Thursday, December 31, 2015

Rivers, Lakes and the Carbon Cycle

my backyard
A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents that significant mounts of carbon that moves through or accumulates in lakes, rivers, and streams has not been adequately incorporated into the computer models used to project climate change. The research was conducted by the U.S. Geological Society and the University of Washington.

The Earth’s carbon cycle is determined by physical, chemical, and biological processes that occur in and among the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the geosphere. Understanding how these processes interact on our planet and projecting their future effects on climate requires complex computer models that are used to track carbon at regional and continental scales, and predict impact. These computer models are commonly known as Terrestrial Biosphere Models (climate models).

Current estimates of the accumulation of carbon in natural environments indicate that forest and other terrestrial ecosystems have annual net gains in storing carbon — a beneficial effect for reducing greenhouse gases and is encouraged in government policies, regulation and funding. However, even though all of life and most processes involving carbon movement in the environment require water, the climate models have not included the earth’s aquatic ecosystems, the lakes, reservoirs, streams, rivers and estuaries in the calculations and have overlooked and underestimated the importance of aquatic ecosystems in the carbon cycle. This has impaired the ability of the climate models to accurately predict the future climate.

Accurate accounting of carbon storage and flux is essential to understand the role that natural ecosystems can play in regional, national, and global carbon cycles. However, current modeling approaches for estimating net ecosystem assume that carbon is converted to terrestrial storage terms only, there is no adequate accounting of aquatic carbon processes. These aquatic carbon processes include downstream carbon transport, lake and reservoir sedimentation, and CO2 emission. Recent studies indicate that downstream export of carbon through rivers, carbon burial in lakes and reservoirs, and carbon emissions across water surfaces are large enough to alter the calculated capacity of soils and biomass to store carbon and impacts our understanding of the relationship of CO2 and climate.

Inland waters provide habitat for aquatic organisms; are sources of human drinking water; and integrate, transport, and process carbon across continents. Estimates of the accumulation of carbon in terrestrial environments suggest that agricultural and forest ecosystems have annual net gains in carbon storage. These ecosystems are considered by the climate models sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, none of these estimates have considered the loss of carbon to and also through aquatic environments at the national or continental scale. The USGS and University of Washington scientists show that aquatic ecosystems in the mainland United States export over 100 teragrams of carbon (TgC) per year, highlighting the need to attribute the sources of aquatic carbon more accurately, and assert that inland waters play an important role in global CO2 accounting. (When did saving the world become accounting?)

This analysis represents only a snapshot of a dynamic environment that is continuously processing carbon. We need to develop a model framework that couples the biogeochemical processing of inorganic carbon and organic carbon in soils to the movement of water through soils to inland waters to better understand and quantify the terrestrial carbon sources to inland waters. There are few direct measurements of the carbon-based greenhouse gases in freshwater ecosystems, particularly methane which is emerging as a significant contributor. Also, large uncertainty remains for calculations of lake and reservoir sedimentation and the impacts of physical processes that affect the distribution of sediments along lake and reservoir beds.

We are changing and restructuring our economy and nation to reduce the anthropogenic contribution of our country to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere based on these climate models and we have forgotten to adequately include our water ecology in the calculations. The scientists found that removal of carbon by inland waters within the United States is substantial at the national scale and needs to be considered.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 Becomes Law

Earlier this month the House passed the bill, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. On Friday, December 22nd before congress left town, the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. The new law bans tiny beads of plastic known as microbeads that have been added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. Under the law, companies will have to stop using beads in their products by July 2017.

In 2009 an Australian study found the majority of facial cleansers, many tooth pastes, hand creams, body wash contained exfoliating beads made of polyethylene. These bits of polyethylene plastic ranging in size from roughly 5μm to 1mm do not biodegrade out in nature. Microbeads are used in hundreds of products including cosmetics, sunscreen, body wash, toothpaste, skincare, and industrial and household cleaning products, and are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants filtration systems that were not designed to address such small contaminants. So, these microplastics beads flow down the drain and through waste water treatment plant and end up in our rivers, bays and oceans, where they may become a hazard to marine life. The polyethylene beads float and their scrubbing surfaces pick up contaminants which are consumed by marine life.

A study from the State University of New York at Fredonia confirmed that microplastics 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, but we really do not know. 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.

Scientists now believe that microplastics are consumed by marine life and can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces including priority pollutants under the US EPA Clean Water Act. This mixture of plastic and chemicals can accumulate in animals that eat them causing liver toxicity and disruption in the endocrine system, and possibly contributing to the intersexed fish that have appeared in rivers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been leading efforts on this issue, recently discovering a high concentration in the Great Lakes. NOAA is 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 remains 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.

It is difficult to determine or even reasonably estimate how large an impact microplastics 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 it was not even know how much is manufactured. Little was also 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.However, the extensive damage from the ubiquitous microbeads was becoming obvious. Since 2012, when researchers found high concentrations of microbeads in the great lakes, environmentalists and scientists have campaigned to ban them.There are lots of concerns and possible impact from microbeads and it is clear that they should not have been allowed to be used so widely without a fate and transport study.

Now, manufacture of rinse off cosmetic products that contains intentionally-added plastic microbeads is banned beginning on July 1, 2017, and all such products containing microbeads must be removed from interstate commerce, by July 1, 2018. A simple one page bill and congress got it done.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sea Level Rise is Due to More than Climate Change

Within 50 years the Tangier Islands a complex of what are now several islands in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay will be mostly gone, consumed by the rising sea level in the region. Though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in its most recent report that sea levels have risen an average of 5 inches worldwide over the last 40 years, locally, the relative sea level has risen more closer to 7 inches over the same period.

The recently negotiated Paris agreement on climate change is not going to stop the loss of he the Tangier Islands. The agreement states that the goal is to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and try to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the voluntary nationally determined targets on limiting greenhouse gas emissions will not (according to the climate models) to come close to achieving that goal, and China and India did not agree to any reductions or limits to the growth of their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The global emission of CO2 will continue to grow along with the emissions from those countries. How the nations treat the so called “ratchet mechanism” of the emissions reductions will ultimately determine the success or failure of the agreement in the long term, but not in the next century.

There is one other essential element of this picture we should discuss. Our understanding of climate and climate change is based on computer models and mathematical representations of the climate system. The model fundamentals are based on established physical laws and observations of the planet combined with extensive simulations of the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface of earth. Nevertheless, models still show significant errors. Although the errors are generally greater at smaller scales, important large-scale problems also remain. For example, deficiencies remain in the simulation of tropical precipitation, variation in tropical winds and rainfall and sea level rise. Scientists believe that the ultimate source of most such errors is that many important smaller-scale processes are not represented in the models, which are built mostly using larger-scale features of the climate and planet. Essentially, the planet is too complicated for us to completely understand and model accurately with current technology and understanding.

The most looming threat may be from rising sea levels and it’s not just a threat to the island states. Virginia is experiencing tidal erosion and rising sea levels (or sinking land) along the 5,000 miles of tidal shoreline in Virginia. Approximately 15,000 years ago the ocean coast was about 60 miles east of its present location, and sea level was about 300 feet lower. At that time there was no Chesapeake Bay. Instead there was a river that meandered out to sea.
from Nature

Sea level continues to rise in the Chesapeake Bay, it was estimated that the sea level has risen 7 inches since 1971 and it is estimated by the climate models that this rise will accelerate in the future, but even if it doesn’t accelerate, it will continue as it has been going on for over 15,000 years. Now a report by the Army Corp of Engineers published in the Journal Nature on December 10, 2015 has predicted that the Tangier Islands in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay will likely have to be abandoned within 50 years. These islands lie within a hot spot of relative sea level rise that is significantly higher than the mean seal level rise on earth. The complex of several islands were once connected and have been disappearing in my lifetime. The main remaining Islands are Goose, Uppards, Port Isobel and Tangier Island. Only Tangier is still occupied.

