (4) Hydrogen sulfide gas can be caused by contamination of the well with septic waste. Systematic testing can identify the cause and cure.

Hydrogen sulfide created by sulfur reducing bacteria “eating” the sulfate can be appear over time after installing a water treatment system. According to the EPA, sulfur-reducing bacteria pose no known health risks, but can make the water and entire home smell of rotten eggs. Sulfur-reducing bacteria live in oxygen-deficient environments such as deep wells, plumbing systems, water softeners, and water heaters. Often these bacteria flourish in plumbing and water softening systems. Sulfate reduction can occur over a wide range of pH, pressure, temperature, and salinity conditions and produce the rotten egg smell and the blackening of water and sediment by the formation of iron sulfide if iron is also present in the groundwater or plumbing system. If you do not have a hydrogen sulfide problem, but do have elevated levels of sulfide, think very carefully before you install any treatment system where the sulfur reducing bacteria or iron reducing bacteria might thrive.

Low pH water or acidic water is fairly common in the Tidewater portion of the county east of the Fall Line. The pH of water is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity. The pH is a logarithmic scale from 0 – 14 with 1 being very acidic and 14 very alkaline. Drinking water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. For reference and to put this into perspective, coffee has a pH of around 5 and salt water has a pH of around 9. Corrosive water, sometimes also called aggressive water is typically water with a low pH. (Alkaline water can also be corrosive.)

Over time low pH water can corrode metal plumbing fixtures causing lead and copper to leach into the water and causing pitting and leaks in the plumbing system. The blue/green staining on plumbing fixtures observed in some older homes is caused by the slow corrison of the old copper pipes. These homes which are now quite old (copper piping has not been used for decades) typically experience occasional plumbing leaks. The presence of lead or copper in water is most commonly leaching from the plumbing system rather than the groundwater.

Though acidic water is easily treated using an acid neutralizing filter, by now it is probably too late to save your pipes from damage. Neutralizing filters use a granular marble, calcium carbonate or lime. If the water is very acidic a mixing tank using soda ash, sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide can be used, but this can be overkill in many homes. The acid neutralizing filters will increase the hardness of the water because of the addition of calcium carbonate creating a new set of problems to address. The sodium based systems will increase the salt content in the water. Water softening systems are used to address hard water are basically an ion exchange systems that can add even more sodium to the water and may shorten the life of your septic drain field.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Solar Panel Failure

My solar power output on a cloudy morning-note the failed panel
On the back of my house facing almost dead south is a roof mounted 7.36 KW solar array consisting of 32 Sharp 230 watt solar photovoltaic panels and 32 Enphase micro-inverters. We decided to go with Sharp Solar PV panels because when I made my purchasing decision in 2009 Sharp had manufactured 25% of the solar PV installed at the time and had been in the business for over 40 years. Sharp had continued to invest in the research and development of photovoltaic solar panels at that time, but since has suffered crushing competition by less expensive manufacturers. The Sharp panels put out almost 10% more wattage using the same square footage than many competitors and allowed me to fit the 7.36 kilowatt array on the main roof section avoiding any shadows from vents. The Sharp panel sold in the United States was manufactured in their Memphis Tennessee plant, which in 2009 had produced over a million panels.

The final point in their favor was the Sharp modules met the intent for the “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill which provided the funding for a renewable energy grant I obtained from Virginia. When I purchased my solar panels I also choose the Enphase micro inverter system. Though this system was more expensive than a single power inverter, it does two things for which I was willing to pay. The first is that the power cables running down the side of my house, albeit inside a pipe, are 120 current instead of 240. The second advantage to the micro inverters is that the energy production of each individual panel can be checked on the internet.

I have gotten in the habit of checking my solar panels production numbers every month when I get my power bill. I am on net metering with NOVEC my power cooperative to sell my solar renewable energy certificates. I managed to register my system and get grandfathered into the Washington DC SREC market before it was closed to out of city systems. My installation web page allows me to see the current energy produced by each of my 32 panels every minute, every hour, daily, weekly, monthly and the cumulative total power output. After two months of checking several times a day, I only spot check the solar panel midday on the day when my power bill arrives or after storms to make sure all the panels are performing optimally. The reason I chose Enphase was to be able to easily identify a problem with the system. Little did I know that barely three years after the installation I would be facing repair issues.

