Thursday, April 28, 2016

Arbor Day

Tomorrow, April 29th 2016 we will be celebrating Arbor Day at the Prince William County elementary schools. I am fortunate to be able to participate on behalf of the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District in the ceremony and tree planting at Haymarket elementary school, not too far from my home. Pete Candland our Gainesville Supervisor will be with me.

The District with the County Board of Supervisors has honored Arbor Day for 30 years through school celebrations that have included 24,500 students, more than 100 trees planted on school grounds, and participation in the state and national poster contests (the kids at Haymarket made the posters pictured at the right. 
Arbor Day is typically observed the last Friday in April, a day of tress is now observed around the world at different times based on ideal planting season. This year, the we were helped by our Extension Agent, Paige Thacker, and some of the Master Gardeners who went to all six of the elementary schools to evaluate the location and perfect tree. For Haymarket Elementary they picked a Fringe Tree, which is native to this area. (This week I will also be planting a couple of trees  on the west side of my property.)

Arbor Day was an early recognition of the need for sustainability in how we live on the earth. Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska by J. Sterling Morton in 1872 when a million trees were planted in a single coordinated effort to counteract the deforestation that had occurred as trees were harvested to support the growth of the nation. In his speech to the school children who had planted and later cared for many trees, Mr. Morton described the great oneness of nature in all its parts. Then as now mankind is dependent on plants for life, for the wealth, for beauty and food, and for the recycling nutrients into the earth.

Without trees and native plants to anchor and build the top soil, host bacteria and insects to decompose and repair the waste the land died. It had no natural life. This had resulted in floods and droughts, infertile and barren soil, and even the extinction of entire communities as the land seemed to be used up and blown away across the prairie.

Each generation of humanity takes responsibility of the earth as trustees to hold until the next generation becomes the successors in trust. Our next generation will inherit a very crowed earth in need of great care and stewardship. Trees are the first step in caring for the earth. We need to nurture and care for the trees so they in turn can sustain us. According to The Tree Folk “A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 lbs/ year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings.”

Forests which are really treed ecosystems now cover 10 million square miles of earth. There was a time when forests extended much further. Most of the cultivated and inhabited lands of today were once forests or estuaries. The demand to convert ever more land to agriculture to support the increasing human population causes the loss of the forest ecosystem and increased soil erosion and flooding. The loss of large portions of the rain forest is believed by some to be a major contributor to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Trees can also reduce air conditioning and heating needs by providing shade and providing a wind shield for winter and reducing our overall use of carbon based fuels. Trees also act as natural pollution filters. Their canopies, trunks, roots, and associated soil filter polluted particulate matter out of the runoff flow towards the Chesapeake Bay. Trees also use and recycle nitrogen and phosphorus which are contributing to the decay of the Chesapeake Bay and its estuary.

Flint Michigan: Three Indictments

On Wednesday, April 20th the Michigan Attorney General filed criminal charges against two state environmental officials, Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby and the Flint Michigan city’s utilities manager, Michael Glasgow. Stephen Busch, a district supervisor in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; Michael Prysby, a former district engineer with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; and Michael Glasgow, a supervisor at Flint’s water-treatment plant.

The three men face a total of 13 charges that include both felonies and misdemeanors. Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby were charged with three felonies including misconduct in office (which is a felony) for “willfully and knowingly misleading” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the local Genesee County Health Department about the danger posed by the Flint, Michigan drinking water; and tampering with evidence relating to how the water was tested for lead. In addition Mr. Prsby was also charged with misconduct in office for authorizing the use of the Fling water treatment plant while knowing the plant was “deficient in its ability to provide clean and safe drinking water.” Each of these felonies is punishable by four-five years in prison and $10,000 fine. The men also face two misdemeanor counts each.

Mr. Glasgow was charged with one felony count of tampering with evidence and a misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty. Bringing criminal charges against government bureaucrats for incompetence, neglect of duty or making bad decisions is highly unusual. The question is did criminal misconduct expose the almost 100,000 citizens of Flint, Michigan to potentially hazardous levels of lead for months. This is indeed a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it.