The sea level rise hot spot extends from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to Boston, Massachusetts, but the Southern Chesapeake Bay region within the hot spot has had a higher rate of sea level rise due to land subsidence. Land subsidence due to glacial rebound after the Laurentide ice sheet melted, excessive groundwater extraction, as well as the effects of the meteor impact near Cape Charles, Virginia (about 35.5 million years ago) are all causing the effective sea level rise to be about an inch ever 25 years. Aquifer-system compaction from groundwater being pumped accounts for more than 50% of the land subsidence observed in the coastal region. 

The Army Corp of Engineers report that the Tangier Islands have lost the majority of their land mass since the islands were first mapped in 1850 due to a combination of wave-induced erosion and sea level rise. They predict that the Islands will lose the majority of their remaining landmass in less than 50 years. Though there are actions that can be taken to forestall the fate of the Islands, the fate of the Island seems sealed and will be blamed on climate change thought it is due in almost an equal parts to groundwater extraction. It is essential that we not loose sight of the importance of sustainable groundwater and surface water use in trying to save the planet by reducing CO2 emissions.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Keeping the Rural Crescent Rural

Last week I was part of a presentation to the Planning Commission in support of rural economic development using both the comprehensive plan and zoning regulations. I spoke representing the Prince William Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District in my role as Director. Our agricultural programs reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution to our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, and are the cheapest way to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Also, agricultural land and forests contribute less pollution per acre than suburban or urban landscapes. Reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution is necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and all the Bay states are under a mandate from the U.S. EPA.

It is often believed that when you own land you can do what you want with the land, but that is not true. It is not in the public interest to allow anyone to put a hazardous waste dump in their backyard, build a manufacturing plant along the Occoquan, or other publicly undesirable activities. So, we have zoning and the county has a comprehensive plan to guide land use and development decisions that are made by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors. Virginia law requires every governing body to adopt a comprehensive plan for the development of the lands within its jurisdiction. So each county and city has a comprehensive plan. These plans are reviewed every five years, to ensure that they continue to be responsive to current circumstances and that the citizens of the county continue to support the goals of the plan. Our presentation was to provide information to the Planning Commission for the revision of the comprehensive plan.

The current version of the comprehensive plan only mentions the Rural Crescent as requiring each single family home to have 10 acres; it does not address economic development in the Rural Crescent. There must be a viable rural economy to preserve what remains of the rural landscape in Prince William County. The rural economy is much more than traditional farming, which is now in decline in the County. There remains only about 50 square miles of agricultural land - all of it within the Rural Crescent. The rural economy includes innovative agriculture, horticulture, forestry, commercial and non-commercial horse operations, tourism, rural based public and commercial recreation, and farm related businesses. Think of Napa, California as our aspirational goal rather than becoming a mini-me Fairfax County.

At current prices, commodity crops can no longer be grown profitably in Prince William County. Yet, the rural economic sectors are growing in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties and have the potential to grow substantially in Prince William. Collectively agricultural businesses could contribute in a meaningful way to Prince William’s economy and provide a significant number of local jobs. The County’s suburban citizens benefit from the proximity of rural based activities and services and desire it as indicated in the survey of residents.

Agricultural land contributes directly to the protection and enhancement of the green infrastructure and contributes to the quality of life of all of Prince William residents. To help agriculture continue in Prince William we need to focus on rural economic development and preservation of the ecology of the Rural Crescent. The unique ecological benefits of the area’s green infrastructure include; the recharge of groundwater, maintaining and building soil quality and preventing erosion, protecting and improving surface water quality by properly managed lands, providing wildlife habitat, and preserving the physical environment.

Whether or not continued residential growth will seriously deplete groundwater supplies is an open issue. But the failure of groundwater supplies or extensive contamination as happened in areas of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties; however, could destroy property values and lead to enormous additional costs to homeowners and taxpayers and a lower quality of life for all. Loudoun Water is spending tens of millions of dollars to solve the water problems in Raspberry Falls and Selma communities alone.

The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. The real problem is that highest and best use of the land in the current environment is developing homes. Cutting up the rural crescent into 10 acre parcels or even random clustered developments reduces public access and enjoyment of the land, reduces groundwater recharge, increases the potential for contamination, erodes the land by increasing the stormwater velocity over pavement, roadways, buildings and increases sediment flow into our rivers and our Bay.

A system of transferable development rights, TDRs, allows ownership of the development rights on privately owned land to be separated from ownership of the land itself. These rights can then be transferred from that property to another property in a different location that has been designated as a receiving area, where the Planning Commission wants increased development or redevelopment. Having transferred the development rights, the landowner is restricted from developing his land by a conservation easement or deed restriction. The buyer of the development rights uses them to develop another piece of property with more density than allowed by its comprehensive plan zoning. In this way, part of the value of the land is sold and the residual value at a lower cost can be used for farming.

The idea that a TDR program would, by itself, protect open space by simply offering a mechanism for moving development around is not realistic. There must also be rural economic development to support and encourage farming and related businesses. This commitment to the larger goals must be part of the comprehensive plan and a TDR program should be created, tailored to the specific economic and geographic circumstances and goals of the county.

Maintaining the farms and agricultural way of life keeps larger blocks of land that allows the migration and movement of wildlife, and allows us to implement our programs to improve soil and water quality on larger land areas. It is simply easier for one farmer to manage his lands than to try to organize hundreds of homeowners to implement (and pay for) improvements to stop the erosion of streambanks.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Agriculture, Soil and Carbon Sequestration

Last week I spent several days in Richmond at the annual meeting of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. It is an annual conference that allows us to meet with colleagues at other conservation districts and cooperating agencies. In years past we had speakers from the U.S. EPA and the VA Department of Environmental Quality and VA Department of Conservation and Recreation (our parent agency) talk about changes in programs necessary to meet the U.S. EPA’s pollution diet. The entire Chesapeake Bay watershed is under a federal mandate to reduce sediment and fertilizer runoff into the bay in order to improve water quality. One of the best ways to assure this is through cooperative implementation of farm best management practices that keep soil and fertilizer on the land...not in our streams.

This year a couple of the speeches from our partner agencies touched on climate change and carbon sequestration. Since the President has stated that the greatest threat to the future is climate change that should not be surprising. Tucked into a very dynamic speech given by Jewel Hairston, Executive Director Farm Service Agency was the fact that 52 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents were sequestered each year in the United States through the conservation reserve and other agricultural programs.

The term “carbon sequestration” covers both natural and deliberate processes that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere or is removed from emissions and stored in the ocean, terrestrial environments (vegetation, soils, and sediments), and geologic formations. Before human interference the natural processes that make up the global “carbon cycle” maintained a near balance between the uptake of CO2 and its release back to the atmosphere. Though the absolute amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is small (currently about 400 parts per million- 0.04%), it has increased over 7% in the past decade.

