Monday, December 30, 2013

Solar Panels, SREC’s and Public Utilities

from WSSC
Last week in the Washington Post was an article by Katherine Shaver about the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s (WSSC) solar farm. The WSSC plant in Montgomery County, Maryland has 8,500 solar photovoltaic panels covering 13 acres of land that began operations last fall and is expected to save the WSSC 25% of their electrical costs. They WSSC expects to save $3.5 million over 20 years without a single dollar outlay, while neighboring Fairfax Water found that even with today’s low solar photovoltaic panel prices that the solar project they considered would require 36 years of operation just to break even. How is that possible that two adjacent utilities have found such vastly different economics of solar photovoltaic installations? The answer is financial incentives provided by the state and paid for by the electric utilities and their rate payers.

Solar incentives exist in Maryland, but not Virginia. Some of the rebates are state wide, others are county incentives, there are rebates based on sales of SRECs which in turn are based on the power produced by the solar panels. A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced, but used elsewhere. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. Maryland has such a set aside. Maryland has a healthy and robust SREC market because they have both a significant solar carve out for solar that will be 0.35% of the RPS in 2014, a market that is open only to solar installations located in Maryland and a current $400 Solar Alternative Compliance Payment, SACP. The SACP is the amount that electric utilities, must pay per MWh of solar electricity that they are required to have, but are unable to generate themselves or buy rights to through SREC purchases to meet the state RPS solar requirement. In other words, the SACP is the maximum value of an in-state SREC. The minimum value is based on the supply. Right now Maryland has 153 MW of installed and registered in-state capacity with a 2013 requirement of 136.5 MW solar requirement under the RPS, but that requirement will jump to 194 MW in 2014 so the market will once more be under supplied and SREC value should approach the SACP price.

WSSC is engaged in a solar leasing contract with Washington Gas Energy Systems who actually paid the $12 million to install the solar panels on the WSSC land and will maintain and service the installation. The solar leasing companies are profit making enterprises that excel at managing, government guarantee loans, rebates, incentives, tax credits and SRECs, to maximize their profit while providing discounted electricity from renewable sources to landowners with favorably oriented roofs or large areas of open land in locations with adequate rebates. However, many of the solar panel leasing companies have enough scale to negotiate multiple year deals with utilities to buy their SRECs reducing their financial risk and ensuring a better deal than a small generator and eliminating market risk. They can in essence they can lock in a guaranteed annual profit for setting up the deal.

There are no RPS solar requirements in Virginia, thus no value to SRECs beyond the $10-$15 that a RPS credit is worth. Thus, Fairfax Water would have to pay about $12 million dollars today to save $14 million over 20 years in addition to incur the expenses to maintain the solar photovoltaic panels and borrow the money to buy the solar panels. This is not an expenditure that would be a good deal for their rate payers. If they paid just 3% interest on the money borrowed to install the solar panels then it would cost $21 million to save $14 million in electricity over 20 years. Lack of financial incentives for solar leasing companies is why Fairfax Water cannot “afford” to install a cool solar photovoltaic panel farm to power their water treatment and waste water treatment plants. However, Virginia electric rate payers have lower electricity costs than Maryland.

Washington’s DC Water has a different problem. The District of Columbia passed a law in 2011 which prevents out-of-state systems registered after January 31st 2011 from participating in the DC SREC Market. DC is currently the only under-supplied SREC market in the nation, because of the lack of large commercial solar farms and large industrial installations. Washington DC is a city with limited non-governmental buildings and no available private land. Approximately 288 MW of solar capacity is required under the Washington DC law by 2023. The 2013 RPS requirement is approximately 49 MW of solar power. Currently, there is only 28 MW registered, and Washington DC SREC prices are the highest of any SREC market at $480/SREC. Yet, despite the very rich SREC incentive in the District, construction of solar photovoltaic arrays has been slow. The leasing companies have been stymied by the lack of locations to install solar farms and building capacity one single family home and church at a time is simply slow going and requires a lot of overhead and sales staff. DC Water’s Blue Plaines Advanced Sewage Treatment Plant own much less buffer land than either Fairfax or WSSC, but is considering installing solar panels on the waste water treatment structures to allow them to reap the benefits of the SREC based solar savings.

I am watching these developments closely because due to a bit of luck, and the soul of an accountant, I registered my Virginia based solar photovoltaic array in the Washington DC market in July 2010 and I can sell my SRECs in the Washington DC market. The dollar value of the solar power I generate from my solar panels is worth less than half the money I have sold my SRECs for over the past three plus years. However, there is no guarantee that my SRECs will be worth anything next year and as more solar power is registered in DC the value of my SRECs will decrease. A nice big installation at DC Water or the Aqueduct properties could potentially eliminate the value of my SRECs.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Well Check Up

My well in its safety enclosure next to the driveway
After a series of calls from people whose wells had problems, I began to think that it would be a good time to check the condition of my well and equipment, before winter. In addition, I had wanted to get a new well cap since the last time I chlorine shocked my well and had difficulty resealing the well. So after calling around to state licensed well service companies I scheduled a well check up with Bell Pump & Well out of Fairfax Station. In Virginia a well driller should have at least a Class B contractor license and the service provider must be Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, DPOR, certified Well Water Providers. Since 1992 private drinking water well construction and service has been regulated in Virginia and well drillers and well service companies have to be licensed. In many other places well drilling and water wells are still not regulated. Bell Pump & Well is not a well driller, they service, repair and replace the mechanical components of a well.