The problems all stem from trying to keep the cost of water as low as possible in Flint, Michigan a city plagued in recent decades by poverty, aging infrastructure and a declining population and budget shortfalls, is the underlying cause of the current tragedy. Though the current crisis began when the city of Flint decided to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) as the City’s permanent water source in a cost saving measure as wholesale water rates from the old Detroit system kept growing in an attempt to support rising maintenance, repair and operating costs in that system. KWA would supply water to the members by building a new pipeline from Lake Huron. While waiting for KWA pipeline to be completed, the City of Flint planned to use the Flint River as a temporary alternative water source.

The Flint River was be subject to variations due to temperature changes, rain events and had higher organic carbon levels than the Lake Huron water previously supplied by Detroit. In an April 17, 2014 email Mr. Glasgow stated that he was concerned that the Flint water treatment plant was not ready begin distributing Flint River water to homes. He told the DEQ that he needed more time to train additional staff and update monitoring plans for the for the system. First, Flint struggled to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act levels at the water treatment plant. Nonetheless, the project moved forward.

Then residents noticed changes in the smell, color, and taste of the water coming out of their taps. Tests showed high levels of bacteria that forced the city to issue boil advisories. In response, the city upped its chlorine levels to kill the pathogens. This created too many disinfectant byproducts, which are carcinogens. Then the corrosive water began leaching lead, other metals and whatever else was in the biofilm on the old service line pipes that connected the water mains to peoples’ homes. A corrosion prevention plan was not implemented, but that simple plan could have averted disaster by using additives to diminish the corrosiveness of the water at negligible cost. They did not have a corrosion management plan and did not think it was necessary according to emails.

Though this is a man-made disaster that could have been prevented at many points along the chain of decisions and events that caused it, that chain goes back decades. If the lead lateral lines had been replaced, there would have been not lead to leach into the drinking water. If the city had stayed with the Detroit supply, the lead leaching would have remained at a much slower pace and hopefully stayed below hazardous levels. If the Flint Water Treatment Plant had implemented a corrosion prevention plan and were successful then the lead leaching would have remained at a much slower pace and hopefully stayed below hazardous levels.

All these bad decisions were made because low cost of water was more important than public health, and thought the Michigan Attorney General has promised additional prosecutions it is not clear that even these can be made to stick. Misconduct in office is an ambiguous offense and the charges of tampering with evidence is based on the Flint residents being instructed to run their drinking water for five minutes before taking samples. However, the protocol for lead sampling has been confused for decades. Best practice is to use both a first draw and a flush water sample for lead testing. Is this simply bread and circuses to help heal the community or are bureaucrats going to be held accountable for mistakes, misjudgments,incompetence and neglect?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Paris Climate Accord Signed on Earth Day.

from NASA
Earth Day was Friday. Leaders from more than 175 countries gathered at the United Nations in New York City on Friday to sign the Paris Climate Accord. If you recall, last December at a meeting in Le Bourget in north-east Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties called COP-21 Delegates from 196 countries reached an agreement that puts the nations on a course to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel.

Though many were disappointed that the Paris Climate Accord was not strong enough, even if every nation met their pledge, it lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain global temperatures within 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. That 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 a lower limit believing that a temperature rise of 2 °C above pre-industrial levels would doom them. Thus, an aspirational goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels was included in the agreement. However, the carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are inadequate to meet either goal.

Nonetheless, Friday’s ceremony at the United Nations when 175 nations signed the agreement was a reminder that the Paris Climate Accord was indeed historic- 196 countries are party to the agreement and never before have representatives from 175 nations gathered at the United Nations to sign an agreement in a single day. Leonardo DiCaprio the actor and environmental campaigner was one of the speakers who addressed the gathering at the United Nations saying, "The world is now watching.". The Paris Climate Accord is the first milestone in the battle to keep Earth a planet that is hospitable to human life.