Terrestrial or biological sequestration of CO2 can be accomplished through forest and soil conservation practices that increase the storage of carbon (by restoring and establishing new forests, wetlands, and grasslands) or reduce CO2 emissions (by reducing agricultural tillage and suppressing wildfires). In the United States, these practices are implemented to meet a variety of land-management objectives. Many of the agricultural practices that will reduce CO2 emissions will also restore and maintain soil health, reduce sediment runoff into our rivers and maintain or improve groundwater recharge.

About 30% of U.S. fossil-fuel CO2 emissions are offset by terrestrial or biological sequestration of CO2. That is huge. Though, only a small fraction of this uptake and storage of CO2 is the result of activities undertaken specifically to sequester carbon. The largest net uptake of CO2 is due to the ongoing natural regrowth of forests that were harvested during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The capacity of our terrestrial ecosystems to sequester carbon is uncertain.

The upper limit, though unrealistic, for terrestrial CO2 sequestration in the U.S. is the amount of carbon that would be accumulated if U.S. forests and soils were restored to their historic levels before they were depleted by logging, cultivation, and development. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that in the 18th century 39 gigatons of CO2 was sequestered in forests and soils. Scientists estimate that up to a third of atmospheric CO2 was once in the soil and that the soils of the earth have lost 50%-70% of their CO2. Decisions about terrestrial carbon sequestration for the future require careful consideration of priorities and tradeoffs. For example, converting farmlands to forests or wetlands may increase carbon sequestration, enhance wildlife habitat and water quality, but would reduce crop production and food availability. However, sustainable farming practices can increase CO2 sequestration in cultivated lands.

Soil is a living thing. In farming, soil carbon sequestration, transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil, is accomplished by leaving crop residues and other organic solids in the soil, and enhancing soil quality and long-term agronomic productivity by building soil quality. Soil carbon sequestration can be accomplished by management systems that add high amounts of biomass to the soil, cause minimal soil disturbance by utilizing no-till agricultural practices, conserve soil and water, improve soil structure, and enhance soil fauna activity.

Adding organic matter to farmland is good for soil quality and crop yields, both short-term and long-term. Continuous no-till is an efficient way of doing this, though there was a period in 2008 when this was questioned by some scientists, that is the current consensus. Cover crops and manure also help raise carbon levels.
There are several environmental benefits when cropland is enrolled in the conservation reserve program and properly managed through planting grass, trees, buffers and restoring wetlands, just one of them is sequestration of CO2. The Conservation Districts and U.S. Department of Agriculture work with farmers to implement many of these programs that also protects groundwater and helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams by reducing water runoff and sedimentation. Another benefit is the protection of millions of acres of American topsoil from erosion. In addition, these programs together sequester more carbon on private lands than any other federally-administered program. Yet, according to the Farm Service Agency 50% of farmers remain unconvinced that climate change is happening; nonetheless participate in these programs to enhance their soil quality and protect their water resources. These are benefits we can see with our eyes in real time.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Climate Deal Reached in Paris

As dawn broke on Saturday morning the Climate negotiators and ministers who had been meeting behind closed doors in Le Bourget in north-east Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties called COP-21 reached an agreement after working through Friday night to thrash out remaining details for the final draft agreement to present for a vote by the ministers on limiting climate change. Later in the day, Delegates from 196 countries that are party to COP-adopted the proposal.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, had called for a cooling-off period Friday night from the public meetings to allow more high level lobbying behind closed doors as sharp disagreements remained among nations. Fabius put off the planned public plenary sessions to create the urgency and time needed to reach an agreement marshalling the text through its final stages as president of the talks.

The White House said that President Obama telephoned the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, to try and reach a deal; using whatever limited leverage the U.S. still had with China. Earlier in the week the President had phone conversations with the Indian, French, and Brazilian leaders. Even with President’s efforts strong differences remained Friday between the U.S., India and China. China and Asia (excluding Japan) currently account for about 40% of world emissions were essential to reaching an agreement.

The key points of the agreement are:
  • The new climate treaty will run from 2020-2030. 
  • Though this treaty will allow the nations to determine what they are prepared to do, the nations embrace the aim of keeping temperatures “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. “ It also aims to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.,” The 2 degree Celsius limit is based on what scientists think will prevent the eventual drowning of many coastal cities, the disruption of agricultural climates and reductions in drinking water availability; but the Island nations had pushed for the lower limit believing that a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius would doom them. 
  • Each nation will declare their “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) instead of the UNFCCC mandating cuts, but even the declared INDCs are not enough to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius goal. The emissions cuts pledges made so far still leave the world on track for at least 2.7 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures this century. 
  • A key part of the deal is therefore the mechanism designed to make countries pledge to deeper emissions cuts in future. This goal will be achieved by beginning with an INDC base of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from 185 countries and covering more than 90% per cent of global emissions were made. 
  • However, neither China nor India representing about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions and the other developing nations committed to reductions. Instead they are projecting when their greenhouse gas emissions will peak. The agreement asks that countries should aim to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science”. 
  • The countries are requested to review their climate plans by 2018 before the agreement takes effect. 
  • In addition, the agreement includes a review of goals and progress towards the goals every five years with the first happening in 2023. 
  • The loss and damage section of the agreement says they "intend to continue their existing collective mobilization goal through 2025." This just means that the nations will continue the $100 billion (US) finance plan where, developed countries are obliged to 'mobilise' $100 billion (US) a year of public and private finance to help developing countries through 2025, and then by 2025 set a new and higher goal "from a floor of $100 billion.” This serves as a mechanism for addressing the financial losses vulnerable countries face from climate impacts such as extreme weather but does not provide for any liability compensation. Although many poorer countries wanted increased finance to be a legally-binding requirement, the US made it clear it would never ratify such a deal. 
What is missing from the deal:
  • So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times. The agreement lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain the 1.5 degree Celsius limit in average global temperature. The carbon reductions committed to under the INDC are inadequate to meet that goal. There is no timescale of when fossil fuels must be phased out in the second half of the century. The phrase of working “towards reaching greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century” that was present in various drafts was eliminated. 
  • Though all countries will use the same system to report their emissions, the treaty allows developing nations to report fewer details until they build the ability to better count their carbon emissions. The recent revisions in the Chinese government data that revealed that China had been burning as much as 17 % more coal annually than previously thought illustrates the problem with that approach. 
Naturally, world leaders hailed the agreement as a milestone in the battle to keep Earth a planet that is hospitable to human life. Certainly, it is progress. There are only “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and no mandated cuts, but the world is moving forward. There are no liability payments and many routes to the commitments the U.S. has made in its INDC, but all the new regulations including the Clean Carbon Plan and auto and truck mileage standards will not meet the U.S. INDC, more will have to be done. The CO2 emissions reduction pledges of the accord are voluntary, while others are elements legally binding.

The White House pushed for this hy­brid agree­ment in which coun­tries’ in­di­vidu­al cli­mate pledges are vol­un­tary not binding, but with the oth­er pro­vi­sions, mon­it­or­ing of na­tion­al pledges and financial support would be bind­ing.  This neatly sidesteps the need for any new rat­i­fic­a­tion of this agreement by the Sen­ate, In 1992 the senate ratified the United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change that re­quired its parties set na­tion­al strategies to re­duce green­house-gas emis­sions and co­oper­ate in fu­ture talks to pre­pare for the im­pacts of cli­mate change. The George H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion said at the time that any “pro­tocol or amend­ment” that set bind­ing green­house-gas-re­duc­tion tar­gets would have to go through the Sen­ate. This is sad because we need to be a unified nation working together towards our joint future, and we need an agreement that survives this administration.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

More Well Stories- VAMWON Notes from the Field

VAMWON Notes from the Field are the stories of the questions I’ve encountered as a volunteer with VAMWON. The Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) is an organization of trained volunteers and extension agents dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Virginia manages the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The VAMWON volunteer or Agent can help you identify problems with the water system and provide information on suggested treatments options and other solutions, but there are times all we can offer is a framework on how to gather information and think about your problem. You can find your VAMWON volunteer neighbor through this link by entering your county in the search box.