As a well owner you need to know your well. Start with the “Water Well Completion Report” that must be filed when a well is drilled in Virginia. This 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. These are the most basic facts needed to evaluate a well and water system. These reports are housed at the County Health District offices. From my report I know that my well is 150 feet deep and was grouted to 60 feet below grade. Back in the fall of 2004 when the well was drilled, the water zones were at 121-122 feet and 143-144 feet below grade. The static water level is listed at 30 with the units illegible and the stabilized yield is 60 gallons per minute after 2 hours. You read that right, 60 gallons per minute recharge rate. The property in a fractured rock system overlying the Culpeper groundwater basin has amazing groundwater flow.

The Prince William Health District rule of thumb is 5 gallons/minute is a safe yield to supply on-demand water for a typical household, but homes can have much lower yielding wells and still serve a household. However, be aware that over time the static yield of most wells fall. Groundwater typically enters a well through fractures in the bedrock and overtime debris, particles, and minerals clog up the fractures and the well production falls. According to Marcus Haynes at the Prince William Health District that drop could be 40-50% or more over 20-30 years. A low yielding well might have a functional life of only 25 years. My well is unlikely to have a noticeable reduction in yield because the fractured rock system does not typically clog with debris. The functional life of my well could easily exceed my lifetime.

If you have an older well, or you are buying a home with an older well having a well driller perform an accurate assessment of the well’s capacity would be important. A well recharge can be estimated by running water from the pump and measuring the top of the water level in the well. If it does not change, then the well recharges fasters than the pump rate. If the level is falling then the each foot in a typical 6 inch cased well represents about 1.5 gallons. A more accurate rate to determine the recharge rate is to use a compressor to blow all the water (and deposits at the bottom of the well) out of the well and time how long it takes the well column to recharge. When I last chlorine shocked my well, the water level was visible less than 2 feet down and even with running both hoses, I could not drop the water level. The recharge was too fast to clock. It costs about $200-$300 to have a well driller to do a flow test on your well and determine the water level. Since I could see my water level, and the recharge was faster than I could clock I passed on having that done and was pleased that the well itself was in good condition.

I had Bell Pump & Well examine the condition of the casing, wiring, replace the cap pump and check the well components in the house- the pressure tank and switch. The check-up cost under $200, the well cap replacement was extra. The pump should be checked for amp load, grounding, and line voltage, and the pressure tank checked for psi, a functioning pressure switch (check the contacts for corrosion), and checked for leaks.

I received a one page report from Bell Pump & Well that tells me I have a ¾ horsepower submersible pump. The pump is probably a Goulds’ Pump since the pressure tank installed at the same time is labeled Goulds and when sold together they usually label the pressure tank with the pump brand. (Gould Pump does not actually manufacture pressure tanks.) It is a good brand of pump, but there are cheap versions with plastic fittings and I would assume that my pump was “builder grade” like everything else in this house and will only have an average lifespan. The pressure switch is functioning properly cutting on a 55 psi and off a 75 psi. The higher range setting is to up the water pressure slightly. The pressure tank had a good cycle and the pressure switch was in good condition.

Out at the well, Bell Pump & Well noted that the well is a 6 inch drilled well that the well meets code. The pump amperage load was within the normal operating range and the line voltage was normal. There were no signs that the pump motor was wearing out. The most likely pump failure I am likely to see is from a lightning strike- Steel sticking out in the lawn and running sixty feet below ground is a very attractive lightening target. Based on my well check-up, I’m good to go for the winter. I will be testing my water quality in the spring when the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be hosting a drinking water clinic for well, spring and cistern owners in Prince William County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program. When a well is drilled 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. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program recommends that water be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria (if coliform is present). That can add up to quite a bill, but the analysis is subsidized by the state program and will cost only $49.

Monday, December 23, 2013

PA Court Rules Zoning Can Be Used to Prevent Fracking

On Friday, December 20th 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed a 2012 Commonwealth Court decision striking down portions of Act 13 that would have created a single statewide zoning for all oil and gas activities, and would in effect have taken away from the towns the ability to use zoning to exclude hydraulic fracturing of shale gas formations (fracking) in residential neighborhoods. According to Richard A. Ward, Township Manager Robinson Township, PA, Act 13 turned the entire state of Pennsylvania into one large industrial zone. No zoning could exclude fracking wells and shale gas processing in any location. Robinson Township joined by several other communities had challenged Act 13.

In 2012, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, ruled in favor of Robinson Township and the other municipal Plaintiffs. That Court struck down portions of Act 13, that they ruled were a constitutional violation of the property rights of surface landowners who would be affected by the Act’s elimination of municipal zoning authority. However, while affirming the decision, the state Supreme Court based its decision not in the property rights of surface landowners, but on Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated in its opinion that Act 13’s elimination of zoning and land use planning authority was unconstitutional because that was the primary method through which municipalities act as trustees under the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment. The Supreme Court found, the State cannot interfere with the constitutional duty of municipal governments to carry out the Environmental Rights Amendment.