The key points of the agreement are:
  • The new climate treaty will run from 2020-2030. 
  • The nations embrace the aim of keeping temperatures “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and aims to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. 
  • Each nation will declare their “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) instead of the U.N. mandating cuts, but 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. 
  • For the agreement to work, countries will have to pledge to deeper emissions cuts in future. The agreement includes a review of goals and progress towards the goals every five years with the first happening in 2023. 
  • The developed countries are obliged to continue to 'mobilize' at least $100 billion (US) a year of public and private finance to help developing countries to address the financial losses vulnerable countries face from climate impacts such as extreme weather but does not provide for any liability compensation. 
So far the global temperature rise has been about 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times and last year was reported to be the warmest year on record. The agreement lacks any clear path on how the nations will maintain the 2 °C rise limit let alone the 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperature limit. The carbon reductions committed to under the agreement are inadequate to meet that goal, and neither China nor India representing about a third of world greenhouse gas emissions have committed to reductions. Instead they are projecting when their greenhouse gas emissions will peak.The agreement now becomes effective when 55 countries responsible for 55% of the carbon emissions ratify the agreement.

In the United States new treaties must be ratified by the Senate, but the Administration will be instead ratifying the agreement through executive action because the greenhouse gas reduction limits are not binding. In 1992 the U.S. 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. The Paris agreement greenhouse gas reductions are not binding.

Though the climate agreement is not really a treaty and  is far from perfect and the way that the U.S. is joining it far from optimal, It is a beginning that encompasses most of the planet. Earth Day 2016, a time of hope.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Are Solar Panels Worth it?

Last Saturday morning I called the solar repair company in Maryland to come and look at my system, but shortly after that all the solar panels started reporting again. My recent roof repair seems to have caused a problem with the solar array that may or may not have been solved by reseating the plug. However, for two and a half years I had struggled to have my solar photo voltaic system repaired culminating last winter in having the system rewired that seemed to solve the problems I had been having. My relationship with my solar panels is a turbulent one because problems with the system are so hard to identify and address. The solar photo voltaic array turns out to need maintenance and be subject to damage from snow, rain, wind and roofers.

I have had my solar system for almost six years now and I’m often asked if they have been worth it or simply asked if they are great. It turns out that is a very complicated question. I like having solar panels, I feel good about reducing my net electricity use, but I have encountered problems in keeping the system operational and to be honest I look at the costs and the returns. I will hold off judgment until the current problem is repaired, but I assume that I will still feel positively about the system. Let’s judge the system based on the cost and return both then and now.

There are several components to the cost and return of a solar system. The first cost is the cost of the system. The market cost of solar panels and installation has been falling for years, but so have the financial incentives. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system in 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 about $1,800 and may be even lower. The Piedmont Environmental Council has launched “Solarize Piedmont,” that runs April 5 - June 15, 2016, and has arranged very good pricing on solar systems. Go to, and fill out the sign-up form to get a real estimate of the cost, but I think I could probably have the same system that cost me $58,540 installed for around $19,000 give or take.

That reduction in price goes a long way to make solar a reasonable purchase even with only the Federal and local property tax incentives. Back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. I also used the 30% federal tax credit which was recently extended and is still available. The net cost of the solar system in 2010 after rebates and tax credits was $32,578 today it would be about $13,300 for the same 7.36 kilowatt system.

In addition, today there is a property tax exemption in Prince William County (and most counties in Virginia). The exemption is based on the Energy Efficient Buildings Tax Exemption (Code of VA §58.1-3221.2) which allows any county, city, or town to exempt or partially exempt energy efficient buildings from local property taxes. In Prince William County the amount of the exemption is based on the installed cost of solar array and I believe the county adopted the exemption in 2011 after I installed my system. However, when I was reviewing my property assessment this past winter I thought to apply for the exemption. The County Assessor’s office called me last week to tell me that my application for a solar property tax exemption has been approved and my property assessment will be reduced for five years by the cost of my solar array. Yeah! Based on the county property tax rate for last year that translates to a savings of $656.82 each of the 5 years. Unfortunately, the five year exemption will begin next year. I did not think of applying until after I got  my property tax assessment for this year. That little bonus has gone a long way to keep me feeling positive about my solar panels with the current problem.

