Monday, February 26, 2018

Drought in Virginia

In their weekly report last week the U.S. Drought Monitor produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. reported that the precipitation that fell in the previous week, but dry conditions continued in the Southeast. Moderate drought coverage in south-central Virginia was reduced because of increasing streamflow and lessening mid-range precipitation deficits. At this time over 12% of Virginia was in drought and almost 60% of the Commonwealth was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Continued light rains over the weekend may begin to alleviate this as happened last year. 

Rainfall and snow melt are the water that flows to the rivers and streams of the watershed, but also percolates into the ground and recharges the groundwater. Private drinking water wells draw their water from groundwater and over 20% of Virginians depend on private wells for their drinking water. Geology, climate, weather, land use and many other factors determine the quality and quantity of the groundwater, so I keep my eye on the precipitation. Prince William is unique in having four distinct geologic provinces that come together in the County: (1) the Blue Ridge, (2) the Culpeper Basin, (3) the Piedmont, and (4) the Coastal Plain. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitoring well up the road from my home in the Culpeper Basin geology has been showing a worrying trend over the past decade. 

It is concerning that the seasonal lows are getting lower. This is a sign that the present groundwater use may not be sustainable. No studies have been done that attempt to quantify what the total available water is within the county or any of the geologic provinces where residents depend on groundwater for drinking water supply. Thus, it is impossible to know if the overuse or diminished recharge of the aquifer is critical yet. According to last data set from the Hydrological Sciences Branch of NASA using the now dead GRACE-2 satellite to perform real world groundwater monitoring, Virginia’s aquifers are under stress. That means that we are using up the groundwater faster than it is recharging. Most of Prince William County in drought (except for my neighborhood), but once more a wet spring could alleviate the drought.

My well draws water from an unconfined aquifer. A water-table, or unconfined, aquifer is an aquifer whose upper surface is the water table, and is at atmospheric pressure. The water table rises and falls with moisture content that is contained in the soil, and right now the area is in drought and the water table level is falling. Water-table aquifers are usually shallower than confined aquifers and because they are shallow, they are impacted by drought conditions much sooner than confined aquifers.

The southeast corner of the county in the Coastal Plain and the northwestern corner of Prince William County down the hill from Bull Run Mountain are the only areas in the county not currently in drought. The geology near Bull Run Mountain consists of conglomerates, sandstones, siltstones, shales, and argillaceous limestones. When there is rain and snow melt, this geology tends to have wonderful water-bearing potential because it is a fractured rock system with very little overburden. The highest reported yields in the county are from wells in this geology. The downside is that this area is susceptible to contamination- the fractures that carry water can easily spread a contaminant and without adequate overburden spills could flow to depth through a fracture; and there is limited water storage within the fractured rock system. An extended drought could significantly impact my well and the other wells in this area. So I keep my eyes on drought.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Another Sewage Release for WSSC

February is a tough month for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). This year excessive rain caused problems. The heavy rains that hit our region 9 days ago caused the sanitary sewer system in Prince George’s County to overflow. The troubles began on February 11th a little before 8 am at the Broad Creek Wastewater Pumping Station at 10315 Livingston Road, Ft Washington, Md. The overflow continued for 5 and a half hours and WSSC estimated that 520,000 gallons of untreated sewage entered a drainage ditch, which flows into Broad Creek.

On the same day, a second sanitary sewer overflow occurred at 14300 Indian Head Highway, near the Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Piscataway Plant treats about 24 million gallons of wastewater per day. Due to the heavy rainfall, WSSC reports that extremely high wastewater flows came into the plant. Beginning just after 9:30 on Sunday morning, February 11th, a manhole just off the plant’s grounds began to overflow. WSSC estimated that 951,000 gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Piscataway Creek over a four hour period.

WSSC notified the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Prince George’s County Health Department. Signs were posted to warn people to avoid the area until WSSC was able to clean up the impacted area. This has been a warm February. The coldest days of this winter were earlier- in the first weeks of January.

WSSC has more than 5,500 miles of sewer mains throughout its service area. In January there was an overflow of 117,000 gallons of untreated sewage at the Broad Creek Wastewater Pumping Station in Ft Washington. It was a brief overflow that also impacted Broad Creek. No reason for that overflow was given. That same weekend WSSC crews had to install a temporary bypass to end the Sanitary Sewer Overflow located in Rockville. The overflow discharged an estimated 42,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into Rock Creek before crews were able to bypass the flow. WSSC could give no cause for that overflow.