This decision seems to grant higher zoning and land use authority to the municipalities than the state. While, the health and welfare of communities are best protected by local zoning, and geology and watershed characteristics vary by location, this ruling grants tremendous power in determining property rights and value to the municipalities. Land ownership is simply a bundle of rights; use rights, development rights and mineral rights. Fee simple ownership is owning the entire bundle of rights. In Pennsylvania, ownership of surface rights and ownership of minerals rights are often separated. In addition, mineral rights on the same tract may be separated from each other - oil, gas, coal, hard rock minerals, etc. may all be owned by separate companies. This decision effects the value of those rights.

The mineral rights were usually separated and sold before land was developed so that an individual or corporation may own the rights to an entire neighborhood. Pennsylvania does not maintain ownership records of mineral properties in a central location nor do they have property tax records for the mineral rights because they do not pay property taxes on those rights. Rather; county governments maintain the old transfer records that contain this information and suburban homeowners were often surprised to find that they did not own the oil and gas under their land.

All surface and mineral owners have property rights under the law. Pennsylvania recognizes both the mineral owner's right to recover the mineral, and the landowner's right to protection from unreasonable encroachment or damage. This decision in effect grants superior rights to the owner of the surface rights, the local voter; and may have long term consequences on real estate values. Under this decision, the Municipalities Planning Code can be used to regulate hydraulic fracturing, other oil and gas extraction, forestry, coal mining, and possibly industrial farming under the ACRE, Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment Act.

This will serve to slow down shale gas development in the state and allow adequate time to evaluate the long term environmental and geological impacts from fracking. Drilling requires large amounts of water to create a circulating mud that cools the bit and carries the rock cuttings out of the borehole. After drilling, the shale formation is then stimulated by fracking, where on average 2-5 million gallons of chemicals and water are pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. For gas to flow out of the shale, all of the water not absorbed by the formation during fracking must be recovered and disposed of.

Though less than 0.5% by volume, the proprietary chemicals represent 15,000 gallons in the waste water recovered from the typical hydro fracking job. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow. Determining the proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants and monitoring the impact from this disposal must also be done. 

Geologists and engineers believe that in hydraulic fracturing the intervening layers of rock prevent a fissure from extending into the water table. The problems seen in drinking water wells near hydro fracking jobs typically occur when fracking fluid seeps into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells (a large number of the problems have occurred in older coal bed areas). Proper well construction and abandonment standards to protect watersheds need to be developed and enforced. The water that is absorbed into rock formations may change the formations and the hydraulic balance in ways we do not understand and drawing large quantities of water in a short period of time may impact rivers and groundwater.

Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the industry itself as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural (and potentially residential) roads and placed on concrete pads. The picture below from the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, shows the amount of equipment involved in a hydro frack. The watersheds must be monitored. Sampling should take place before fracking and at regular intervals after a hydro frack job. We need to proceed slowly to make sure that we are doing it right and protecting our water resources. We have only a small margin for error. The gas will still be there if we take the time to understand fracking adequately to be able to release the gas from the shale formations without significant damage to our water resources and communities.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Exfoliating Beads Contaminating the Earth’s Waters

face scrub with polyethylene beads
While soaking in the bathtub I realized that the facial cleanser that I have used for years and leaves my skin feeling amazing has polyethylene listed as an ingredient. I read the ingredient list because a study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that the majority of facial cleansers, many tooth pastes, hand creams, body wash now contain exfoliating beads made of polyethylene making it likely that I was using cleansing products that contain tiny beads of polyethylene. These bits of polyethylene plastic are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants filtration systems that were not designed to address such small contaminants. So, after using an exfoliating scrub face or body wash, these microplastics beads flow down the drain and through waste water treatment plant and end up in the rivers, bays and oceans, where they may become a hazard to marine life. It seems like common sense that the polyethylene beads float and their scrubbing surfaces pick up contaminants which are consumed by marine life. There seems to be no information on the fate of the polyethylene beads in septic systems whether they remain in the leach field or enter the groundwater. The scientific community calls these polyethylene beads microplastics.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has a Marin Debris Program that has been leading efforts within NOAA on this emerging issue of microplastics in the earth’s waters, recently discovering a high concentration in the Great Lakes. NOAA defines microplastics as plastic pieces approximately the size of a pencil eraser or smaller. They are working in partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma to standardized methods for collecting samples of microplastics from sediment, sand, and surface water so the problem can be fully quantified. While it seems likely that nearly all of the plastic that has ever been released to the waters of the earth still appears as polymers, very little or any plastic fully degrades in the earth’s water environments, without systematic and effective ways to sample we cannot know for sure. Estimates of macro- and microplastics in the oceans, made by scientists and environmental groups are highly uncertain due to the lack of consistent, verified sampling and analytical methods.

No research has examined microplastics in deep ocean sediments, and most studies have only scooped samples from the surface of the ocean and lakes looking for plastics. Recent work at the State University of New York at Fredonia has confirmed that microplastic beads pass through waste water treatment systems into the Great Lakes introducing the possibility that microplastics are in the source water supplies for the drinking water systems. Though many plastics are buoyant and float, many other factors play a role in the “life cycle” of a piece of plastic in the ocean, lake or river. Sinking may occur due to the accumulation of biological material on the surface of the beads, and plastics may eventually settle into sediments. The microplastics beads fouled with biological material may be eaten by marine life, the biofilm consumed, and the remaining undigested plastic packaged into fecal matter.