As you can see below a large portion of my return is from something called a SREC, a solar renewable energy credit. 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. There are no RPS solar requirements in Virginia, thus no value to SRECs beyond the $10-$15 that a RPS credit is worth.

When I installed my solar array, my system was eligible to sell SRECs in Pennsylvania and Washington DC. I registered my Virginia based solar photovoltaic array in the both Pennsylvania and Washington DC market in July 2010 and I can sell my SRECs in the Washington DC market. The Pennsylvania market has collapsed. 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 beyond the reservoirs and Blue Plains waste water treatment plant. 

The dollar value of the solar power I generate from my solar panels is worth less than  I have sold my SRECs for over the past four 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 and the penalty price of failing to meet the solar carve out falls the value of my SRECs will decrease. My SRECs potentially have some value until 2025.

Based on my analysis my solar panels will have paid for themselves in 7.5 years (a new system will pay back in 10-11 years. With the expected life of a solar system at 25 years that could make the purchasing of a solar system worthwhile depending on your coast of capital. In a year and a half from now, my solar panels will have paid me back and all the power they produce, the property tax exemption for five years and any remaining SREC’s I sell are all free. A good deal overall, even with my system problems and repairs, I guess after all, they are “worth it.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Roof Repairs- It’s Always Something

A couple of weeks ago a huge storm front passed through. For two nights in one week strong winds and episodes of driving rain hit our neighborhood. In the morning after the second night I was relieved to find that there was no evidence of water leaks inside the house nor did I see shingles that had blown off my roof, though I could have sworn that the wind was about to pull the roof off the house. (As you can see in the picture below, my neighbor’s roof was a different story.) However, the storm reminded me that I had some roof damage to address. Last year I had had my solar photo voltaic panel array repaired and there were several sections of the roof where the work had caused damage to the shingles and I needed to get those addressed.

You need to pay attention to your home, constant vigilance is necessary to keep our homes standing. Moisture and water infiltration are the major routes of home destruction here in the southeast and need to be addressed before structural damage occurs through the mold and termites that come with moisture. You should make a point of walking through you home looking up for water stains in the ceilings do not forget to look above cabinets, in closets and around window frames. Often this simple act can identify a problem before you have significant water damage.

 Now that I’ve lived in my house for 9 years, I think I have found and repaired the  unseen and unknown problems that came with the house and I’ve finally reached the repair and maintain stage. Not that that is any easier, the engineer in me knows that entropy, a measure of disorder, is the enemy because an isolated system like my house tends toward maximum entropy and simply wants to fall apart. Home ownership is not for everyone you need to keep on top of home maintenance and  the constant need to maintain your home. Back to the roof. 
My neighbor's roof with visible decking

Most roofs are not really water tight, they are pitched and designed to shed water. As your roof ages or solar repair guys keep climbing up and down, the roofing material- in my case shingles - became damaged in areas, and need to be replaced. Cracked, damaged or missing shingles, slate, tiles or shakes can be replaced without replacing the entire roof. I believe it is best to maintain your roof before you have leaks in the house, it prevents mold and can prevent having to repaint your ceilings. Nail pops where a nail has backed itself out of the roof sheathing are a common source of leaks. Replacing shingles where the nails become visible can prevent small roof leaks and can prevent larger problems. Damaged sections of shingles should always be replaced.

When I looked at my roof with a set of binoculars I saw that the shingle cap on the main roof peak was damaged, several of the shingles were broken and there were damaged shingles on the right edge of the house. I called my roofer. Yes, I have a regular roofer who does repairs on my roof. When Carl from Summit Roofing got on the roof he found other damage on the center ridge, main rake (the edge of the roof) and on a rear dormer that the solar guys had used to climb up and down the roof from the deck. You can see in the pictures the nails on the ridge becoming visible. 
Nails becoming visible

Damaged rake

I decided to replace the entire ridge cap (so the roof would look uniform), replace the damaged shingles on the right rake, center ridge and rear dormer. The company I use is licensed, has been in business for years has insurance as well a worker compensation insurance, and importantly to me the roofer uses safety equipment. Total cost $1,000.