Though both last February and this year WSSC has had to deal with significant releases of untreated sewage at the Piscataway Plant, winter is usually the time for water main breaks. WSSC crews repair nearly 1,800 water main breaks each year, with most, 1,200, occurring between November and February. Nearly 40% of WSSC water mains are more than 50 years old. In cold weather more pipes fail. There is a relationship between water temperature and pipe breaks. A sudden temperature drop provides a kind of shock to the pipes especially when the pipes are older. Water temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit can also cause pipes to become more brittle, and break. That leads to increased pipe breaks in the winter. For the last decade WSSC pipe replacement program has had more unscheduled emergency repairs in winter. Customers are encouraged to report water main breaks and sewage leaks as quickly as possible.

Remember WSSC’s water and wastewater systems are separate. This overflow did NOT affect WSSC’s drinking water.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Potomac Pipeline Hits another Delay

The head of Maryland Department of the Environment Ben Grumbles sent a letter last Thursday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking the agency to hold its evaluation of the application made by Columbia Gas Transmission LLC, Potomac crossing pipeline until the MDE can submit special conditions on water quality to be included in the Corp’s authorization. The MDE plans to complete its review in one to two weeks.

As you recall, Columbia Gas Transmission is proposing a new 3.9 mile, 8-inch diameter pipeline to connect Mountaineer Gas (the West Virginia consumer gas distribution company) to gas supplies in Pennsylvania. The proposed pipeline will be run about 72 feet below the river bed. The new pipeline will bring gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio to a new proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline, The Mountaineer Xpress project.

Columbia Pipeline Group, Inc. (Columbia) is planning to construct and operate approximately 165 miles of pipeline and three new compressor stations in addition to upgrading three existing compressor stations and one regulating station. The project called the Mountaineer XPress project (MXP) would be able to move an additional 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale production areas to commercial and consumer markets on the Columbia Gas Transmission system, including markets in western West Virginia. West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday approved a needed storm-water permit for the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project, so regulatory approvals in West Virginia are moving ahead.

The request by MDE Secretary Grumbles told the Corps in a letter that the state “has identified potential water quality and public interest factors,” the protestors encircling the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis, that could warrant special conditions being placed on the TransCanada Corp. project. Proponents say the pipeline will be safe and will help bring economic development to an area that needs it. Opponents say the project will threaten drinking water supplies and further commit the region to fossil fuels. The Potomac River is the source water for drinking water for the Washington Metropolitan area. Protestors have spent the past week protesting at the Governor’s Mansion in Maryland.

The abundance of shale natural gas coming from the Marcellus is expected to keep prices for natural gas low for the foreseeable future and has created a glut in natural gas. Building gas pipelines to transport fuel from places like Pennsylvania to other regions can be difficult and it will be interesting to see what happens. In Pennsylvania and Ohio power companies are building new generation gas fired power plants using the Marcelles shale natural gas to replace coal fired plants.

The new plants use a gas and steam turbine together to produce more electricity per gas BTU. Coal plant generate about twice the CO2 per megawatt of power and have higher particulate pollution than gas fired electrical power plants. Electric demand is not growing overall nationally, but the closing of aging coal plants has left the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) power grid short of power. In the past three years 9.3 gigawatts of coal generating capacity has been retired while 8.7 gigawatts have been added so far, but currently there is 8.6 gigawatts of natural-gas electrical power plants under construction in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This could utilize the natural gas without the need for transport by either pipeline or train.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cape Town, South Africa is almost out of Water

Cape Town, a major coastal city in South Africa, is going through one of the worst droughts in its history. After three years of persistent drought, the government has warned that the coastal city is almost out of water. Unless, something changes the city will  be forced to turn off most of its taps in June 2018 to preserve water for hospitals and other essential and urgent needs. The South Africans are call that date "Day Zero” – when the city will no longer have running water.

Cape Town is South Africa’s second largest city. When Day Zero arrives reservoirs will have run so low that the city will be forced to turn off municipal taps to its 3.74 million residents as a last measure to preserve some water. With all the taps turned off, residents would have to line up for water and be subjected to a strict water-rationing system of 6.6 gallons a day. The residents of Cape Town can forestall this event by limiting their consumption of water to 13 gallons a day per person now, but even that might not be enough.

According to the city government this crisis appears to have been caused by a combination of climate change- shifting weather patterns and city mismanagement. Municipal water comes primarily from surface reservoirs that rely entirely on rainwater, and were designed to withstand up to three years of lower-than-average rainfall. But the region is entering its fourth year of drought, and the city does not have major backup resources. They failed to have a backup plan.