In truth, little is really known and much research needs to be done. It is difficult to determine how large an impact microplastics might have as there is a paucity of data linking microplastic debris to demonstrated impacts on the marine environment. Data that conclusively demonstrates negative impacts of microplastics on the marine environment is critical gap that needs to be addressed. Research into collection methods, species impacts, and removal methods should focus on four important areas:
  1. Documenting microplastics in the marine environment, 
  2. Determining the lifecycle of these particles (and, therefore, their likely buildup in the future), 
  3. Demonstrating ingestion by marine organisms. 
  4. Impacts of microplastics to marine organisms and the environment. The ability for plastics to transport contaminants has been documented, but the specifics of sorption and leaching are not fully understood.
It is difficult to determine or even reasonably estimate how large an impact microplastic bead might have on the environment. They can either be a source of pollutants or a location where pollutants can adhere and concentrate for the oceans, lakes and rivers and first we must determine how much is manufactured. So, the first step is an inventory of microplastic bead production and uses has to be completed. Surprisingly, little is known about the chemical composition and rates of leaching of integral plastic components in seawater and freshwater so it is impossible to estimate whether the plasticizers or flame retardants used in the manufacture of polyethylene will be released to the earth’s waters.

NOAA is funding research to identify marine species that would likely be most vulnerable to microplastic beads. Possible effects include three general areas: (1) physical blockage or damage of feeding appendages or digestive tracts, (2) leaching of plastic component chemicals into organisms after digestion, and (3) ingestion and accumulation of absorbed chemicals by the organism. All of these effects require that the microplastic beads be ingested, so first scientists need to identify the species most likely to ingest these particles. There is much work to be done; nonetheless, maybe we should only use exfoliating scrubs with biodegradable beads until more is known. I am afraid that I will have to change face scrubs and I will have to check the label of all my other products.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Conservation Districts Change their Position

At the just recently ended annual meeting in Williamsburg, VA, the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (VASWCD) passed a resolution reversing its previous stance on a possible transfer of oversight for the districts to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).  The motion to rescind the action of last year’s annual membership meeting and to instead support staying with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) passed easily after passionate discussion.   The VASCWD had previously passed a resolution supporting a move to DEQ at its annual meeting in Roanoke in 2012.

However, over the course of the last year, seven area meetings were held in various parts of the state to discuss the possible changes and get feedback from directors, employees, and most importantly the farmers who participate in the cost sharing programs.  I attended the 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 their mission evolved as the connection to water quality, soil and conservation were more fully understood. 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.

The Culpeper meeting which I attended was really characteristic of the state as a whole, a mix of opinions with all the farmers who spoke opposed to the transfer. Throughout the Commonwealth,  there continues to be mixed opinions; however, a majority of the districts, and more importantly a vast majority of the farmers were leery of moving an all-volunteer cost share program to a regulatory agency.  In order to achieve their goals the Districts depend on the cooperation and willingness of community partners and volunteers to work with them. 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.

Over the last seven decades districts across the state have built relationships based on trust with farmers across the Commonwealth of Virginia.   Despite the changes over time with agricultural and livestock trends, the districts have been able to maintain their relevance and support the mission of assisting farmers with best practices because of the trust based relationships.  One of the greatest concerns expressed by directors and producers alike was the possibility that a move to DEQ, a regulatory agency, would damage the long standing relationships and result in a decline participation in the cost sharing programs.

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 plan to comply with the EPA mandated pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. The pollution diet is to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that reaches the Chesapeake Bay carried by rainfall from farm lands, suburban yards, roads and released by sewage treatment plants and septic systems.  Virginia and the other states and the District of the Columbia whose rain fall and snowmelt ultimately drain into the Chesapeake Bay are all under a mandated pollution diet.

Virginia produced a plan to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that reaches the Chesapeake Bay that ultimately satisfied EPA that required virtually all farmers to implement resource management plans and BMPs on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and streams; building fences to keep livestock (and their feces) away from streams; and implement plans to limit and carefully manage the use of fertilizers.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation 30% of the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans. The need to coordinate all the water pollution programs in the state to meet the EPA mandated pollution diet was the reason behind the DEQ consolidating the water programs under their regulatory control. However, it is DEQ’s view of programs as regulatory that concerned the Conservation Districts. Virginia needs virtually all the farmers in the state to implement BMPs and the Conservation Districts feel the regulatory culture of DEQ will impede their effectiveness and possibly sully their mission and effectiveness.   Though, how all these activities to reduce pollution will be paid for is still unknown. The state had cut the budget for the conservation districts over the past several years and the EPA has never had a budget for implementation of these programs that are estimated to cost billions of dollars. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What to Do When Your Septic System Alarms