Small roof leaks can allow water and moisture to accumulate in your attic. Dark streaks on the underside of the roof decking is the sure sign of a leak. Fix it before you have mold which can impact air quality in your home and cost a lot of money to fix. Mold in the attic is generally caused by increased humidity and moisture, generally from improperly installed or inadequate attic vents, soffit vents, blocked soffit vents or less commonly, roof leaks. When I added insulation to my attic I made a point of checking the attic every six months for the first couple of year to make sure that the increased insulation did not impact the effectiveness of the attic ventilation against mold growth.

With the new ridge cap and the roof repairs completed I thought I was good to go when I wrote the check to the roofing company that afternoon. But two days later when I checked my solar panel inverter report I had one panel that was not reporting. Argh... For several years I had struggled with problems with the my solar photo voltaic system. What appeared at first to be an inverter or solar panel problem turned out not to be originating in the panels or the inverters, but was a wiring problem. Finally, last winter, it was confirmed by two different solar companies that the system was not wired correctly, many of the components used in the installation were only rated for interior use and the system was not set up correctly.

So, the system was rewired using rain tight fittings, conduit was replaced with prefabricated fittings and proper grounding. When the repair was finally completed, I once more had all 32 solar panels producing and reporting. Now, I have only 31 panels reporting- something was wrong. I hoped that all the banging on the roof had only loosened one of the fittings. The roofing company returned to see what they could see. They found that indeed one inverter seemed to be  missing a male plug and they reseated the plug for the  panel that was not reporting, but unfortunately did not know what to do about the seemingly missing plug or if the plug was missing. So, Saturday morning I called the solar repair company in Maryland to come and take a look my system, again.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The White House Turns To Water Sustainability

The water on earth arrived 4-5 billion years ago, and is all the water that ever was or will be on earth. More than 97% of the Earth’s water lies within the oceans. The remaining 2.8% is the water within the land masses- lakes, rivers and groundwater. The land masses contain all the fresh water on the planet. Most of that freshwater is contained in icecaps and glaciers (for now). The remaining fresh water is stored primarily in the subsurface as ground water and a lesser amount is stored in lakes and flows as rivers which are renewed by rainfall.

For more than 4 billion years, the original water in the atmosphere has fallen back to the surface as raindrops or snow, flowed into streams and rivers and on to the oceans, then evaporated when heated by the sun and formed into clouds in the sky. The water on earth never rests, it is constantly moving within the complex pathways of the hydrologic cycle and over a wide variety of time scales. Water moves quickly through some pathways -rain falling in summer may return to the atmosphere in a matter of hours or days by evaporation. Water may travel through other pathways for years, decades, centuries, or more by being absorbed into the ground and percolating below to be trapped in bedrock as groundwater.

The water molecules in our glass of drinking water have traveled through the air, ground, streams, and oceans over and over again in the billions of years since the earth formed. The water has absorbed various particles in the journey beyond the H2O molecules themselves. In every cup of water that we drink are H2O molecules that have previously traveled the earth and through the intestines of countless generations of fish, birds and mammals, yet the water remained fresh and clean.

The processes of nature sterilizes water and prepares it for reuse. When water droplets are evaporated by exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun, or high levels of oxygen when flowing roughly down waterfalls bacteria and viruses are degraded or destroyed and most biological contaminants are removed during the journey.When plant roots absorb nutrients and H2O molecules the water is transported to the leaves and evaporated back into the atmosphere. "Transpiration" moves H2O molecules from liquid to vapor form, and sterilizes the water in the process. Transpiration removes water from soil and streams, and releases it as water vapor in the atmosphere.

When our nation was occupied by few hunter gatherers, population levels were very low. Water contamination by their human wastes were not a major health issue because the natural processes were adequate and wildlife in natural areas would rarely be concentrated enough to create sufficient waste to affect water quality in the east. (The environmental impact of the vast herds of buffalo are for a different discussion.) As water flowed to natural streams, exposure to sunlight/oxygen soon killed most harmful bacteria and viruses excreted by wildlife. Water was abundant.