On Wednesday, I went to Richmond to testify before the House Subcommittee on Counties, Cities, and Towns on behalf of SB 211 a bill Sponsored by Senator Richard Stuart. This bill would amend the enabling legislation for comprehensive planning to emphasize availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources on a County level as part of the comprehensive plan and hopefully allow Virginia to steer clear of the fate of Cape Town. The bill passed the subcommittee by a vote of 7 to 1.

Comprehensive planning is already required and is not new. Groundwater and surface water are protected under the current legislation. This bill makes one small change to current law: in preparation of a comprehensive plan, the local planning commission shall consider not only groundwater and surface water; but groundwater and surface water availability, quality and sustainability. This proposed change was endorsed by the Virginia Association of Conservation Districts Board of Directors on September 20, 2017 and ratified by the membership at their annual meeting in December 2017.

Virginia is dependent on groundwater. According to Virginia Tech there are approximately 1.7 million Virginians who get their water from a private well. In addition, according to the U.S. Geological Survey there are almost 750,000 Virginians who get their water from public and private community supply groundwater wells. In total that means that approximately 30% of Virginians are entirely dependent on groundwater for their drinking water.

Our other communities are dependent on surface water or a mix of groundwater and surface water. Surface and groundwater resources are limited. Having a comprehensive plan that lets people run out of water or has inadequate water to meet current or future zoning and planned development is not much of a plan.

Water resources can only be managed on a local level. There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County and the Coastal Plain. In addition, there is new information that was not previously available. Using their satellites, NASA can now measure groundwater depletion from space. They found that over the ten years (2003-2013) all of Virginia’s groundwater aquifers were being depleted, using groundwater faster than it was being recharged.

This bill requires the counties to consider both surface water and groundwater availability, quality and sustainability, in the preparation of their comprehensive plan. It is a necessary next step to ensure the availability of sustainable, good quality water to all Virginians.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Groundwater is Limited

The U.S. Geological Survey released a report-USGS Professional Paper 1829 titled “Assessment of groundwater availability in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system From Long Island, New York, to North Carolina.” According to John Masterson, a USGS hydrologist and lead author of Professional Paper 1829, in the southern part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer depletion of the groundwater aquifer, sustainability, is the biggest concern.

In the Virginia Coastal Plain the aquifers used for drinking-water supply typically are deep and not well connected to land surface. Pumping in this area therefore does not have a large effect on surface waters; however, the restricted connections between the deep aquifer and surface waters has lead to groundwater depletion. Although only 14 % of the total pumping from all aquifers in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain occurs in Virginia and North Carolina, it accounts for almost half of the total groundwater depletion in the entire aquifer system.

“In this area, most of the pumping occurs in the deep confined aquifers that are not well-connected to land surface and the water pumped from these wells isn’t groundwater that otherwise would have discharged to streams or to coastal estuaries,” said Masterson.

According to the USGS report groundwater depletion in the Virginia Coastal Plain is a real concern. As the aquifer is depleted the USGS expects the land to subside. This would cause the gradual lowering of the land surface in the Coastal Plain and would intensify the effects of local sea-level rise, particularly in the Lower Chesapeake Bay area in southern Virginia. In addition, in coastal areas, groundwater depletion can result in the landward encroachment of salty groundwater, diminishing the quality of the drinking water in this region.

In places like Long Island and New Jersey, also part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer, groundwater depletion is not a serious concern. There, shallow aquifers used for drinking-water supply are well connected to the land surface and easily replenished by rainwater that seeps into the ground as aquifer recharge. However, although there appears to be plenty of water available, removing any of it from the aquifer reduces the freshwater needed to keep streams flowing and support the marine life that depend on fresh groundwater discharge to coastal estuaries. According to John Masterson, “Pumping these wells captures the groundwater that otherwise would have become streamflow or gone to the estuaries. Reducing flows from aquifers to these surface waters, can result in adverse ecological effects.”

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began studying groundwater availability in the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system in 2010. This is part of its ongoing regional assessments of groundwater availability of the principal aquifers of the Nation. Smaller aquifers essential to the viability of many communities are not being studied. Over 30% of Virginia is reliant on groundwater for its drinking water supply more than half of them in smaller aquifer systems. Virginia is dependent on groundwater.