Many modern and alternative septic systems have alarms to notify the homeowner of a potential problem. Though it can be annoying when the system alarms and you are forced to think about your septic system, this could prevent the system from backing up in your house. Proper maintenance and operation will extend the life of your system and save you money in the long run. So, what does it mean if an alarm sounds and what should you do? There are a series of straightforward steps to take.
  • Silence the alarm so it does not drive you and all your neighbors insane. 
  • Determine what type of alarm it is. Typically it is either a high water alarm or if you have a blower for an ATU tank the blower may be out. 
  • If you have a blower, feel the casing of the blower motor to make sure that the blower is operating. You can also often hear the hum of the blower. If not, call a licensed and certified septic repair company (not a septic pump out company) to replace the blower. You have a day or two before the undertreated sewage starts flowing to your leach field and begins to damages it. Get it fixed before that happens.
  • If it is not the blower, then it is probably a high water level alarm in your septic tank or your secondary tank. 
A high water alarm is caused by either too much water going into the tank or not enough going out. A high water alarm if not properly addressed will cause septic waste to ultimately back up into your house, though that may occur after your drainfield is fully damaged. A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank (or two), a drainfield (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a traditional drainfield is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drainfield, and all systems have pipes connecting the tanks and drainfield. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components including additional treatment tanks and filters which can clog if not cleaned and replaced regularly (depending on what you flush down the toilet or pour down the drain). It is the alternative systems that typically have alarms.

A high water alarm is caused by one of two things either too much water flowing into the septic tank or not enough water flowing out. If too much water is flowing in you either have a plumbing leak or a running toilet. After several years, the flapper in the toilet tank should be replaced because it does not always seal properly. Check every toilet (and tank) as well as all sinks for dripping faucets. Usually, it takes something like an incompletely closed faucet or running toilet to cause a septic tank to over fill. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one out of every 10 homes has a leak that is wasting at least 90 gallons of water per day, look carefully for leaks.

The high water alarm is not likely to be caused by excess sludge in the tank, but it can happen when the tank has not been pumped for years and you have a couple of days of high volume usage or doing a month’s worth of laundry in a single day. That is what typically causes the septic system to backup during holidays and parties. A broken septic tank lid can also allow rain and runoff to enter the septic tank and over fill the tank. If it has not rained recently, or you were not running the hoses or a sprinkler, then that is unlikely to be the cause of a high water alarm.

If the problem is not the water entering the tank, then there is a problem with water leaving the tank. This could be caused by pump failure, a blockage in the line to the drainfield which may include a clogged filter, or clogging in the drainfield itself. You need a septic service company to determine what is causing the problem, though check your circuit breakers to make sure that any pumps have power and you could pull the filter in the white pipe between your tanks.

The basic design of a septic tank will only work if the sludge is not too thick on the bottom and the grease and scum is not too thick on top, and if the flow to the tank is not excessive. If there is too much waste on the bottom of the tank or too much water flowing to the tank, there will not be enough time for the solids and liquids to settle out before the tank starts releasing water containing large amounts of fecal waste to the drain field. The fecal waste will over time clog the drainfield. Also, if there is too much grease and scum floating on top, the scum will be released to the drainfield. A septic system is not a trash can. Don’t put dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, latex paint, pesticides, or other hazardous chemicals into your system they can end up clogging the filter and/or lines if carried from the tank.

In addition, the National Small Flows Clearinghouse has seen septic distribution pipes plugged with a “noxious fibrous mass” that was grease and cellulose from toilet paper that only occurred in homes with water softening systems. A clog in the distribution system will also cause a high water alarm as the septic water cannot be released or pumped to the drainfield. It is believed that the brine in the conventional septic tank interferes with the digestion of the cellulose fibers and can be carried over into the septic systems drain field. A study in Virginia involving two adjacent septic field dispersal systems in a shared mound have shown that the trenches that received the septic effluent with water softener brine discharges formed a thick, gelatinous slime layer that clogged the infiltrating surface, while the trenches receiving no salt water discharge remained open with a normal microbial clogging layer. Commercial septic tank additives may assist in the breakdown of fecal waste, but do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping and can be harmful to the system. Saving money by not pumping your septic tank could result in the need to replace your drainfield.

Septic tank wastewater after preliminary settling and in alternative septic systems undergoing secondary treatment flows to the drainfield, where it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. The waste cannot contain too much solid material or scum. High quantities of solids in the waste stream will overwhelm the drainfield. Initially, nitrogen and fecal bacteria will be released to the groundwater as the soil becomes saturated with solids and scum. Eventually the perforations in the pipes to the leach field through which waste water flows become clogged and the waste backs through the system. If a high water problem is left unaddressed, the septic system will back up into your home. Before the septic backs up into your home the high water alarm will sound.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Rural Crescent Workshop

On Saturday, December 7th 2013 Prince William County Office of Planning held an open house and all day series or meetings at George Mason University, Prince William Campus to discuss the results of the County Planning Department study of the County's rural preservation policies, an evaluation of their effectiveness, identifying additional rural preservation tools that may be appropriate and effective, and listen to citizen concerns and recommendations for amendments to the County's land use planning policies. There were four sessions: Rural Character, Land Preservation, The Rural Economy and an Open Discussion session with Chris Price, the Director of the County Office of Planning. Each of the sessions was repeated several times throughout the day to allow maximum access by the public. The Planning Office will be posting the session slides and discussion on the web if you missed the meetings. As anticipated the session presenters were topic experts, but I found many in the audience were very well informed and about the county policies, development, zoning and history. I encourage you to view the material from the sessions when it is posted on-line.