Shortly before the New York Times reported emerging problems with some solar installations in a story about solar panels covering a vast warehouse roof in California failing less than three years into their expected 25-year life span, one of my solar panels appeared to fail. While I was attempting to have my solar system serviced a second panel appeared to fail. The company I hired to install the system was no longer in the solar business- without renewable energy rebates and a viable solar renewable energy certificate market, there was not enough business to sustain a solar installation operation in Virginia. They were focusing instead on energy audits, but they referred me to a Maryland and Washington DC based installer, Lighthouse Solar.

All solar PV panels degrade and slowly over time produce less power, however there appears to be a spreading of failures at two to three years. Solar photovoltaic panels have no moving parts so that the operating life of the solar panels is largely determined by the stability of the coating film, the quality of finish and fit of the panels and the proper sealing of the edging and connectors. Quality control in manufacturing is essential to have a solar panel that will last 25 years in sun, rain, sleet and snow.

The quality across the industry (and not just on my roof) has been brought into questing by the rising number of panel failures being reported in the media, though I could find no statistics. It is not just the less expensive Chinese solar arrays that are failing, the California warehouse failure reported in the New York Times reportedly has panels manufactured by an American Manufacturer. Solar panel power generation capacity grew from 83 Megawatts in 2003 to 7,300 Megawatts in 2012 with over 3,500 Megawatts installed in 2012 alone.

The quality and life span of these rapidly produced solar panels is about to be tested in the next few years. Also, without micro inverters a failure of one panel in an array like mine is a 3% reduction in power production and might not be noticed, it could be attributed to decreasing efficiency of the panels or weather variations. In Ed Begley, Jr.’s Guide To Sustainable Living, he said that over the years he had four solar panels fail, his storage batteries were replaced after 15 years and the wiring for the panels were damaged and needed to be replaced at 18 years. So, these systems are not trouble free even in sunny warm California, you cannot just install them and forget it.
Enphase trouble report
It took almost two months for me to identify another company and get them to come out. They looked into my system and spoke to Enphase and determined that the problem was probably the micro inverter so they ordered a new inverter from Enphase. By the time they had scheduled my repair a second inverter had failed and they were able to replace both inverters on the same day. According to the Solar Guys who prefer to remain nameless, they have replaced many Enphase inverters. The good news is that the inverters had a 10 year warrantee and it cost me nothing. The bad news is that the new inverters only fixed one of the two panels. After some back and forth between Enphase, Lighthouse Solar and me, I appear to have a solar panel failure also. Though I am on the back burner, Lighthouse is attempting to get a replacement Sharp solar panel and I hope before winter to have the panel replaced. Otherwise it will have to wait for spring. Since it is only a 3% decrease in power production, I will attempt to remain Zen about the timing and hope that Nick can locate a Sharp panel soon.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mitigating Environmental Impact of Suburban Sprawl

Increasing suburban development and population density is a significant contributing factor to the impaired water resources in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Its impact is often hidden in the numbers because agricultural land represents almost twice the land as the developed areas. Growing populations in the suburban fringes of the Washington Metropolitan Area have had a significant impact on ecosystems in the region. Sprawling, low-density residential and commercial areas in the suburban and semi-rural areas result in additional infrastructure like roads (the controversial Bi-County Parkway) and shopping centers that chew up forests, green corridors, tree canopy, and agricultural lands. Often the remaining open areas between existing centers eventually fill with more new development. This type of development increases stormwater pollution and degrades the health of our water.
Image from Chesapeake Bay Foundation
According to the U. S. Environment al Protection Agency (EPA), the primary pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are; nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These nutrients can lead to harmful algae blooms that kill underwater plants and destroy the river, bay and estuary habitat that aquatic life needs to survive. Excess nutrients and sediments can also lead to water with little or no dissolved oxygen to the detriment of aquatic life and the ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay serves as a nursery ground for the fish and shellfish industry and protects the coast from storm surges and filters pollution. The estuary filters water that is carrying nutrients and contaminants from the surrounding watershed, protecting and restoring our drinking water supplies, the commercial oyster harvest and the beauty and ecological balance of the largest estuary in the United States.

EPA has legal authority to regulate point source releases of contaminants and pollutants- wastewater, industrial, and municipal separate stormwater systems (MS4), and concentrated animal feeding operation permits as well as set total maximum daily load (TMDL) of those contaminants in rivers and surface waters. The Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment was mandated by the EPA to the six Chesapeake Bay Watershed states (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) and the District of the Columbia.