I regularly receive contacts from people and sometimes all we do is talk about wells. I collect data from all the contacts to increase my knowledge, get current prices of having a well drilled and hear about which well drillers people were satisfied with.  This is the story from Lloyd.

I live in Fort Valley VA, about an hour West of Haymarket.  I have had this home for about 3 years and recently ran into a problem with my well water turning very cloudy, almost muddy.  The well for the house is about 40 years old and from what I know from a neighbor is somewhere between 225 and 300 feet deep.  When it was drilled they rarely used much of a casing and apparently the pump and all tubing is original.   I had no problems with the water at all until recently. “

At this point I would like to interrupt his story with some observations. First this is a drilled well. Drilled wells are typically more than 100. In Virginia well drillers are required to file a drilling log with thecounty and comply with drilling regulations since 1992. If the well was drilled before 1992 you have to think that sooner rather than later you will have to replace not only the  well components, but also depending on your geology the well.  While many wells will last decades, it is reported that 20 years is the average age of well failure. Pumps, pressure tanks, switches and other equipment tend to last about 15 years or so. Mechanical equipment has a limited life and will fail sooner or later.  Well casings are subject to corrosion, pitting and perforation.

A second note is that just because your neighbor’s well is at 225-300 does not mean that your well is. My well is at 150 feet below grade and my nearest neighbors are at 250 and 175 feet below grade. On our county land the wells are drilled from 150 to 450 feet below grade. (Yes, I looked up the well completion report for every home in my surrounding 360 acres.) Back to Lloyd’s story.

In July I started construction of an addition to my house which required excavation.  The fill was placed on the side of a hill on our property, perhaps 50 feet from the well.  A few days later, we had 4” of rain in a very short period of time and our water was muddy for several days.  I chalked it up to infiltration from the water mixing with the fill and penetrating the water table by getting around the casing.  A few weeks ago we had a quick 2” rainfall and once again we had cloudy water (unsuitable for drinking) for a few days.  But I had the problem again this week and we had no rain.  I did do some power washing and the water went down a drain which drains who-knows-where but there really should not have been enough of this water to stir things up.  If it was infiltration it should clear up in a day or two, but I think this time could be different.

Prior to the construction I had my water tested to see if I would benefit from a water softener.  I was told my water was pretty good and there would be little benefit to adding a water conditioner.  Given the age of the well and equipment I realize it could be about anything, particularly the casing (or lack thereof) creating a problem.  I am a bit gun shy about calling a well driller in since obviously he will want to re-drill the well, replace all the equipment and the connection to the house which would involve pulling apart a very expensive patio which sits over the pipe (or hose) coming from the well.  It won’t matter if that is the real problem.  So do you have any recommendations for someone to call who might be a bit more impartial about diagnosing the problem?”

I responded:
               You are right, given the age of the well and the complete lack of information on construction, geology and yield it could be anything. Not all well drillers will immediately suggest a new well if your well is functional (is not going dry or collapsing), but some will indeed. You are really going to have to get help on the ground where you are. I would suggest paying for a service call from more than one well driller after talking to the health department. What I can tell you is that your problem may be a geological one.

Massanutten Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is in the Valley and Ridge regional aquifer system. The Valley and Ridge regional aquifer systems are within the Valley and Ridge Physiographic Province. The carbonate rocks in the Valley and Ridge where you are have unique hydrogeologic features like karst topography, solution channels, and caves. Ground water in the carbonate rocks of the Valley and Ridge flows (1) in the regolith (alluvium, colluvium, and residuum); (2) along fractures, joints, and bedding plane partings in the bedrock; and (3) in solution channels and cavities (caves) formed by the dissolution of carbonate minerals.

It is possible that your problem is caused by a solution channel that has formed in the karst terrain. This could have been created by time, water flow or the weight of the excavating equipment and soil piled up on the ground. If this is the cause the filtration and potentially secondary treatment is the solution not a new well and the water might just begin to clear up on its own. However, your well casing could be collapsing from rust, you could be pumping Virginia clay to the surface or you could have a significant amount of surface infiltration from the dirt piled on the hill and being mobilized by all the rain.

Well production and a careful analysis of the water (not one of the free tests to see if the water is hard by test strips) can help you determine if your well is failing or has been impacted by the creation of a channel or cavity or if you have surface infiltration. Surface infiltration would be characterized by the presence of coliform bacteria. However, the creation of a solution channel in karst terrain could bring surface water into contact with the ground. A Ground penetrating sonar can identify voids (that is not always available in small towns it is used typically for commercial projects and re-development), but you need to figure out what is going on with your well.

Start with the health department in your county. Here in Prince William we have practiced solutions to many of our typical problems. Talk to the health department, talk to at least two well drillers, do a complete water analysis on your well. Samples should be analyzed for at least: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria. The bacteria could identify a surface infiltration, the pH an acidic condition that would over time impact the well casing, etc...It would also be helpful to test the yield on your well to make sure that your well is not going dry. Also, wells often have fine mesh filter socks that fit tightly over the slotted screen in a well and are designed to allow water to pass through while preventing fine sand and clay from entering the well screen. These days they are made of knitted polyester, which is more inert and resistant to degradation than nylon which was used in the past. Remember, if you pull the pump, you should replace it. No use paying to pull a pump from the ground and then putting an old piece of equipment back in.  Good luck and let me know how you do,

“Thank you so much for that detailed response.  I suspect your solution channel explanation caused by the full is very likely. The water is slowly clearing up.“

Monday, December 7, 2015

Climate Talks Crib Sheet

For the past week more than 190 nations and various interested parties have been meeting in a suburb of Paris attempting to negotiate a climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Treaty which expired by the end of 2011. The delegates of the nations are gathered at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I believe that no ambitious global deal will be signed in Paris although whatever treaty they come up with will be hailed as making significant progress towards climate change.

The international efforts to take action to stop or limit climate change began at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and culminated with the Kyoto Treaty negotiated at the UNFCCC in 1997 which required that by 2013 the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels. Developing nations (like China and India) were not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the United States, which at the time was the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Treaty in 2011. In all only 36 nations were party to the Kyoto Treaty.

The goal at the Paris meeting is to set up a new climate treaty that will run from 2020-2030. This treaty will allow the nations to determine what they are prepared to do. Each nation will declare their “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) instead of the UNFCCC mandating cuts. There seems to be real political momentum to do something, but the details still need to be worked out and the developing nations are demanding a level of compensation that could derail the talks. India’s negotiators say that they would need the rest of the world to pay them between $1 trillion and $2.5 trillion by 2030 to help them adapt, and that is just India.

Known as “climate finance,” this transfer of wealth is supposed to help the developing world make the transition away from the high-emission energy sources on which their emerging and adapt to climate change. At the climate talks in Copenhagen developing countries were promised $100 billion a year to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences. Around two-thirds of this money has been paid, but the developing nations want to increase this amount and have additional financial penalties for failure to meet climate goals or hold the global temperature within target range. That could prevent a deal altogether.