I was particularly interested in hearing the presentation of Dr. Tom Daniels a Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He had previously run the farmland preservation program in Lancaster County, PA and had studied and worked with several communities that had implemented successful and not so successful Rural Preservation Programs. His presentation focused on what tools exist for rural preservation and how likely they are to succeed. There is in reality a limited tool box for land preservation; most of these tools are based on partitioning land ownership rights. Owning land basically means owning a set of rights- the mineral rights, the use rights, the development rights, depending on what state the property is located, the water rights and the air rights. The development rights are controlled by zoning which we have discovered can be changed by the county supervisors by exception or amendment to the County Comprehensive Plan.

According to Prince William County records the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, that includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico, about 2,600 acres that are permanently protected*(though permanently protected land can be seized for public use by eminent domain), 8,200 acres that have development plans already approved and almost 28,000 acres that are undeveloped and unprotected and could be preserved as open space and farmland. However, there has been continual pressure on the Office of Planning and the County Board of Supervisors to amend the zoning (to increase development density) for parcels in the Rural Crescent. The basic zoning in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. So with the 8,200 acres with approved development plans, and the 28,000 acres undeveloped and unprotected there is a potential for 3,700 additional residences to be built in the Rural Crescent if it were to be entirely carved up into 10 acre parcels. The development rights in the Rural Crescent are the potential 3,600 homes.

The first land preservation option is essentially for the county or private party like the Trust for Public Land or another organization (the Piedmont Environmental Council does not define Prince William as part of their territory) to purchase or receive as a donation of a conservation easement the Development Rights to preserve as open space or farmland in perpetuity. The problem with the purchase of development rights is money. While the Commonwealth of Virginia has a farmland preservation program that provides funding to counties to purchase the development rights, the funding is extremely limited in the state. There is also federal funding under the 2008 farm bill (that will expire on January 1, 2014 and seems to include conservation programs in the latest versions of the Farm Bill that was sent Friday to the Congressional Budget Office to be scored. Even if the funding is maintained it only covers 50% the cost of development rights. Up to 25% can be donated land right value, but the rest must be paid for with cash.

There are several federal programs that have funding available to preserve farmland, forestland and ecologically important lands, but a county must have also have funding and staff expertise available to put together deals an navigate tax deductions and saleable state tax credits and work with organizations like the Department of Defense REPI (Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration) Program and the Trust for Public Land or the Piedmont Environmental Council to structure deals and pull together the funding to create a conservation easement or purchase the development rights. This takes a commitment on the part of the Board of Supervisors to fund and support such a program. I did not see a single member of the Board of Supervisors at the workshop.

The second preservation option is to transfer the development rights (TDR) to developments in other parts of the county that allow the developer to build a higher density than normally allowed. This was a strategy that worked incredibly well in Montgomery County where 7,000 TDR deals totaling $110,000,000 were done. Unfortunately, in Virginia the State does not allow the county to operate a “TDR” Bank and Prince William has only one remaining large development parcel that could have purchased a large number of TDRs, but that parcel is scheduled to have its zoning amended this summer. So essentially, it’s too late for the big deals and Prince William County would have to figure out a way to match development rights with small developments. The good news is that the Virginia legislature did pass the enabling legislation for that.

The final land preservation option is to cluster development with mandatory preservation of open space within the Rural Crescent. Cluster development is typically part of a low impact development strategy (LID). LID is the latest catch phase in ecologically friendly site development and consists of five elements: preserving open space and minimizing land disturbance; protecting natural drainage ways, soils and sensitive areas; incorporating natural site elements like wetlands, stream corridors, and woodlands as site features; reducing the size of traditional infrastructure; and decentralize and manage storm water at its source. While this is more protective of the environment (if you address the small group need for water and sewage management- clustered houses cannot have septic systems and wells and 5-10 homes may be too small a group to properly operated and manage a clustered on-site sewage treatment. Of the 345 farms in Prince William County (in 2007) 210 of them were 50 acres or less. LID is by its nature a distributed design involving, ongoing maintenance of the plants, replanting after severe winters or prolonged droughts, weeding, and other land and habitat maintenance along with effective water and sewage management. There does not yet exist a method of ensuring that these features are maintained appropriately and that any repairs or replacements are done with LID in mind.

It is a large challenge to preserve the Rural Crescent, but it is an extraordinary valuable resource that we need to maintain for our quality of life, the health of our watershed and the ecological services it provides. Protecting our water supply infrastructure is more than a pipe that runs into your house, more than the Occoquan. If you pave and build over the landscape the water supply will be irreparably damaged. Without water there is no Prince William County.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Rural Crescent an Extraordinary Valuable Resource

The Rural Crescent may have started with different intentions; but today the Rural Crescent is about water, groundwater and watershed preservation. I strongly support redevelopment of areas with preexisting infrastructure which would allow Prince William County to improve storm water management in the existing developed areas (and reduce nutrient contamination under the EPA mandated TMDL) as well as revitalize older areas of the county and preserve the Greenfields areas in general support of sustainable development and maintaining the Rural Crescent to preserve and protect our groundwater resources.