EPA is invoking a “moderate levels of back stops” for Virginia under the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) for the TMDL to ensure adequate reduction in nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. This means that the WIP aggregate point source allocations for storm water and animal agriculture (CAFO) sectors were adjusted by the federal government to levels determined to be adequate to meet the TMDL. More stringent waste load allocations were applied to waste water treatment plants (regulated via federal programs); so that the waste stream from wastewater treatment plants was assigned to be 4 mg/L total nitrogen and 0.3 mg/L total phosphorus. For municipal separate storm sewer systems, MS4s, the federal government has imposed the requirement that 75% of urban MS4 lands meet aggressive performance standard through retrofit and redevelopment. I’m, quite frankly, not sure what that means in terms of installation and operation of storm systems, but the recent merger of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to have the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) be the lead agency for stormwater management is intended in part to address this.

In order to reduce the stormwater runoff carrying nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and other pollutants from existing suburban residential areas stormwater best management practices (BMPs) will need to be implemented in the suburban communities. DNR, DEQ and the counties and cities of Virginia are going to have to implement non-point source nutrient management throughout the watershed. Homeowner Associations and individual homeowners need to individually and as a group reduce the nutrients and sediment run off from their properties.

Nutrient management and soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) play a pivotal role in preventing such runoff in the agricultural community. In fact, SWCDs have been in the business of fighting erosion which prevents nutrient and sediment pollution since the mid-1930s, but agricultural operations are businesses that can see the direct result of maintaining their top soil and that have learned over the years to deal with various regulations. The challenge is much greater for the individual homeowner and the disperse sources of non-point source contamination; septic systems, poor drainage, impervious ground cover, lawn and plant fertilization, and household behaviors.

Virginia's 47 soil and water conservation districts have for years focused mainly on on-the-ground work implementing best management practices (BMPs) on farms. They have used the agricultural cost share program as the carrot to help foster the acceptance of BMPs and now have 100% funding available for their livestock exclusion program. DCR and the counties and conservation districts are attempting to develop strategies to reach out to not only farmers, but also urban and suburban landowners, and other land managers to encourage and help them to reduce their stormwater runoff and nutrient loads. Controlling runoff pollution is everyone's business and education and community have to be a large part of implementation. Each of us causes runoff pollution, and each of us must act to reduce its effects.

The difficult question is how does one educate the public of their responsibilities and then ensure that the public meets them? Suburban and semi-rural BMPs have the potential to significantly reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but DCR, DEQ and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) have struggled to reach, educate and motivate the public. The VDH has set up an advisory committee of private sector septic design, maintenance and installation companies to assist in the transition to privatize the industry to the greatest extent possible and increase compliance with septic regulations by the public. Loudoun County has been in the forefront of innovative programs and to reach the public and appears to have successfully managed to privatize septic design, installation, maintenance and inspection within the county while utilizing their resources to track compliance.

Another area where Loudoun County is leading is experimenting with suburban BMP implementation programs. Loudoun County funded a pilot program with the county Soil and Water Conservation District to implement non-agricultural stream buffer plantings in several suburban developments. The Conservation district worked with county staff, the Department of Forestry, HOAs, individual homeowners, and all other stakeholders to plant canopy trees and under story plantings along stream banks to reduce erosion of the stream bank. The county provided funding for the pilot project at $7,000 per acre for a total of 10 acres the HOAs provided labor for the plantings and a covenant to maintain the plantings in perpetuity. The model of conservation districts working with suburban HOAs (especially the semi-rural developments) is one that could be copied and implemented broadly to include not only buffer plantings but infiltration trenches, bio-retention areas, rain gardens and curb cuts, dry swales and even septic maintenance best practices.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Open House at Alexandria ReNew

Alexandria Renew Enterprises, (AlexRenew) that was formerly known as the Alexandria Sanitation Authority will be holding an open house on Saturday, October 12th from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM at its campus on 1500 Eisenhower Avenue. AlexRenew operates one of the most advanced wastewater reclamation facilities in the United States; it manages to treat sewage a few blocks west of Old Town almost unnoticed on a 35-acre site. They process an average of 13.5 billion gallons of wastewater every year, serving about 350,000 people in the City of Alexandria and part of Fairfax County without the neighbors being constantly reminded of their existence by the typical sewage plant stench. AlexRenew has spent millions of dollars on an order treatment removal system that makes them very good neighbors.

Alexandria Renew will show visitors how it cleans dirty water to its highest standards, turning it into clean, renewable and sustainable natural resources that can be used for a variety of safe and accepted purposes. AlexRenew removes over 90% of the nitrogen and close to 100% of the phosphorus from the sewage water coming into the plant. Those nutrients are what fuel the growth of algae blooms in the waterways and are the two of the three pollution targets of the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, AlexRenew nutrients in the removed solids and converts them into pathogen-free renewable material called Class A Exceptional Quality Biosolids.