The only deal that could be reached is one where greenhouse gas emission reductions are voluntary and in most cases in the future. It is likely that any deal would establish an INDC base of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from willing nations and hope for more action in the future. Hard commitments to climate finance will be harder to achieve. The Obama administration has pledged to put $3 billion in the Green Climate Fund, the leading fund for aiding developing countries, but failed to get congress to approve a budget approved with $500 million in climate reparations. Most climate finance already processed has been spent on adding renewable energy.

The developing countries say highly industrialized nations need to pay for the damage to the climate by pledging enough to help the developing nations transition to lower-carbon energy and to prepare for the impacts from a warmer climate. Though it is true that the “developed” nations have emitted the lion’s share of historic greenhouse gases, they have also in the process developed the power generation technology, combustion engines and pumps and industrial equipment that all nations use. Key to the negotiations will be a tradeoff between developing countries’ demands for financing to reduce their own emissions and adapt to climate change and the insistence that every country should be required to at least work towards emission reductions.

Leaders of the climate talks are hoping to begin with the INDC base of greenhouse gas emission limits, cuts or future cuts and have the nations review their targets and see if they can do more every five years -in 2020, 2025 and 2030. Already, the G7 nations, Russia and a few other countries have indicated that they will cut emission by 80% by 2050, but none of these nations is on course to achieve those goals and to not want to be held to them legally. Also, it appears that both the United Kingdom and Germany are going to miss their 2020 renewable goals. In the U.S. the Clean Carbon Plan is being challenged in court.

There is a several year lag in accumulating all the data to estimate greenhouse gas emissions, it is not directly measured. In 1990 the world carbon emissions from burning fuel were 21.5 billion metric tonnes. By 2014 the world carbon emission from burning fuel were initially reported to be 32.3 billion metric tonnes of carbon, but since that time it was revealed by the Chinese government data that China has been burning as much as 17 % more coal annually than previously thought. So, world emissions for the last several years will have to be recalculated and revised upward and China will represent an even larger share of the global emissions, no doubt surpassing the emissions of the G-7 nations combined.

Some have argued that the shifting of manufacturing to China and India, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world recession was responsible for much of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the Kyoto Treaty participants. After all, world greenhouse gas emissions have increased by more than 50% since Kyoto. When Kyoto was signed it was believed to be a step towards limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times. This is the level of global warming that was chosen by climate scientists as a limit that mankind could safely endure. This limit is based on what scientists think will prevent the eventual drowning of many coastal cities, the disruption of agricultural climates and reductions in drinking water availability. So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial times.

While it is possible for most people to envision the melting of artic ice and glaciers increasing sea level and higher temperatures disrupting planting seasons, it is less obvious the connection among greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures. There are over 105 models of the planet and its climate, though the scientist keep refining the models, there remain simplifications, assumptions and things about our plant and how it responds to change that are unknown. The UNFCCC used the climate models to estimate a total amount of CO2 gigatonnes equivalents that can be released into the environment before we will blow past the 2 degree Celsius limit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that after 2011 the world would have to keep total cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases below 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents to stay within the 2 degree Celsius limit. The problem is that even UNFCCC’s numbers indicate that we will blow through that limit by 2036 even if the limits of the INDC limits are met, and that estimate was made before China disclosed that they had been burning 17% more coal than previously reported.

Even if we can somehow keep total planetary emissions below 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2100, the computer models show a global warming of between 1.3 degree Celsius to 3.9 degrees Celsius by 2100 and climbing from there. These are just the likely outcomes according to the models if we stick to the 1,000 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent budget, but it seems certain that we will bust through that budget in the next 20 years.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Paris Climate Talks Begin

On Monday, November 30, 2015 the 21st Conference of the Parties opened in Le Bourget, France a suburb of Paris near the Airport. This is the 21st meeting of nations called COP-21 to discuss and try to take action to combat climate change. If you recall last year in Rio the nations came to an agreement that called for:

Reaching an agreement at this Paris meeting that reflects "differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" of each nation. Developed countries will provide financial support to "vulnerable" developing nations. And countries will set targets that go beyond their "current undertaking."

World leaders stressed their support of those goals during the speech making in the first two days of of the conference. After that show of support, the world leaders left the delegates to the conference to get the work done.

With the promulgation of the EPA’s Clean Carbon Plan rule the United States has taken meaningful steps in the spirit of that agreement. It is to be seen if the rule survives the court challenges. I am hopeful, but do not believe the climate talks in Paris will produce a meaningful plan to reduce world CO2 emissions because I don’t see how it ca be done. The developing world will not cap their greenhouse gas emissions or economic growth while they are still poor, and the developed world no longer represents the lion’s share of CO2 emissions and cannot make a big enough reduction to change the trajectory of the planet.

In 1990 the world carbon emissions from burning fuel were 21.5 billion metric tonnes. By 2014 the world carbon emission from burning fuel were initially reported to be 32.3 billion metric tonnes of carbon, but this was before The New York Times revealed in an article last month that China has been burning as much as 17 % more coal annually than previously thought, citing new Chinese government data. So, world emissions for the last several years will be revised upward and China will represent an even larger share of the global emissions, surpassing all of the G-7 nations. At all the climate talks since 2012 China has maintained that their CO2 emission would peak around 2030. Since then they have always maintained that stance, though recently they have stated they will take only some steps to increase their energy efficiency. With China’s emissions now exceeding all of the G-7 nations and growing at an alarming rate and India’s at about half of China’s; there seems little hope of reaching a meaningful accord in Paris.

World CO2 emissions have grown at an alarming pace growing more than 50% since 1990. With tremendous effort and cooperation the nations may be able to halt the growth in CO2 emissions and possibly reduce that slightly, but cutting emissions in the foreseeable future is unfathomable since China and India with continue with unrestrained emission growth, and probably represent about 40% of world emissions now. There remain more than 1.2 billion people on earth without access to electricity, or adequate sanitation many of them in India and China.

In 1990’s when the Kyoto Treaty was signed by the European Union, Japan and Canada, the developed world including the United States represented 72% of global CO2 emissions from fuel, now they represent about 40% and falling. Europe’s birth rate has plummeted and Europe’s population (including Russia and Eastern Europe) of 740 million is projected to decrease to 726 million by 2050. The population of the United States is projected to grow from about 316 million today to 440 million by 2050. China’s total fertility rate is a very low 1.5 children per woman. India is projected to pass China in population size in about 15 years, becoming the world’s most populous country and is projected to have 1.625 billion people by 2050 while China’s population is 1.357 billion today and is projected to peak in 2030 and fall to 1.314 billion in 2050.

As widely reported when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their Fifth Assessment Report on climate change this year, despite the recent decade pause in the increase in surface temperature, the planet is warming and it is “extremely likely that the changes in our climate system for the past half a century are due to human influence.” The IPCC expects global surface temperatures for the end of the 21st century to likely increase 2.7°F to 3.6°F relative to 1850 to 1900 time period. “Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions,” said Co-Chair Thomas Stocker in the press release at the time of the report. Dr. Stocker concluded his comments by reminding us that as a result of our past, present and expected future emissions of CO2, climate change is inevitable, and will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 were to stop today. So we best get ready since no action is going to stop it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Instead of Pulling the Pump they Destroyed the Well- VAMWON Notes from the Field

VAMWON Notes from the Field are the stories of the questions I’ve encountered as a volunteer with VAMWON that might be helpful to you. The Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) is an organization of trained volunteers and extension agents dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Virginia manages the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The VAMWON volunteer or Agent can help you identify problems with the water system and provide information on suggested treatments options and other solutions. You can find your VAMWON volunteer neighbor through this link by entering your county in the search box.

