Thursday, December 28, 2017

Costs to Maintain Alternative Septic Systems

Many homeowners rely on a septic system for wastewater treatment. If your home has a septic system of any type you are responsible for maintaining it. There are many different types of septic system designs. The most common type used for single family homes is a traditional septic system that consists of a single chamber septic tank and drain/leach field. However, in recent years Alternative Onsite Sewage Systems (AOSS) have become popular.

An AOSS is an on-site sewage treatment system that is not a conventional onsite septic system. A typical AOSS in Virginia consist of a, septic tank, treatment unit, pump chamber, conveyance line, distribution system, and an absorption field (trenches, pad, drip tubing, etc.). However, the exact set of components that make up your system will be site and system specific. These non-conventional septic systems include: aerobic tank or ATU’s, peat filter systems, single and recirculation sand filters, mound systems, drip dispersal, spray and low pressure dispersal. Manufacturers of these systems include but are not limited to: Advantex, Aquarobic, Puraflo, Eco-Flo, Whitewater, FAST, BEST, American Drip, and Geoflo. All of these systems are approved for use in Virginia.

These AOSSs allow homes to be built on land that cannot support a traditional septic system. However, to protects public health, the waters of the state and the environment AOSS are regulated in Virginia under 12VAC5-613-140. This regulation requires all AOSS be properly designed, meet minimum performance standards and be properly maintained and inspected at least once a year. It is believed by regulators and manufacturer that proper operation and maintenance of these systems will ensure that all AOSS function as designed. The full text of the regulations can be read at this link.

None of these AOSS systems is ideal and all are expensive to build, maintain and replace. The three chamber system known as aerobic tank or ATU system is becoming the most popular AOSS, but it is sensitive to improper use and maintenance and its air blower and “zoner” only last a couple or three years out in the field resulting in an average annual operating cost of over a thousand dollars. (My system has cost me more than $12,000 in the last 10 years between pumping, inspections, repairs, parts and service calls.) They are great when they work, but you need to baby them. Also, not all licensed inspector are honest or capable. One particular company always finds your tanks in need of pumping (even in a two person household where the tanks were both pumped months earlier. Once that is in the database with the department of health, it must be pumped again. 

The other non-traditional systems are essentially other methods of replacing a traditional leach field with other filtering methods. One of the simplest systems to operate is the peat systems like Puraflo and Eco-Flo. These systems have the fewest mechanical parts to fail.

The peat media filter system is a traditional septic tank with peat filtration system instead of a leach field. The filtration system is the aerobic portion of the treatment and is located in tanks which are filled with peat moss over a gravel base. The filtered septic tank effluent is collected under gravity in the pump tank. A timed dosing system pumps the effluent through an inlet manifold located at the base of the treatment modules. An orifice plate is located inside the top of each inlet manifold which allows the flows to be split equally and fed simultaneously to each biofilter module. The inlet manifold is connected to the base of the biofilter module and is fed upwards to a rectangular distribution grid located 6 inches below the top of lid. The effluent percolates laterally and vertically through the depth of the peat fiber treatment media and emerges as a clear, innocuous liquid from the base of the system. The treated effluent is then collected and dispersed.

The peat is an excellent media for allowing the natural secondary treatment of the sewage waste to take place: Absorption and filtration of any impurities chemical adsorption, and microbial assimilation. As a result, these systems are typically capable of removing 90% or more of the polluted mater (characterized as BOD, SS, Coli forms and E. Coli). The life of these systems are 15 years if properly used and maintained (or less with improper use) until the media is exhausted and needs to be replaced.

When the media is exhausted is when the owners of these systems find out what the true operating expense of Puraflo and Eco-Flo is. A Puraflo system will cost in the neighborhood of $1,400-$1,500 per pod while an Eco-flo system will cost approximately $3,500 per unit. This cost should include removing old peat and gravel, cleaning the drainage holes and testing drainage, installing new gravel and peat. The Puraflo peat comes from Ireland (no joke) in 1000 lb bags. Ecoflo peat comes in smaller bags from Canada. Each of the Puraflo pods will take 1.25 bags of peat. Eco-Flo pods take 30 bags of Eco-Flo peat, 15 bags per side of the pod. Additional costs include pumping the system during repairs and replacing landscaping. All in this could cost $15,000 for a 5 bedroom home. This work needs to be done under permit from the Department of Health and should only be done by a trained and licensed service provider who has been certified by the manufacturer.