The solids removed from the sewage liquid are thickened and dewater using centrifuges and then pasteurized at 158 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time to kill all the pathogens. AlexRenew treats their sludge to remove not only pathogens, but also heavy metals and other contaminants to produce Class A Exceptional Quality bio-solids. This environmentally-friendly product is provided to farmers in Virginia as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Some of the Class A Exceptional Quality Biosolids gets sent to a mulch facility where they get combined with wood fines, creating a soil amendment product that they are calling “George’s Old Town Blend” and is typically given away free at their open house to consumers, though there are plans to sell the product at some time in the future. At the open house you can see the garden where they planted with and without George’s Old Town Blend.

Annually AlexRenew reuses over 1.3 billion gallons of their own treated effluent for plant maintenance and cleaning – this saves AlexRenew almost $3 million in purchased water expenses and reduces using finished drinking water for grounds watering and cleaning. AlexRenew also uses their on-site generated methane gas that is created by the bacteria in the digesters. AlexRenew generated and captured close to 130 million cubic feet of renewable methane gas last year enough methane to heat 793 homes for a year. Their neighbors are aware that AlexRenew is undergoing an expansion, installing a new 18-million gallon wastewater storage tank that when completed with be underground and topped by a soccer field. This storage tank is part of AlexRenew’s major upgrade, which is needed to meet even more stringent environmental regulations and the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Stop by, I plan to.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Potomac Watershed Roundtable- Reliability of Drinking Water Supply

On Friday, October 4th 2013 the Potomac Watershed Roundtable met at the offices of Loudoun Water in Ashburn, Virginia. Curtis Dalpra, Communications Manager for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) presented the results of a study to examine what the impacts of Climate Change might be on Drinking Water Supplies in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Let’s back up to understand why and how this study was done.

Turn a tap in most places of the Washington Metropolitan region, and water, primarily from the Potomac River, flows. The system that today provides ample water to the area does not provide unlimited water. The water supply for the region will become less reliable in coming decades, especially during droughts, as the population continues to grow and as surface flow to the Potomac River decreases by changes in the land use of the watershed and changes in climate impact the river.

The Washington Metropolitan region population and development has reached the point that during times of drought, natural flows on the Potomac are not always sufficient to allow water withdrawals by the utilities (including power generation which takes an awesome amount of water) while still maintaining a minimum flow in the river for sustaining aquatic resources. ICPRB allocates and manages water resources of the river through the management of the jointly owned Jennings Randolph Reservoir (built in 1981), Potomac River Low Flow Allocation Agreement (1978) and the Water Supply Coordination Agreement in 1982 which designated a section of the ICPRB as responsible for allocating water resources during times of low flow. These steps improved reliability of the water supply and ensured maintenance of in-stream flows to meet minimum aquatic habitat requirements. The section of ICPRB responsible for all this is known as the Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac (CO-OP.

An important aspect of the Water Supply Coordination Agreement of 1982 is periodically forecasting the region’s future needs for water and assessing the current water supply system’s ability to meet those needs. This analysis is conducted every five years to look 30 years in the future to incorporate new data and ideas and allow time for the water utilities to develop new supply or operating parameters in time to meet demand. Careful future planning has ensured and uninterrupted water supply though several significant droughts.

The 2010 Washington Metropolitan Area Water Supply Reliability Study -Demand and Resource Availability for the Year 2040 was done as two studies. The 2010 study estimates that water demand in the Washington Metropolitan region will rise from its current level of approximately 500 million gallons per day to between 610 and 665 million gallons a day by the year 2040. Over this same period, population in this area is projected to increase from 4.2 million to 5.3 million.

According to that portion of the study, the Washington Metropolitan Area’s current water supply system will likely meet demands through the year 2030, under a range of hydrologic conditions similar to those experienced during the past 78-year period of historical record. However by the year 2040, the current system may have difficulty meeting the region’s demands during periods of severe drought without emergency water use restrictions, and/or the development of additional supply resources.

The key assumption for that report was that the future flow of the Potomac River will mirror the hydraulic conditions for the past 78 years. If hydraulic conditions are changing or a 78 year period is inadequate to predict the possible extent of droughts, this could impact the availability of water. So the ICPRB engaged a study for various climate scenarios of water supply availability from Potomac Watershed to determine if the water supply would be adequate to serve the population. 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.

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.