Water is precious and for too long we have taken it for granted and assumed it should be cheap. Today many once-natural areas have been developed as farms, towns, suburbs and cities. The human population has grown so large and humans are concentrated in such density that natural processes cannot clean our wastewater before the next community downstream plans to use it for drinking water. We now treat our waste water and drinking water to remove contaminants, but we create contaminants faster than we remove them. We have created chemicals to spray on our land, rinse down the drain, flush down the toilet and dump into our rivers; and our suburban communities are exacerbating "natural" wildlife pollution, by removing massive amounts of natural habitat and concentration the wildlife populations in narrow strips of land. Water pollution is a modern phenomenon created by mankind and we excel at it.

Not only are we contaminating water, but we are over using it. The earth has a fixed amount of water and only a tiny fraction is available fresh water, and availability is complicated by the variability in weather and the variable length of different parts of the water cycle. Precipitation does not fall in the same amounts throughout the world, in a country, or even a region and varies from year to year. Nonetheless two Dutch scientists in a well-known study estimated the consumptive use of water for agriculture, and estimated that over 90% of water used globally is consumed by crops and agriculture in general. Mankind’s demand for fresh water is predominately for food and we are on a trajectory towards running out of both.

Communities and regions across the United States are facing water challenges impacting millions of lives and the will cost billions of dollars to address.. Last month in conjunction with the United Nations World Water Day, the White House hosted a Water Summit to raise awareness of water issues and potential solutions in the United States. This was done in the shadow of the recent events, including record-breaking drought in the West, severe flooding in the Southeast, and the water-quality crisis in Flint, Michigan. Our water infrastrcture is falling apart, our water supplies are being contaminated, over used and falling. The White House Summit was a beginning of the process of building consensus, of catalyzing ideas and actions to help build a sustainable and secure water future through innovative science and technology.

While water availability, sustainability and quality are issues almost everywhere in our nation (and for that matter in the world), the solutions are very local. The White House Proposed solutions are mostly tilted towards forecasting, monitoring and addressing drought. Drought is only one problem. The others are managing our water resources sustainably - ensuring that we do not use up our groundwater; and making sure that our drinking water is clean and uncontaminated. The solutions for Flint, Michigan, our own Washington Metropolitan area and Los Angelis are very different. Only the need for political will and money are the same.

The Washington Metropolitan area is fortunate to have the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, which was authorized by congress in 1940 to address the pollution of the river. In response to the droughts of the 1960’s and 1970’s the ICPRB facilitated the creation of the Potomac River Low Flow Allocation Agreement in 1978. The ICPRB has been able to coordinate all the political entities, Maryland, Virginia, Fairfax Water, Washington DC, the federal government and counties and cities within the watershed to address the basin’s major challenges, including water quality impairments, water supply and restrictions, flooding, nonpoint source pollution and emerging contaminates. There is one area that has been overlooked- groundwater. The sustainability and protection of groundwater has not been addressed.

Sustainable groundwater use in Virginia is not tracked or managed by DEQ or any other agency for that matter. Groundwater is not unlimited. Our groundwater is at risk. We are fortunate in the water rich climate of our region that the groundwater is being recharged, though the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer is under stress and is being used up faster than its recharge rate. This has been confirmed by measurements of groundwater levels, modeling of the aquifer system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and measurements of changes in gravity by the GRACE satellite project at NASA over the past 12 years of data collecting.

Less is known about the sustainability of the smaller groundwater basins in the region. Our own Culpeper Basin that feeds the private wells in the Rural Crescent of Prince William and areas of Loudoun and Fauquier counties is an example. Use of the aquifer has not been examined. We do not evaluate a development’s impact on groundwater from changes in ground cover by roads and buildings nor look to proposed water withdrawals to determine if a proposed additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted. Our groundwater resources like the waters of the Potomac are not unlimited, and cannot be ignored. The White House has turned toward sustainable water and because water is a local issue we need to turn towards sustainability also.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Bats Battle for Survival

The United States has 45 native bat species across the nation. Virginia with its mid-Atlantic location has bat species found in both the Northeast and Southeast. Though 17species of bats have been sighted in Virginia, only 15 are usually found in the state. Bats are the number one predator of night-flying insects, and all bat species in Virginia are insect eaters. On summer nights I can sit on my deck and watch the small local bats coming from their summer roost in the woods behind my house nab insects out of the air.