Monday, December 25, 2017

EPA gives $3.7 million to Pennsylvania for Chesapeake Bay Restoration

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they are providing $3.7 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to implement agricultural best management practices (BMPs) on farms in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These practices will reduce the loads of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution going to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

If you recall EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to all the states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Washington DC. The pollution limits were then partitioned to the various states and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay computer modeling tools and monitoring data.

The midterm assessment found that Pennsylvania had not met their goals. In an attempt to get there (and meet EPA requirements), the PADEP announced its “Strategy to Enhance Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay Restoration Effort”, pledging renewed commitment to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment reductions. Because agriculture dominates much of the landscape of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, it was the focus of the new strategy.

“The most practical way to balance farmers’ economic viability and the health of local waters is to enlist farmers in using environmentally conscious and economically sustainable best management practices,” said PADEQ Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We’re grateful for funding support from EPA that enables DEP to partner with farmers to plan and implement these practices. Achieving clean local waters takes boots on the ground farm by farm, stream by stream. With over 33,000 farms in Pennsylvania’s part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, we simply couldn’t do it without EPA’s support.”

This funding, which is being provided through EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Implementation Grant (CBIG) program will support activities to help achieve and maintain the water quality necessary to fully restore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including:
  • Developing multiyear management plans;
  • Chesapeake Bay education;
  • Implementing local BMPs to control stormwater runoff;
  • Developing agricultural nutrient and manure management plans;
  • Installing agricultural BMPs;
  • Funding cost share programs to reduce the cost to farmers of implementing BMPs; 
  • Providing funding opportunities to Pennsylvania conservation districts for implementing local stormwater BMPs.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Soil, the Key to Life

As you probably know, I am an Elected Directory of the Prince William County Soil and Water Conservation District. Our mission is to protect the soil and water resources of the county and region. Though I usually focus on water, soil is just as important and always underappreciated. Soil is an ecological system a living ecosystem that sustains all life on earth. Maintaining soil health is essential not just for farming but also for maintaining the health of ourselves and our planet.

As Sir Albert Howard, the father of the organic movement said, Soil is an ecological system where the microbes and organisms in the soil provide a living connection between the soil humus and plants. The microbial decomposition of organic matter forms the humus, a spongy substance rich in nutrients and essential to soil fertility. A teaspoon of soil can contain millions upon millions of bacteria and fungi. These bacteria and fungi produce enzymes and acids necessary to break down inorganic minerals and to convert them into forms that can be absorbed by plants.

The fungi in the soil are microscopic plant-like cells that grow in long threadlike structures called hyphae. These hyphae push their way between soil particles, plant roots and rocks. The hyphae make a mass called mycelium. The mycelium absorbs nutrients from the roots, surface organic matter or the soil. The fungal hyphae and a protein that the fungi create called glomalin bind the soil particles together with a coating of the protein to create water-stable aggregates which in turn create the pore spaces in the soil that enhance water retention and drainage and give soil its structure. Good structure from healthy soil with thriving microorganisms can allow soil to retain water during a drought and reduce the need to irrigate.

The bacteria in soil also help decompose organic material and improve soil structure. Bacteria perform biological nitrogen fixation, the process that changes inert N2 to biologically useful NH3. All living things need nitrogen and though about 80% of the atmosphere is nitrogen gas (N2) in this form N2 is unusable by most living organisms. All organisms use the ammonia (NH3) form of nitrogen to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, and other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life.

Bacteria supply the nitrogen useful to plants either directly from the bacteria when they die and release usable nitrogen to their soil environment, or when the bacteria live in close association with the plant. In legumes and a few other plants, the bacteria live in small growths on the roots called nodules. Within these nodules, nitrogen fixation is done by the bacteria, and the NH3 produced is absorbed by the plant. The amount of nitrogen returned to the soil depends on how much of the plant is left in the field. Almost all of the nitrogen fixed goes directly into the plant so nitrogen only returns to the soil for a neighboring plant when vegetation (roots, leaves, fruits) of the legume die and decompose.