Though the modelers have always claimed greater accuracy for temperature forecasts than precipitation, they have not done a good job of forecasting surface temperature for the past decade. The average surface temperature of earth has actually not increased in the past decade and none of the climate models have been able to adequately explain that anomaly. For the period of 1970 to 2000 the median surface temperature as recorded by measurements increased 0.3 ± 0.04°F per year. However, there has been little further warming of the surface of the planet, particularly over the oceans in the most recent 10 to 15 years. Nonetheless, with all those disclaimers, the USGS did get some predictions out of their 18 scenarios.

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 (or not). 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.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stink Bugs Congregating on Your House

Image from Oregon State Extension
It is not your imagination, the brown marmorated stink bug officially known as Halyomorpha halys is trying to get into your house. The large bug appears to be almost waiting for you to open your garage or any other door to slip into the house. The adult stink bugs congregate in early fall in the afternoon waning sun and seek sites to spend the winter especially inside buildings. The stink bugs will occasionally reappear during warmer sunny periods throughout the winter, and then as it emerges in the spring to mate. The stink bug is not harmful to people, houses, or pets, they do not bite, sting, suck blood or carry disease. They do not eat wood or bore into it so they do not damage your house, but they are large bugs, a little less than ¾ of an inch, can fly and are seemingly relentless.

The stink bugs are not native to the United States they arrived from China in the late 1990’s or around 2000 when they were first noted in Pennsylvania. In the United States they do not yet have any natural enemies and they have spread widely in the Mid-Atlantic States causing crop damage. In its native range of China, Japan, Korea it is known as an agricultural pest and has become a serious threat to the fruit, vegetables and farm crops of the Mid-Atlantic region here and is still spreading to other regions of the United States. Pesticides have very limited effect on the bugs. The economic damage that the shield shaped bugs are causing the United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, and the Land Grant Universities to study and research a solution. Studies are now underway at the USDA’s Biological Control Research laboratory to develop a biological control using egg parasites. However, that is not going to help with the invasion of your home.

Exterior applications of insecticides may offer some very short lived relief from infestations. A synthetic pyrethroid (i.e. deltamethrin, cyfluthrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, cypermethrin, sumithrin or tralomethrin) are reported by the USDA to have some effectiveness on stink bugs. Unfortunately, because these insecticides are broken down by sunlight and the effectiveness of the treatment will not last more than a few days or up to a week. Although using an insecticidal dust treatments to voids where stink bugs emerge from may kill hundreds of bugs, there is the possibility that carpet beetles will feed on the dead stink bugs and create a larger problem. Carpet beetles attack woolens, stored dry goods or other natural products in the home. By using the insecticidal dust you may add a carpet beetle problem to the stink bug invasion. Although aerosol type pyrethrum foggers will kill stink bugs that have amassed on ceilings and walls in living areas, it will not prevent more stink bugs from emerging shortly after the room is aired out.

Mechanical exclusion is the best method to keep stink bugs out of your house. If the bugs get into your home they have been reported to emerge from behind baseboards, around windows and doors and around exhaust fans, dryer vents or ceiling fans and lights in massive swarms. The degree of invasion into your home depends on how well you have sealed your house. The bugs are good flyers and once inside their ability to launch in a dive bomb move when disturbed is a bit scary. Pesticides are generally ineffective against stink bugs. The only way to deal with them is mechanical- keep them out and I kid you not vacuum them up if they get in. WARNING: the stink bugs get their nickname from the unpleasant order they emit if squished or annoyed and be aware that the vacuum will acquire the pungent and unpleasant smell of the stink bugs for a period of time. If the bugs get into the house vacuum them up with a shop vacuum or an old vacuum cleaner. The smell will go away quickly. Dump the bugs into a bucket of soapy water to die.

The same techniques that keep mice from entering the home and seal your home rigorously from the elements will keep most stink bugs from entering your home. First of all, there is no way to prevent stink bugs from getting into the garage because garage doors just do not seal that tight in their tracks. Instead, it is necessary to sweep the bug out of the garage in the cold mornings when they are inactive and seal all entries to the house. Steel wool and lath screening should be pushed into every crack; the area caulked with an all-weather caulk and sealed using spray insulation. New weather stripping should be placed on every exterior door. All the kitchen pipes, the dryer vent pipe, the gas pipe to the fireplace the pilot light and valve to the fireplace should be fitted with lath screening. The space between the foundation and siding should be carefully caulked and sealed. Attic vents should be screened. Windows should be caulked and weather stripping on the windows checked. All exterior holes for electrical, plumbing, and gas lines should be carefully sealed with Duxseal. This will keep not only the stink bugs out of the house but prevent invasion of mice.