I received a homeowner inquiry recently from someone in Loudoun County who found me from my blog, Green Risks, while search for information on wells and groundwater. Two days earlier their well had gone dry. The homeowner had moved into their newly built home in Lovettsville, VA in the fall of 2014. By the fall of 2015 they would lose all water pressure after using the water, especially at night. After this had happened several times, they called a license Well Driller I was not familiar with to come out and check it. They choose the company that had drilled the well and filled the well completion report back in 2006. Despite the well being drilled in 2006, the house was not built until 2014 and during the past couple of years during which time  80 homes were built as a clustered development.

The information on private wells performance and location can be obtained from the water well completion report on file with the department of health. Be aware though, that private well construction was not regulated in Virginia until 1992 and is still not regulated in many places. The “stabilized yield” is the recharge rate at the time of installation. However, groundwater can change over time and it is commonly reported that the recharge rate falls over time from the initial recharge rate. According to the well completion report from 2006 the well stabilized yield was 5 gallons per minute, The well was drilled to 300 feet below grade and the pump placed at 275 feet below grade. Five gallons a minute is not a robust well, but an almost 300 foot deep well would serve as good storage. Each foot of a typical 6 inch well can provide 1.46 gallons of water storage (7.45 gallons of water per cubic foot).

The home owner was told by the Well Driller that her well ran dry because of all the drilling in the surrounding area. That is very possible. The home is located in in a clustered community of 80 recently built homes, all build on an acre or more. The homes are clustered together and a lot of open space is beyond the homes. The Well Driller told the home owner that sediment had filled up the fissures in the bedrock and they recommended hydro-fracking.

I began to write her a response, but felt, finally, that it would be more effective to call her. We talked about her situation. Essentially, the symptom she described of losing water after using it for a little bit is a classic symptom of a well with a diminished water supply- the well was going dry. In the well, a diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing due to mineralization or sediment filling up the fissures and cracks in the bedrock as the Well Driller had thought. It is difficult to tell the underlying cause without checking the condition of all the nearby wells. Groundwater systems are both invisible and dynamic and can be impacted by many things.

Modern wells are drilled past the water table to draw water from water bearing fractures in the bedrock. The groundwater that feeds the wells exists in water–filled and interconnected fractures, pores and cavities in the rock. The size and density of the pores and fractures vary with rock type, depth and location.  In most cases when a well pumps, a cone of depression develops in the water table around the well as the water is pumped out of the well. When many wells are operated in a limited area the cone of depression in one well may affect the water level in another or they can simply pump water out of the aquifer faster than it is recharging. Eighty homes in the development might pump 32,000 gallons a day within the 80 acres of the clustered portion of the development.

In addition, a significant portion of the clustered areas is covered with buildings, patios, walks, driveways, roads and other impervious surfaces that will changed the hydrology of the site reducing ground water recharge in the immediate area around the homes at the same time increasing the demand for water. With reduced groundwater recharge in the immediate area, there is a real possibility that the pumping from all the homes could overdraw the aquifer and dry out several homes over time, beginning with the least robust and shallowest wells.

Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. While groundwater is a renewable resource it is NOT unlimited. The sad truth is that we do not know how much water we have available in the Culpeper Basin that servers the region, nor do we know what the sustainable rate of ground water use is. The USGS tells us that our groundwater basin is under stress. Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local and adequacy of water resources would vary from neighborhood to neighborhood..

The homeowner decided to take the Well Driller’s advice and hydro-frack the well. The cost of hydro-fracking a well is around $4,000 and the cost of a new well varies by depth and other factors. Around here it is usually $10,000 to $20,000 for a single family home. Home owners insurance never covers well failure either by equipment or groundwater drying up.

 Hydro-fracking usually involves the installation of an inflatable or mechanical packer that is placed in the well bore at least 40 feet below the well casing and drive shoe seal, and at least 60 feet below the ground surface to ensure that the process does not "break" the seal or allow surface water contaminants to enter the well. Fist the well pump is pulled from the well, then the packer is inflated or locked into position and water is pumped through the packer under pressure. Most applications require between 500 and 2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure and in some cases 3,000 psi pressure may be needed in tight rock Formations, the artistry comes into play in knowing the formations and the amount of pressure needed. This could flush particles and rock fragments from existing bedrock fractures or bust open more fractures, resulting in an increased flow of water, and a larger network of water bearing fractures supplying water to the well. This technique has been very successful in bedrock formations. In the wrong geology it could collapse the well.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. When the well driller went to pull the pump, they used a pickup truck with a winch. This essentially pulled the pump at a slight angle and the pump hooked the casing and dislodged it, destroying the well.  The pump should have been pulled from directly above to smoothly remove it. Pulling a pump requires more skill than dropping one in. The well Driller was careless in pulling the pump and pulled out the casing destroying a well that could have potentially been salvaged. After all, the Well Driller had suggested fracking the well to restore flow, which would indicate at the time they believed that the well could be salvaged.

The training and knowledge that well drillers have are limited and based primarily on experience.Experience can be a good teacher, but is often not a consistent one. There are few other sources of information and help. Hydro/ geological engineering and groundwater consulting  are really geared to industrial work and community supply wells where the costs of modeling the ground water flow, geological studies, obtaining data can be recovered, but even then it is experience and an engineering degree.  I recommended the homeowner give a local consultant (and neighbor) a call and contacting a lawyer and going after the Well Drillers errors in pulling the pump. At last report they were working with Loudoun County to identify a location for a new well while exploring recourse against the builder and well driller. .

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Dominion Power to Build Solar Generation in Virginia

Recently, Virginia Electric and Power Company doing business in Virginia as Dominion Power filed an application to build three utility scale solar power generation “plants” totaling 56 megawatts of electricity and projected to cost $130 million within the Commonwealth. The goal is to have the projects approved, built and operating before December 31, 2016 to be able to take advantage of the Federal Solar Tax Credit which will expire on December 31, 2016. If Dominion Power builds the solar facilities and brings them on line before December 31, 2016 they estimate that 91% of the capital expenditures for the projects will qualify for the 30% tax credit a savings of over $35 million to the company and the rate payers who in the end pay for almost all capital expenditures through electrical rates.

All three solar facilities would consist of ground-mounted, single axis tracking solar photovoltaic panel arrays that would connect to the grid. The Scott Solar facility will be in Powhatan County and have 17 megawatts of solar panels. It would be located on 165 acres of land. The Whitehouse Solar facility would have 20 megawatts of solar panels and be located in Louisa County. It will be built on a 250-acre site. Finally the Woodland Solar facility would have 19 megawatts of solar panels. It will be located in Isle of Wight County. The project will be constructed on approximately 200 acres. As it stands now, these projects while just a fraction (less than 0.3%) of the Dominion Power generating capacity are forecast to increase electrical rates by $0.07 per 1,000 kilowatt hours of power purchased.