Increases in population and changes in land use during the past 100 years have resulted in increased demand for freshwater throughout the Commonwealth with groundwater serving as a vital source of drinking water for nearly 1.5 million people . According to the USGS water levels in many of the confined aquifers are decreasing by as much as 2 feet per year in response to extensive development that may have impacted recharge and increased groundwater withdrawals to supply growing population. Total water-level drawdowns are more than 100 feet in the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer from their predevelopment (before 1900) level. Water resources must be managed beginning with the local planning for land use and development. 

There are already problems with availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater in Virginia in places such as Fauquier County, Loudoun County in addition to the Atlantic Coastal Plain. In the 21st Century it is now possible for NASA to measure groundwater depletion from space using their satellites. NASA found that over the first ten years (2003-2013) of data that they tracked all of Virginia’s groundwater aquifers were being depleted, using groundwater faster than it was being recharged.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ozone Layer is Thinning over Populated Areas

Just last month, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, announced that using satellites they were able to directly observe that levels of chlorine in the seasonal hole in the ozone layer over the earth’s poles was declining. This is important because chlorine in the atmosphere destroys ozone, so less chlorine results in less ozone depletion.

NASA announced that measurements taken by satellite show that the decline in chlorine, resulting from an international ban on chlorine-containing chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), has resulted in about 20% less ozone depletion during the Antarctic winter than there was 12 years ago when the first measurements of chlorine and ozone during the Antarctic winter were made by NASA's Aura satellite.

Ozone is a gas made up of three oxygen atoms (O3). It occurs naturally in small (trace) amounts in the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere). Ozone protects life on Earth from the Sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) near the Earth’s surface, ozone is created by chemical reactions between air pollutants from vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and other emissions. At ground level, high concentrations of ozone are toxic to people and plants. However, 90% of the ozone in the atmosphere sits in the stratosphere, the layer of atmosphere between about 10 and 50 kilometers above ground. The natural level of ozone in the stratosphere is a result of a balance between sunlight that creates ozone and chemical reactions that destroy it.

CFCs are long-lived chemical compounds that eventually rise into the stratosphere, where they are broken apart by the Sun's ultraviolet radiation, releasing chlorine atoms that go on to destroy ozone molecules. In 1986 and 1987 Dr. Susan Solomon of MIT led the National Ozone Expedition where the team gathered the evidence to confirm the accelerated reactions. The team, Susan Solomon, Rolando R. Garcia, F. Sherwood Rowland & Donald J. Wuebbles published, “On the depletion of Antarctic ozone.” In the 1980’s this was groundbreaking at the time.

Two years later, the nations of the world signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which regulated ozone-depleting compounds. Later amendments to the Montreal Protocol completely phased out production of CFCs. So the news of the healing of the ozone hole over Antarctica was heralded as the demonstrated success of the Montreal Protocol the prototype for all environmental treaties.

Now, a team led by Joanna Haigh of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, UK, has discovered that while ozone density is indeed improving at the poles, it is not doing so at lower latitudes, roughly between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south. In a new study published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the scientists report that the section of the ozone layer above the most densely populated areas on earth still seems to be declining – very slowly but steadily.

In their paper: “Evidence for a continuous decline in lower stratospheric ozone offsetting ozone layer recovery” the scientists report that since 1998 ozone in the upper stratosphere is rising again. However, their measurements of the total column of ozone between the Earth's surface and the top of the atmosphere indicate that the ozone layer has stopped declining across the globe, but no clear increase has been observed at latitudes outside the polar regions.

The scientists found evidence from multiple satellite measurements that ozone in the lower stratosphere at moderate latitues has indeed continued to decline since 1998. Even though upper stratospheric ozone is recovering, the continuing downward trend in the lower stratosphere prevails, resulting in a downward trend in stratospheric ozone in the moderate latitueds of 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south.

The scientists found that total column ozone between 60° S and 60° N appears not to have decreased only because of increases in tropospheric column ozone that compensate for the stratospheric decreases. The reasons for the continued reduction of lower stratospheric ozone are not clear; models do not reproduce these trends, and so the scientists can only speculate and guess at this time.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fauquier County Water Issues

At the last meeting of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable Paul McCulla, County Administrator of Fauquier County Virginia, spoke about the water situation in Fauquier County. The following is drawn from his talk.