We know so little about how the ecology of soil impacts food, animals and our own human gut microbiota. Yet the profound fact is that all life is dependent on the life of the soil. The two things which have the most impact on the health of the soil are tillage and chemicals. Tillage causes erosion of the top soil where most of the micro-organisms live. Initially tillage frees up all the food for microorganism to consume, but over time the microorganisms begin to starve as all the organic material is consumed and not replaced. In unsustainable agriculture the next step is to add chemicals and synthetic (or organic) nutrients.
By Elaine Ingram author of Soil Biology Primer

Chemicals can be toxic to organisms in the soil. The full impact of the hundreds of chemicals present in pesticide, herbicide and nutrient formulations is little understood. Sustainable agriculture requires sustainable soil. The soil must have a balanced diversity of organisms working in harmony to continually produce plants that are the food for the rest of the planet. What changes within our microbiota might be caused by poor management of soil health?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Future Nutrient Reductions for the Chesapeake Bay

The  Chesapeake Bay and its rivers have too much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment primarily from agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater, and airborne contaminants. The excess nutrients and sediment lead to murky water and toxic algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching and sustaining underwater Bay grasses. Murky water and algae blooms also create low levels of oxygen for aquatic life, such as fish, crabs and oysters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a comprehensive “pollution diet” that they imposed on Virginia and the other Bay states to restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and the region’s streams, creeks and rivers. We have now reached the mid-point in the program and our targets and actions are being revised to ensure we meet the goal of a healthy Chesapeake Bay.
This month James Davis-Martin of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) spoke to the Conservation District Directors at our annual meeting to update us on what’s coming down the road in the EPA mandated pollution diet to.

First the good news. For the past 5 years EPA has worked with DEQ and the other states to improve the model used to manage and measure progress in meeting our pollution diet goals. The EPA has improved the model and resolved more than 100 issues that were identified by the states. We are now moving to Phase 6 of the model which has a resolution of 1 meter in land use cover. The newest version of the model also has integrated the municipality land use data collected over the last 8 years, updated the BMP (best management practices for agriculture) list and effectiveness. This has resulted in the highest correlation of measured water quality data with the model output.

The improved model and the data collected have resulted in a revision of the Bay assimilative capacity, increasing slightly the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that the Bay can tolerate. That simply means that the ability of the Chesapeake Bay to dilute and absorb pollutants without harmful effects like dead zones and toxic algae is a little higher than the EPA initially thought. These in turn change the Virginia targets for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment goals for the final Phase III of the Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). By the end of this month DEQ will have the final pollution target goals for development of the Phase III WIP which is due to EPA in 2018.

That is the end of the good news. Even with that adjustment we still have to meet more stringent goals. Going forward the states will have to account for  population and economic growth in developing their Phase III WIPs. Because all the states are forecasting growth they will have to achieve their 2025 target nutrient and sediment numbers with more people, roads and economic activity

In addition, the Phase III WIPs from all the states must account for the additional loads delivered to the Chesapeake Bay due to the Conowingo infill. When the EPA allocated the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions among the Chesapeake Bay states, the EPA believed that the Conowingo Dam would continue to trap polluted sediment for an additional quarter of a century. Subsequent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers found that the Conowingo Dam is already 95% full and will be full and cease protecting the bay from sediment within the next year or two. Without the Conowingo removing sediments containing nitrogen and phosphorus before the waters reach the Chesapeake Bay that contamination load will increase and must be accounted for or removed by other action.
The 2017 current load plus the additions must be reduced to the 2025 level goal

Finally, the states will now have to account for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise in developing their Phase III WIPs. The models for climate change are forecasting more rain in the region due to climate change. We will not run out of water; however, more rain brings additional stormwater flows that can increase runoff. All these additions must be accounted for in the Phase III of the WIPs and Virginia and the other states much reduce their loads to the 2025 Assimilative Capacity  as seen above.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Update on the State of Chesapeake Bay

On December 5th 2017 Joe Wood of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation presented a progress report update on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The good news is that the health of the Chesapeake Bay is improving in real life not just according to the model of the Chesapeake Bay that is used to manage the States’ progress at reducing the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution that is released into the Bay.

Overall, there has been a reduction in the volume of the annual Dead Zone and it is continuing to decline. Toxic algae growth has been reduced and water clarity is improving. The health of the Bay is still far from good, but the U.S. EPA sees improvement and feels that the Bay is just on the cusp of major progress in the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

We have now reached the mid-point in the pollution reduction plans for Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. All the states are being assessed in their progress toward meeting the nutrient and sediment pollutant load reductions mandated by the U.S. EPA. Using the Chesapeake Bay model, this midpoint assessment measures the states’ progress towards meeting the 2017 goal of having practices in place to achieve 60% of the pollution reductions from the 2009 levels.