In the southeast where it rains on average more than 44 inches each year and groundwater is an essential resource, covering hundreds of acres with solar panels and eliminating the tree and brush can have a significant impact on the recharge of groundwater and create excess runoff of sediment into surface water. According to research done at the Brookhaven National Laboratory
possible impacts include the erosion of topsoil, increase of sediment load or turbidity in local streams, reduction in the filtration of pollutants from air and rainwater, the reduction of groundwater recharge, or the increased likelihood of flooding. The impact increases with the amount of rainfall, but mitigation for storm flow surface water were required even for the Ivanpah power plant in the semi-arid inland of California to deal with the impact from the changed water velocity and geohydrology.

When installing solar power in forested regions trees and brush must be removed to prevent shading of solar panels. Typically, any plant taller than half a meter would be removed or cut down, and tree roots would also be removed to allow posts to be driven into the ground. These projects must include a study of the impact to water resources in the immediate area. Once the hydrology is destroyed it is nearly impossible to restore.

These projects are being driven by the expiration of the solar tax credit and the mandates under the EPA Clean Power Plan that require Virginia to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 38% from 2012 emissions levels by 2030. To meet EPA Clean Power Plan carbon dioxide emission levels means that Dominion will have to install or contract for more renewable energy and build more natural gas fired power plants. The steep investment for nuclear plants and the difficulty that in terms of cost and timing overruns that have been experienced in the Tennessee Valley Authority Watts Bar plant and Southern Co. and Scana Corporations projects in Georgia and South Carolina make expanding nuclear generation unlikely here in Virginia. It would be an error to irredeemably damage our water resources to reduce our carbon footprint. At this point reducing our carbon dioxide emissions is not going to stop climate change that is driven by increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to the climate models it is too late to stop global warming, so let’s stop and make sure that we do not destroy our water resources.

Dominion Resources, Inc. the parent of Dominion Power is one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy: with about 24,600 megawatts of electric generation, 12,400 miles of natural gas pipeline and 63,600 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines. By the end of 2015 Dominion expects to have under long term contract 411 megawatts of solar power in California and Tennessee. But electric generators must construct large natural gas-fired combined-cycle stations, such as Dominion’s Warren County plant to meet both carbon dioxide reductions mandated by the Clean Carbon Plan and power needs. The highly efficient combined-cycle plants emit about two-thirds of the carbon of a single cycle plant and about 45% of the carbon of a coal fired electrical plant. However, to operate the plants must have an uninterrupted natural gas supply via a pipeline. Dominion will have to build more natural gas pipelines and power lines to supply and serve these plants.

Monday, November 23, 2015

FDA Approves Genetically Modified Salmon

from FDA
Last Thursday after years of review, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon called the AquaAdvantage salmon in the United States. Not only will genetically engineered salmon be able to be sold in the United States, the law does not require food containing ingredients derived from these salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered or genetically modified.

After a long and rigorous scientific review, the FDA arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe and nutritious to eat as any non-genetically engineered farmed Atlantic salmon. AquAdvantage Salmon has been genetically engineered to grow more rapidly than its non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart. It does so because it contains an rDNA construct that is composed of the growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon under the control of a promoter (a sequence of DNA that turns on the expression of a gene) from another type of fish called an ocean pout. This allows the salmon to grow to market size faster than non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon with less feed.

As part of its evaluation, the FDA examined data comparing three groups of fish: non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon from both the company’s salmon farm and from a different commercial salmon farm, and AquAdvantage Salmon. This study compared key hormones (including estradiol, testosterone, 11-ketotestosterone, T3, T4 and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1)) and found no biologically relevant differences. The FDA found the salmon to be equivalent. According to the FDA, the reviewed data also showed that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the company’s claim about faster growth.

The FDA reported that after analyzing the potential environmental impact that an approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon would have. Under the approval, AquAdvantage Salmon are subject to stringent conditions to prevent the possibility of escape into the wild. The salmon cannot be raised in ocean net pens: instead, the approval allows for them to be grown only at two specific land-based facilities: one in Canada, where the breeding stock are kept, and Panama, where the fish for market will be grown out using eggs from the Canada facility. In addition, both the Canada and Panama facilities have multiple and redundant physical barriers to prevent eggs and fish from escaping, including metal screens on tank bottoms, stand pipes, and incubator trays to prevent the escape of eggs and fish during hatching or rearing. The fish to be produced for food in Panama will be all-female fish that have been sterilized by a process that may not be 100% effective.

Nonetheless, based on the multiple forms of physical and biological containment proposed by AquaBounty Technologies in the application, the FDA found that the AquAdvantage Salmon would not cause a significant impact on the environment of the United States. This finding is based on the extremely low likelihood that AquAdvantage Salmon could escape from the Canada and Panama facilities and survive in an ocean or waterway to interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon. Based on the agency’s conclusion in the final Environmental Assessment, the agency issued a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Though it is likely that consumers would want to know whether the Atlantic salmon they buy is the product of genetic engineering, the FDA determined that no additional labeling of food from AquAdvantage Salmon is required because the data showed that food derived from AquAdvantage Salmon is not materially different from food derived from other Atlantic salmon. The FDA only requires additional labeling of foods, including foods from genetically engineered sources, when the food products are materially different from their conventional counterparts.

According to FDA standards material differences include changes in features like nutritional profile, and functional properties. The fact that a food is produced through the use of genetic engineering alone does not constitute a material fact requiring additional labeling under the law. Under a draft Guidance released in conjunction with the approval for the genetically engineered salmon, manufacturers who wish to voluntarily label their food products as containing or not containing genetically engineered Atlantic salmon may do so as long as such labeling is truthful and non-misleading. The FDA draft Guidance that the term genetically modified organism, the familiar GMO, is overly broad and inaccurate and should not be used on food labeling and packaging. The FDA prefers the terms non-biologically engineered or non-genetically engineered. You can review the Guidance and comment starting today, Monday, November 23, 2015 by submitting comments at

It will take a year or two before genetically engineered salmon are being sold in groceries or served on menus. As it stands now, this fish will not have to be labeled. To be certain you are avoiding genetically engineered salmon you will have to avoid all farmed fish or look for companies that use the approved FDA terms. This approval will not change anything for me. Though salmon is one of my favorite foods eaten several days a week, I never eat farmed Atlantic salmon or Atlantic salmon. I will not eat farmed fish and I prefer the leaner wild coho salmon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Solar Tax Credit Ends Next Year

On December 31, 2016 the 30% federal tax credit for solar power (solar thermal heating and solar photovoltaic systems) for consumers will end. Given the time it takes to investigate and install a solar system and the anticipated rush to install towards the end of next year, now is the time to consider if you want to install either system before the tax credit expires.

If solar power makes sense for you depends on where you live, your cost of electricity, the orientation of your roof, and if you have to borrow the money or lease the panels to install the solar panels. The price of solar panels and inverter systems has fallen significantly and may continue to fall in the next several years, but solar system cost isn’t the only variable that drives the financial returns you will receive. Rebates, tax credits, incentives and the electric rate structure are important elements in the economics of solar panels. At today’s prices the 30% federal tax credit makes solar panels a reasonable economic decision even in locations like Prince William County Virginia where there are no rebates or other subsidies beyond the federal tax credit and our rural coop electrical rates are about $0.114 per kilowatt hour.

There are several components to the cost and return of a solar system. The first cost is the cost of the system and the second cost is the design, permits and installation cost. The market cost of solar panels and installation costs have been falling for years. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system at the end of 2009 (though it was not installed until May 2010) the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. These days that cost is less than $1,800. I could probably have the same system that cost me $58,540 installed for around $19,000 or possibly less. 