The Rural Crescent in Prince William aligns roughly with the Culpeper groundwater basin, one of the more important watersheds in Virginia. Much of the Prince William County Rural Crescent is located within the northeast quadrant and eastern quadrant of the Culpeper basin and consists of an interbedded sequence of sedimentary and basaltic rocks formed about 200 million years ago. These volcanic rocks are intersected by diabase intrusives and thermally metamorphosed rocks. The rocks of the Culpeper basin are highly fractured and overlain by a thin cover of overburden. The lack of overburden is a challenge to gardeners, but more importantly limits natural protection to the aquifer. These sedimentary rocks are productive aquifers and feed not only the groundwater wells that provide drinking water to Evergreen and other communities, but also feeds the tributaries to Bull Run and the Potomac.

Ground water flows under ambient pressure from Bull Run Mountain towards Bull Run generally west to east with a slight southern slant in the northeast quadrant. The soils in this area are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That would be those flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rock run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures and zigzag through the aquifer, but these fractures also serve as recharge areas creating the vast water resource our county enjoys. Groundwater is usually cleaner than surface water and is typically protected against contamination from the surface by the soils and rock layers covering the aquifer, but there is inadequate overburden in much of the Rural Crescent. Once contaminated, groundwater is very difficult to clean and often after removal of contaminated plumes only long term abandonment of use to allow for natural attenuation is the only possible course of action.

The fractured rock system that is so rich in water is also our weakness; there is no natural attenuation in a fractured system so that the groundwater as a drinking water resource can be easily destroyed without any real ability to recover. Any malfunctioning septic system, underground fuel storage tank, improper disposal, a leaking pipe, or surface hazardous spill on any property within this area has the potential to impact the drinking water wells to the south, southeast or east. Development of the Rural Crescent would introduce potential sources of contamination that could never (in our lifetimes) be remediated. In addition, development of the Rural Crescent threatens the water supply itself.

Generally, groundwater in the Culpeper Basin is renewed each year through precipitation. The water stored in the watershed can supply adequate water in wet years and droughts provided that there is adequate replenishment, the withdrawal of water is within the average recharge rate and that the source is protected from pollution. Properly managed and protected groundwater can be abstracted indefinitely. Groundwater recharge through precipitation requires adequate area for infiltration; control of sheet flow created by roads and paved areas, as well as protecting the most geologically favorable infiltration points. Precipitation flows over the ground as surface runoff. Not all runoff flows into rivers, much of it soaks into the ground as infiltration. Some water infiltrates deep into the ground and replenishes aquifers, which store huge amounts of freshwater for long periods of time. Some infiltration stays close to the land surface and can seep back into rivers, creeks, and ponds (and the ocean) as ground-water discharge, and some ground water finds openings in the land surface and emerges as freshwater springs.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, impervious cover levels of 10% can significantly impact watershed health increasing stormwater runoff. When runoff volume increases, runoff velocity increases, and peak storm flows causes flooding and erosion. Increased stormwater velocity increase soil erosion, increases nutrient contamination and reduces water infiltration into groundwater. The groundwater is essential as the base flow to the streams and rivers that feed the Occoquan Reservoir during the dry months. The groundwater stored in the watershed can supply adequate water to maintain river flow during droughts. Maintaining open areas provides areas of groundwater recharge and controls runoff. Decisions about the fate and management of the Rural Crescent will impact groundwater quantity and quality and in turn will impact water flows to the Occoquan Reservoir during dry periods. Flow to the Occoquan Reservoir is essential in managing the drinking water withdrawals from the Potomac River. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, manages the Potomac River drinking water allocations for the entire region by “suggesting” the quantity that Fairfax Water draw from the Occoquan and Potomac daily. Prince William County’s decision on the fate of the Rural Crescent could impact drinking water supplies in Fairfax, Maryland, and DC as well as our own county.

Rural Crescent also provides a significant portion of our green infrastructure to our Northern Virginia community. Green infrastructure connects the still intact habitat areas through a network of corridors that provide for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. Maintaining intact, connected natural landscapes is essential for basic ecosystem and watershed preservation to ensure that there will always be clean air and water in Northern Virginia. Maintaining a tree canopy and controlling runoff to prevent stream bank erosion and water quality impairments and maintaining adequate water flows through groundwater and surface recharge are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, water recreation and the ecological integrity of the region. The Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) has developed a Conservation Corridor Planning Project which is a regional effort to identify essential green infrastructure and help area governments to avoid the mistakes of the past and maintain the few remaining green corridors along the rivers and reservoirs that boarder Fairfax and integrate green infrastructure planning into the future development planning of Prince William and Loudoun counties.

According to NVRC there are three priority regional conservation corridors in Prince William County. Bull Run Mountain and Catoctin Mountain corridor is a north-south corridor connecting the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia. The corridor provides significant intact habitat for Northern Virginia wildlife. North of Leesburg, the corridor is the karst terrain of Loudoun underlain by limestone, and highly susceptible to pollution and sinkhole creation. South of Route 50 the Bull Run Mountain ridge is within the Rural Crescent and is the location of a significant area of recharge for the groundwater that ultimately maintains and feeds Bull Run and the Occoquan River. This area is fractured rock system with limited overburden and no natural attenuation. A polluted plume could be carried for miles without dilution.