However, the bat population is being endangered by white-nose syndrome, a disease affecting hibernating bats. Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle and wings of hibernating bats, white-nose syndrome or WNS is causing extensive die-outs of bats in eastern North America and has now spread to the west. First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, WNS has spread quickly among bats in other affected areas, killing more than six million beneficial insect-eating bats in North America since it was first documented nearly a decade ago. In the United States WNS has been detected as far south as Mississippi and now has reached Washington State. The presence of WNS in Washington was verified by the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center last month.
from USGS  Fish and Wildlife

According to Bat Conservation International those 6 million lost bats would have consumed over 4,000,000 tons of insects each year. Bats that benefit humans by consuming large quantities of insects that can carry disease and impact forest health and commercial crops. Without the bat populations we would be buried in insects, so we need to care what is happening to the bat populations. Scientists describe WNS as the most serious known decline in North American wildlife.

White-Nose Syndrome is caused by a white fungus that thrives in the cold environments where bats hibernate. This fungus was formerly known as Geomyces destructans is now known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Hibernating bats with white-nose syndrome often display this white fungus on their noses and on other hairless parts of their bodies including their wings. In Virginia bats hibernate in the caves of the karst terrain, often hundreds of miles from their summer roosts.

The WNS fungus isn't always visible to the naked eye and usually is not seen on bats found flying or dead outside of their hibernacula or at their summer roosts. Bats with WNS act strangely during the cold, winter months, including flying outside in the day and clustering near the entrances of the caves and mines where the bats hibernate. Bats have been found sick and dying in unprecedented numbers in and around caves and mines. In some hibernacula, 90 % to 100 % of the bats have died. The bat populations in the United States are being devastated by white-nose syndrome; however, WNS is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.

It is believed that white-nose syndrome is being spread from bat to bat, but it is also believed that humans have had a hand in the spread of the fungus. You can help by avoiding possible spread of WNS by humans. Stay out of caves and mines where bats are known - or suspected - to hibernate. Stay out of all hibernation sites when bats are hibernating (winter).

"We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus. People can help by following decontamination guidance to reduce the risk of accidentally transporting the fungus.”

There are a small number of bats that exhibit a resistance to the fungus. Preserve the bats that survive the winter hibernation and return to roosts near your home. Reduce disturbance to natural bat habitats around your home (e.g., reduce outdoor lighting, minimize tree clearing, and protect streams and wetlands). This is actually a good idea for maintaining a healthy environment. Please take care of the bats that survive. If bats are in your home and you don't want them there, work with the Department of Natural Resources to exclude or remove them without hurting them after the end of the summer when they have moved to their hibernation location. The best time to exclude bats is when they aren’t in your home.

The soundest long-term solution for the management of bats that enter buildings and cause a nuisance problem or a potential public health hazard is by bat proofing the structure. Excluding bats from buildings requires establishing one-way exits through which the bats can leave but cannot return, while also sealing all other potential entry points. This process of eviction and exclusion is the only effective and permanent solution when bats in a building are unwanted. Bats may roost in attics, soffits, louvers, chimneys and porches; under siding, eaves, roof tiles or shingles; and behind shutters. Click this link for guidelines in excluding bats from your home.

Another way you can help is to report unusual bat behavior including; bats flying during the day when they should be hibernating (December through March) and bats roosting in sunlight on the outside of structures. More difficult to tell is unusual behavior when bats are not hibernating (April through September); however, bats roosting in the sunlight or flying in the middle of the day is unusual. Bats unable to fly or struggling to get off the ground is also unusual. In Virginia report observations to the Department of Natural Resources.