The reduction in cost goes a long way to make solar a reasonable purchase today. Back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. (Two other examples where I’ve lived or have family are: California and Massachusetts. California used to have rebates up to $15,000. Today, they are $0. Massachusetts used to have rebates in the $9,000 range. Now, they are around $2,000)

Though I bought my solar photovoltaic system in 2009 and live in a low cost electricity location (for now), my purchase will have paid for itself in 7.5-8 years. Not only was I was able to score a state rebate of $12,000 and use the 30% federal tax credit, I was able to sell my solar renewable energy credits (SRECs).

To calculate the return on a solar photovoltaic system you need to know how much power the solar panels actually make. My solar panels make more power than predicted by the PV Watts model instead of the expected 9 megawatts of power each year my solar panels have produced an average of over 10 megawatts each year even with a period when the system was shut down for repairs. This “bonus” was a pleasant surprise. My current electricity production rate would translate into an almost 9% return on investment (before depreciation but after the federal tax credit) for solar panels bought today. It is not a spectacular return, but respectable and would justify installing solar panels and helping to reduce the summer peak demand on the power grid.

However, because I paid much more for my solar panels, with only the power generated by solar panels my return would have been around 4% before depreciation. To take the risk of buying and installing the solar photovoltaic system a chance for additional return on my investment was necessary. The SRECs were another incentive available to me in 2010, but is no longer available for Virginia residents.

A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced (and used by me). A 10 Kilowatt systems will produce about 12 SRECs a year. 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. Utilities in those few states buy SRECs from solar installation producers. It was a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the rate paying consumers).

Most states at this point require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their own states creating a closed market where the prices typically start off high until supply responds to that price. Other states, like Virginia, have no current solar RPS requirement. There are a couple of states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization. The Pennsylvania SREC price collapsed in early 2011 due essentially to oversupply and no Solar Alternative Compliance Payment, a penalty fee. It is to be noted that my electricity provider, NOVEC, would buy my SRECs for $15 each which is exactly what they pay for other forms of renewable energy they buy.

I can sell my SRECs to utilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC (because I registered my system before the market was closed to outside systems). I had my solar system certified by both Pennsylvania and Washington though at the time only Pennsylvania was a viable SREC market. Today the Pennsylvania market has collapsed and in Washington DC my SRECs are worth around $400 for the moment. It will not last, all SREC markets get overbuilt in response to a high SREC value, but Washington DC has significant land constraints limiting large commercial solar arrays. So the SREC market may remain viable for a couple of years, I hope so, but I am not depending on it.

The value of SRECs will go up and down depending on the supply and demand and regulations. RPS requirements may increase over time under the Clean Power Plan (which is currently facing court challenges to its implementation), but value created by regulations are subject to change. SRECs in Pennsylvania have ranged from $200-$300 per megawatt hour in 2010 and then collapsed and fell to $13 as the market remained open and became hugely overbuilt. Now, like Virginia renewable energy credits and solar renewable energy credits sell for the same $15. Washington DC is currently undersupplied to meet their mandate so the SRECS are currently worth $470 each. The market will respond (I only hope not too quickly or too much and the penalty for not meeting the SREC goal will fall). There was a time that New Jersey SRECS topped $670, they fell to $65 and are currently $260. 

While it lasts, for older systems like mine, the revenue from the sale of SRECs is higher than the value of the electricity the solar panels make. Today’s pricing with the federal tax credit make the return on investment in a solar photovoltaic system reasonable in almost all locations (if you do not have to borrow the money). There are other locations where various rebates and incentives and higher electricity rates make the return rich enough to support a market in financing alternatives, but it takes time and some level of expertise to optimize the solar incentives markets. Also, the incentives need to be paid for with either tax dollars (Department of Energy loan guarantees, grants and other incentives) or higher electricity rates- the renewable energy to fulfill the RPS and solar carve outs costs more than energy produced from other sources and results in higher electricity rates.
My costs and reurn for my solar pv system 5/10-10/15

One final point is solar systems do not last forever. All solar PV panels degrade and slowly over time produce less power. 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.

However, there are other things that can go wrong and for systems without micro inverters a failure of one panel in an array just looks like a 2-5% 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.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Exhaustion of Groundwater in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered in the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, in the east by the Persian Gulf, in the southeast and south by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen, and in the west by the Red Sea. The climate is arid with a semi-arid climate along the Red Sea coast. There are no perennial rivers though seasonally some surface water flows in the south east where annual rainfall of almost a foot falls between October and March.

The Saudi government estimates that the Kingdom has about 630 billion gallons per year, available of renewable water. Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world at 280 billion gallons of water desalinated each year. The main source of groundwater comes from six major consolidated sedimentary old-age aquifers located in the eastern and central parts of the country known as the Arabian Shelf.

This is fossil groundwater, formed some 20,000 years ago. The natural recharge of these aquifers is negligible. The climate of the planet has continually changed over the millennia and some groundwater aquifers are legacies of an earlier climate and are not being recharged. The Arabia Shelf aquifers are groundwater systems that have no natural recharge; unless they are artificially recharged they have a limited life span. If the water from a groundwater basin is used faster than it is recharged, it is being used up and ultimately it will run out, we may be much closer to that point than has been commonly thought.

According to the Water Atlas of Saudi Arabia there are 67 trillion gallons of proven water reserves calculated at some unknown year though thought to be in the last years of the 20th century. Leave it to the Saudis to calculate reserves of water. However, estimates of water stored and what is economically available to use are open to question. In truth, we do not yet know how much water is truly available in an aquifer, we can only see that the water level is falling and the water content observed by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) is decreasing.

Recent work has documented that Saudi Arabia and significant segments of Earth's population are consuming groundwater more quickly than it is recharging without knowing when it might run out. Worldwide groundwater still is largely unregulated and unmanaged. Potential consequence when an overused aquifer can no longer supplement limited water supplies are starvation, war and death.

In 1975 it was estimated that Saudi Arabia was using less than 500 billion gallons of water a year for irrigation and a similar amount of water for industry and domestic use. Then water consumption and use changed dramatically. Driven by a government policy in support of achieving food security Saudi Arabia began using groundwater sources for irrigation and growing wheat and grains in the dessert. By 1980 the artesian wells that had fed the oasis’s ran dry, and at its peak in 1999-2000 pumped almost 5 trillion gallons of water in a single year for agricultural irrigation exporting wheat to its neighbors.

At this point it had become clear that the Kingdom was sacrificing water security for food security and policies began to change. However, change was slow because the farm price for water or its availability did not reflect its scarcity or limit. For fifteen years Saudi Arabia has fought to reverse the agricultural and water policies of the last century during which time, it is likely that most of the “proven” groundwater reserves in the Saudi Arabian aquifers has been used up.
from Sciencedirect

The Ministry of Water was created to contain part of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and part of the former Ministry of Agriculture and Water. This new ministry was responsible for supervising the water sector, developing water related policies, and setting up mechanisms and programs aimed at managing the water resources in a sustainable way. In 2004 the Ministry of Water also became responsible for the electricity sector and was restructured as the Ministry of Water and Electricity to coordinate the development of water desalination and electricity production. The Ministry of Water and Electricity has been reversing the ill-conceived agricultural policies of the 20th century. This year Saudi Arabia will rely almost entirely on imported wheat. Saudi Arabia who once exported wheat grown using precious groundwater from the Arabian Aquifer System can sell oil for grain and an economic interest in international agri-businesses and use technology to recharge their groundwater reserves-not every nation has that option.