The second priority conservation area is begins at the Bull Run Mountains and heads east across Route 15 to Manassas covering the land between Route 50 and 29 (the northwest portion of the Rural Crescent) to the confluence of the Occoquan River with Belmont Bay. This corridor is rich in water and environmental resources that ultimately deliver drinking water to over one million Northern Virginia residents. The Occoquan Reservoir, one of the country’s first water reclamation facilities where sewage treatment water is returned to provide water recreation. The western portion of the area is part of the Culpeper Basin Important Birding Area and the Culpeper Basin Groundwater Aquifer. Preventing water contamination and ensuring adequate groundwater recharge are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, recreation opportunities and the ecological integrity of the region.

The third priority conservation area is the Potomac Gorge and Quantico Corridor, the greenbelt that connects Prince William National Forest Park with Manassas Battlefield. This area includes large tracks of undeveloped private land. The Culpeper basin is part of a much larger Piedmont Geologic Province and has only begun to be studied thanks to the careful groundwater measurements taken by Loudoun County as excessive development of the western part of the county began to impact water supplies. Groundwater quantity and quality in our region impacts not only groundwater wells, but stream flow and recharge to the surface water. In short all the drinking water in Prince William County. Groundwater recharges at various rates from precipitation and other sources of infiltration. The recharge is not spread evenly across the land. Pave over the land, change surface flow and infiltration and groundwater recharge are reduced.

Important regional waterways, such as Goose Creek, Bull Run, the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir thrive because they are shaded by trees and vegetation that filter stormwater, prevent erosion, and facilitate ground water recharge and moderate temperatures. Green infrastructure maintenance ensures the forested buffers are maintained and enhanced over time, protecting public health and water quality. Maintaining and enhancing forested buffers near Northern Virginia’s waterways requires focus on how to maintain and protect these ecological resources. The EPA has identified nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment as the three primary pollutants that must be reduced to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They have mandated to Virginia and the other Chesapeake Bay Watershed states and Washington DC an approximate 25% reduction in these pollutants. A wide range of approaches can address these impairments, including reducing runoff and restoring stream banks and buffer areas. The Rural Crescent is an extraordinary valuable resource that we cannot just throw away by building highways such as the Bi-County Parkway, roadways and buildings. Protecting our water supply infrastructure is more than a pipe that runs into your house, more than the Occoquan. If you pave and build over the landscape the water supply will be irreparably damaged. Without water there is no Prince William. On Saturday, December 7th 2013 there will be an open house and all day series or meetings at George Mason University, Prince William Campus in Manassas.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Fate of Our Rural Crescent

On Saturday, December 7th 2013 there will be an open house and all day series or meetings at George Mason University, Prince William Campus in Manassas. This link has the information, agenda and maps if you wish to attend any part of the meeting. If you live in Prince William you should attend. This meeting is to discuss the results of the County Planning Department study of the County's rural preservation policies, an evaluation of their effectiveness, identifying additional rural preservation tools that may be appropriate and effective, and recommendations for amendments to the County's land use planning policies. This meeting will layout the intended fate of our Rural Crescent an extraordinary valuable resource to the county watershed and property owners.

We arrived at this point because of a request made at the regular March 2012 meeting of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. While considering requests for exceptions to the comprehensive plan, Supervisor Martin Nohe supported by the other county Supervisors felt that it was time to reconsider some of the planning and development decisions that had been made in the past and asked for the Planning Office staff to produce an analysis of the usefulness of the Rural Crescent in achieving the stated goals of protecting rural character and open space, and whether policy adjustments or new policies would do a better job. The request was made by Supervisor Nohe to Prince William County staff and noted in the minutes. Later funds were allocated to hire a consultant and regular reports have been made to the County Supervisors.

Preservation of the rural nature of the county has a long history in Prince William. In 1964, a planning study was conducted for the County and recommended a Comprehensive Plan that identified a significant portion of the County as "Large Estate and Agricultural." The preservation goals for this area became more formalized through designation of the Rural Area in the 1998 Comprehensive Plan that created the 80,000 acre Rural Crescent. Since that time the Rural Crescent has been chipped away at with exception requests every year. Higher density development means money to developers and landowners. There is much passion when money is on the table. The Rural Crescent in Prince William County was originally intended as an urban growth boundary for the county designed to preserve our agricultural heritage and force development along the Route 1 corridor rather than Greenfield development in the remaining rural areas.

Maintaining the emphasis on redevelopment of areas with preexisting infrastructure would allow Prince William County to improve storm water management, achieve nutrient and sediment reductions for the EPA mandated TMDL, revitalize older areas of the county and preserve the Greenfields. The Rural Crescent may have started with different intentions; but today the Rural Crescent is about water, groundwater and ecosystem preservation. However, it is also about where we live and who we are.

I took the time to read the responses to the internet-based survey run by the consultants hired by the county to actually perform the study. Over the summer the consultants had a survey running on SurveyMonkey. Though the participation was low with only 386 self-selected participants, the participants took the time for comments. And though there was diversity in opinion, the comments reminded me that spending a weekend day at Yankey Farms to select a pumpkin for Halloween or picking berries in the warm weather, going to Evergreen Farms to get your Christmas tree, or La Grange Winery for a glass of wine or picnic is part of the charm of living in Prince William County. Engage with your community, attend the meeting.