You can also watch the Fish and Wildlife Service video Battle For Bats: Surviving White Nose Syndrome
from Fish and Wildlife Service Video

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Controlled Burn Planned at Gilbert’s Corner

If one day soon you see smoke by the traffic circles at Gilbert’s Corner, don’t panic. The Piedmont Environmental Council has announced that as soon as the Forest Service thinks the weather and wind conditions line up they will have a controlled burn of the land between the three traffic circles at Route 15, Howser’s Branch Drive and Route 50. That land and the adjacent farm were donated to the Piedmont Environmental Council in 2013. The corner of the land stranded when Howser’s Branch Drive was built has lain fallow since the traffic circles were built and now needs to be cleared.

Image from NASA
The burn will be carried out by the Virginia Department of Forestry, and was originally planned for this past winter, but the weather has not cooperated. They were again trying for last Thursday, but once more the winds picked up and the burn was cancelled. It will happen soon before the weather turns hot and dry though the precise date is dependent on the Department of Forestry finding appropriate wind and weather conditions.

The Piedmont Environmental Council was given the141-acre farm at the southeast quadrant of US Route 50 and US Route 15 known around here as Gilberts Corner by a citizen group led by Scott Kasprowicz, a former member of the PEC Board of Directors. The group, Roundabout Partners, raised the funds and purchased the property to prevent a planned development. Then, to ensure protection of the property, Roundabout Partners donated the land to the Piedmont Environmental Council for conservation purposes.

The triangle of land became stranded by the installation of the Route 50 traffic calming improvements and the building of Howser’s Branch Drive. Now, the future of the farm is being incorporated into a larger vision at Gilberts Corner that includes the establishment of the 155-acre Gilbert’s Corner Regional Park on the north side of Route 50, and the creation of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area.

The plans are for the farm to be restored while enhancing wildlife habitat and protecting the property’s streams and water resources. For more than a decade, this area has been left fallow and is now unusable for agricultural production due to invasion of the open pasture by red cedar and non-native invasive species such as Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and autumn olive. To eliminate these plants and as part of the restoration of the farm, they will have what is known as a controlled or prescribed burn of the approximately 20 acres located at the property’s northwest corner, within the triangular area bounded by Route 50, Route 15, and Howser’s Branch Drive.

Controlled burns are considered a natural resource manager’s most cost-effective tool available for managing natural communities. They help control invasive shrubs and trees. Fire is used to clear the ground of existing vegetation in preparation of seeding and planting more desirable plant species. Burning allows the seeds to make better contact with the soil and therefore improves the chances of successful germination. Fire is used to reduce the competition between weedy species and native species as a restoration area matures to encourage better establishment of the native vegetation which slowly displaces the weeds. Controlled burning also returns nutrients to the soil, making them readily available for the next generation of vegetation growth.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Time to Clean Our Rivers

Spring is here and it’s time for the annual river clean ups. This past Saturday, April 2nd 2016 the river cleanup season officially kicked off with the Project Clean Stream. There will be clean ups for the next four weekends check their site to find events where you can volunteer. The Upper Occoquan clean up originally scheduled for this coming Saturday, April 9th 2016 has been Postponed to Saturday, April 23rd 2016 and will be the 7th annual Upper Occoquan River Cleanup. This massive collection of trash from the Occoquan River happens every year and on this side of the river is the combined effort of the Prince William Trails and Streams Coalition, Trash Free Potomac Watershed, Penguin Paddling, Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department and the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (where I volunteer as a director.) Come on out and help us, I will be serving lunch to all our hard working volunteers.

The Occoquan River Cleanup happens the following week and is part of the 28th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools happens this time of year throughout the region. The biggest day this year is April 16, 2016. There are many locations and opportunities to join in and help. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind so that you or your group can still participate this year. It is a great single day volunteer opportunity.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to hold these river cleanups annually. Year after year volunteers clean our roadways, streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. We also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods or carried by off by storms. Don’t litter and teach your children not to litter, that is the best way to prevent trash along our roads, streams and waterways. The trash does not magically disappear, but finds its way carried by stormwater to our waterways and parklands disrupting the natural water flow and beauty of our natural world. Come out and help us make our water ways free of trash.