The intent of the midpoint assessment is allow the states to make changes in their state programs and plans and develop the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) that will allow them to meet the 2025 Chesapeake Bay restoration goals assigned to them by the U.S. EPA.

In Virginia, due to the significant reductions in agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus and waste water treatment plants improvements and upgrades we have exceeded our goals for 2017 in nitrogen and phosphorus reductions. However, we have failed to meet our sediment goals. As you can see below sediment released from agriculture and waste water treatment plants has been reduced while sediment released from stormwater management has increased. 

Moving forward, U.S. EPA / the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recommend that Virginia target stormwater and agriculture for additional reductions to meet the 2025 goals. In Virginia they recommend increased funding to the Virginia Agriculture Cost Share program (VACS) and the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP). These are cost-share programs that provide financial incentives for property owners to implement practices that reduce runoff of sediment and nutrient pollution on agricultural properties (VACS) and urban properties (VCAP).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dominion's Alternative for Disposing of Coal Ash

If you recall, last year the Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill that required Dominion Power to study and report on the costs and benefits, risks and recycling options for the 30million tons of coal ash now stored in lagoons at the company’s power plants- including the Possum Point Power Station in Prince William County, , Bremo, Chesterfield and Chesapeake ponds. This coal ash is a waste product from generations of burning coal at those power plants.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe amended the bill to include a moratorium until 2018 on any new permits for coal ash disposal until a study of its risks and possible alternatives for coal ash disposal could be completed. Well, the study is done.

On December 1, 2017 the massive report prepared by AECOM, an engineering firm, was presented to the State Water Commission. The report acknowledges that common metals found in coal ash were detected above EPA standards in groundwater monitoring wells at all four sites. These coal ash ponds have been open to the elements and taking on water for decades. The trace contaminants and metals in the coal ash are probably the source of the metal contaminants found in the groundwater.

The AECOM report examines the expenses and time frames for the three methods of disposal or recycling the coal ash: recycling for use in concrete, cinder block or wallboard; hauling it to a modern, lined landfill by truck, barge or rail; and Dominion’s original plan of consolidating all of the on-site coal ash into one impoundment , dewatering and closing in place.

The new EPA regulations for new coal ash disposal requires that coal ash disposal site must have protective liners to prevent groundwater contamination. The rule also requires companies to conduct monitoring of disposal sites, clean up any existing contamination, and close and remediate unlined disposal sites that have polluted groundwater. Finally, monitoring data, corrective action reports, and other important information about the site must be made available to the public. These regulations are similar in may way to the modern landfill regulations on which they were based.

The expenses cited in the report are very high. Closing the ash ponds just at the Bremo Power Station in Fluvanna County, for example, by removing the ash from the north bank of the James River to an offsite landfill by truck was estimated to take upto 13 years and cost $1 billion. Transporting the coal as by rail was estimated to take 10 years and cost $1.53 billion. Recycling the more than 6.2 million tons of coal ash at Bremo Power Station could take as long as 27 years and cost between $593 million to $1.3 billion. Finally, consolidating and capping the coal ash onsite, with “potential groundwater corrective measures,” would take 3-5 years and cost $98 to $173 million according to the report summary. Proportional costs and time frames were identified for the other Dominion coal ash sites.

Recycling the coal ash is the option favored by the Southern Environmental Law Center. In a separate report they estimate the time and costs as lower. For Possum Point the next best option is closing the coal ash on site because when properly done it requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance that is best accomplished at an operating and regulated plant rather than at a remote cap and leave it location. All physical barriers fail over time this is addressed by monitoring and maintaining the systems and Possum Point is downstream from most drinking water supplies.

It is unclear how the State Water Commission will react to the information provided in the AECOM report or the separate Southern Environmental Law Center report. It remains to be seen if this information will alter Dominion’s plans for the coal ash disposal. Environmental groups including the Riverkeepers, some local governments, adjacent residents and sine state lawmakers argue capping in place without a proper liner to the ponds would allow heavy metals to leach into groundwater and surface waterways for decades.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Report Water Main Breaks to Fairfax Water

Winter is coming and with it broken water mains. Temperatures going from freezing to simply cool can cause water mains to expand and contract, putting stress on vulnerable areas. This stress can cause water main breaks that disrupt water service and traffic. You can track active water main breaks and real-time status updates using the tracking tool at Fairfax Water at this link.