The town of Marshall in Fauquier County Virginia has water troubles as does other parts of the county. Recently drilled water wells in Marshall have either been low-yielding or had contamination that made the water unusable for human consumption forcing the service district to take three of their seven wells out of service. The Marshall wells were contaminated with radium, iron and manganese (all natural contaminants in parts of Virginia), volatile organic compounds (solvents), and e coli bacteria.

Fauquier County is organized on a “service district” model with public water and sewer provided in the nine urbanized areas of the County while the remainder of the County is semi-rural and agricultural with private supply groundwater wells and septic. Marshall located north of Route 66 is the northern most of the service districts. Fauquier County relies solely on groundwater for the County’s water needs- the public water supply is drawn from ground water wells.

The County’s comprehensive plan adopted in 1992 contemplated a mixed system of groundwater and surface water impoundments. The plan designated 9 separate reservoirs that would provide more than 24 million gallons of water per day in the nine service districts. However, after building only the combined Warrenton Lake and Airlie Reservoir the county Board of Supervisors determined that the county would rely solely on groundwater for their drinking water needs. The Warrenton Lake and Airlie Reservoir can provide 2.0 million gallons a day of water.

The nine service districts are spread across the County’s 651 square miles and in one of the County’s three geological provinces, the Blue Ridge Anticlinorium, the Culpeper Basin and the Piedmont Province. Each province has a separate propensity for groundwater retention. Most of the county groundwater is in fractured flow systems. The water availability is highly variable from one location to another in a fractured flow system and these systems have a high degree of susceptibility to surface water contamination. A contaminant can catch a fracture and be carried to the groundwater. These fractured flow systems are strongly influenced by surface conditions that can affect their recharge and contamination and thus have a high probability of changing over time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey fractured flow groundwater systems are challenging to understand and costly to manage.

Groundwater supply wells in the Marshall, Bealeton and Warrenton Service Districts have seen man-made contamination requiring millions of dollars in remediation efforts to continue to use the wells. In addition, there are water supply problems. During the earthquake of 2011 one public water supply well in the County’s Bealeton Service District lost ½ of its capacity due to a shift in the subsurface geology.

In Marshall the current drinking water capacity is no adequate. Currently, the communities four wells produce 0.217 million gallons per day. The water needs for the service district if all the land were developed to its current zoning would be 0.764 million gallons per day. However, if the current land use plans were all built out the water demand would be 1.268 million gallons a day –six times the current water capacity.

Based on total current and future groundwater use, the available recharge through rain and snow melt and potential threats to groundwater quality from contamination, Fauquier has identified a need for a groundwater management, protection and monitoring program and some immediate water supply solutions to ensure the availability, quality and sustainability of water to all Fauquier residents. This winter the service authority in Marshall is connecting a recently drilled well outside the town limits on an old farm. This well will produce up to 0.18 million gallons a day and will help alleviate the current water crisis.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Impacts from Climate Change Have Arrived

In a recently published series of three studies published in a special “Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society” scientists have definitely linked climate change to extreme weather events in 2016. This is the first time that scientists have been to make this link. Until now all the expected impacts from climate change were always in the future, but in 2016 several extreme weather events were found not to have been possible based solely on weather variability alone, the climate is changing.

For each of the past six years the American Meteorological Society has published the December issue containing studies of extreme weather events from the previous year that seek to disentangle the role of climate change from natural variability. So far the bulletin has published 137 studies, but this is the first time that any study has found that a weather event was so extreme that it was outside the bounds of natural variability. This year there were three such events: the heat wave in Asia, the record global temperature in 2016, and the growth and persistence of a large areas of high ocean temperatures.

The long awaited impacts of climate change are arriving. Unfortunately, many scientists believe that we have passed the tipping point which a few years ago was set a 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have decisively passed that CO2 level and it appears certain that atmospheric CO2 levels will continue higher. Many scientists say that once past the tipping point there will be drastic changes in earth’s climate even if we stop emitting CO2.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the World Meteorological Organization) considers some additional warming of the planet to be irreversible. According to the IPPC, “Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases.” The expected impacts are continued warming of the planet, rainfall pattern changes and significant rising of sea level.

However, in the news conference that announced the 2016 findings it was noted that 2017 had many extreme weather events that were likely influenced by climate change. Hurricane Harvey and the extreme rainfall that inundated Houston is the subject of three separate studies, and it appears that climate change increased the total amount of rainfall by at least 15%-19%. The die is cast. Though many nations had pledged to keep global warming from exceeding two degrees Celsius, according to the climate models the CO2 emissions trend will produce between 3 and 5 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures and we should be planning for the future we will have and hope for a better one.