Water from Fairfax Water is distributed through approximately 3,200 miles of water mains to the county’s homes and businesses. It is a lot of piping to keep track of. You can also help Fairfax Water by serving as their extra eyes. If you see water coming from the ground or street, then notify Fairfax Water by: Emailing or calling 703-698-5613, TTY 711. Though much of that distribution system in Fairfax is newer than the national average and Fairfax has a good repair and replacement strategy, they still have about 600 or so water main breaks a year and their repair crews are very busy during the winter months.

Although winter weather is often the cause of breaks this time of year, there are a number of reasons water mains break. The age of the pipe often affects its vulnerability to breaks. Changes in water pressure within the pipes, vibrations caused by construction or heavy traffic, or changes in soil conditions caused by erosion or flooding can all lead to water main breaks.

In an emergency, having a supply of clean water is essential and should be part of a winter emergency kit. If there is a water main break or power outage (pumps are necessary to move the water through the piping system) you could have your water supply disrupted. Now is a good time to store emergency water:
  • Store at least one gallon of water per person per day for a minimum three-day supply. Be sure to account for pets; dogs and cats typically need one gallon each per day. 
  • Store water in a cool, dark place in your home. Replace water every six months and be sure to check expiration dates on store-bought water.
  • Use of food-grade water storage containers, such as those found at surplus or camping-supply stores, is recommended if you prepare stored water yourself. Be sure to disinfect the storage containers first. 
  • In case of a blizzard you might also want to store extra food in the winter so that you can wait until the roads are clear to go out.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Scientists Predict Rain Storm Increase

A new study published late last month in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the volume of rainfall from massive storms known as mesoscale convective systems will increase by as much as 80% in the southeast by the end of this century (or whenever the temperature increase assumed in the model is reached), deluging sizable portions of states. The study builds on previous work showing that storms which have become more intense will continue to do so as the climate warms was funded by the National Science Foundation, and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

An increase in extreme precipitation is one of the expected impacts of climate change. Scientists predict that as the atmosphere warms, it will hold more water, and a wetter atmosphere can produce heavier rain. In fact, an increase in precipitation intensity has already been measured in some regions. The persistent rain storms over Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey were an example of an unusually powerful and long-lived mesoscale convective storm system.

These clusters of thunderstorms that can extend for many dozens of miles and last for hours or in the case of Houston days, producing flash floods, debris flows, landslides, high winds, and/or hail. The current study uses a high-resolution computer simulations of current and predicted weather, in a future with a climate that was 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer that the scientists build last year.

The increase in temperature assumed in the model is significantly higher than the “best estimate temperature” increase expected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC projected temperature for seven scenarios. Across all the scenarios they found a “best estimate temperature” increase range of 0.6-4.0 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Nonetheless, in the new study, Prein and his co-authors focused on storms that cause major summertime flooding east of the Continental Divide. They investigated not only how their rainfall intensity will change in a future climate that was 5 degrees Celsius, but also how their size, movement, and rainfall volume may evolve.

Dr. Prein and his co-authors looked at how storms that occurred between 2000 and 2013 might change if they occurred instead in a climate that was 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer. They found, for example, that intense mesoscale convective systems (MCSs) storms over an area the size of New York City could drop 60% more rain than a severe present-day system.

"This is a warning signal that says the floods of the future are likely to be much greater than what our current infrastructure is designed for," Dr. Prein said in a news release. "If you have a slow-moving storm system that aligns over a densely populated area, the result can be devastating, as could be seen in the impact of Hurricane Harvey on Houston."

Dr. Prein cautioned that this approach is a simplified way of comparing present and future climate. It doesn't reflect possible changes to storm tracks or weather systems associated with climate change and only looks at a future where the temperature increase is 5 degrees Celsius. The advantage, however, is that scientists can more easily isolate the impact of additional heat and associated moisture on future storm formation.
The assumptions may be aggressive, but the message you should take away is that as a nation our infrastructure has not only been inadequately maintained, but it was simply not designed for the kind of massive rain storm volume that the scientists are projecting. We need to be ready for what the future brings. 

Title: Increased rainfall volume from future convective storms in the US
Authors: Andreas F Prein, Changhai Liu, Kyoko Ikeda, Stanley B Trier, Roy M Rasmussen, Greg J Holland, Martyn P Clark
Journal: Nature Climate Change