Monday, December 30, 2019

The Sustainable Level of Population

I am old so I recall when Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller “The Population Bomb” claimed that out-of-control population growth would deplete resources, bringing about widespread starvation. The book promised that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” The fear of over population was born. Instead, the 1970’s brought the “green revolution,” an extraordinary period of food crop productivity growth. Much of the developing world (with the exception of Sub-Sahara Africa) was able to eliminate their chronic food shortages.

Much of the success of the green revolution was created by the combination of high rates of investment in crop research, fertilizer, infrastructure, economic and market development and implementing policies to support agriculture. All these things were identified as producing the long-term consequences of rising greenhouse gas pollution, as well as ozone depletion by CFCs, and nitrogen oxides contamination from fertilizer in the U.N.'s 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which named them as some of the primary threats to "civilization." One of the result of the “green revolution” was the formation of dead zones that form from excess nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient pollution.

Storm water runoff containing excess nutrient pollution combined with mild weather encourages the explosive growth of phytoplankton, which is a single-celled algae. While the phytoplankton produces oxygen during photosynthesis, when there is excessive growth of algae the light is chocked out and the algae die and fall to the bottom of the near shore estuaries. The phytoplankton is decomposed by bacteria, which consumes the already depleted oxygen, leaving dead fish and shell fish in their wake.

The excess nutrients that create the dead zones are washed from agricultural fields and animal feed lots as well as from waste water treatment plants and fertilized landscapes. In the 21st century some of these algae blooms became toxic. Not all algal blooms are toxic or hazardous. Only certain species of blue-green algae form the toxin, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Toxic bacteria were not a problem until the 21st century, though algae blooms have been a problem in many places for over half a century. Only algae that contains microcystine or cyanobacteria, a toxin produced by microcystis, a type of blue-green algae that spreads in the summer algae bloom are hazardous.

In the 21st century toxic or hazardous algal blooms have become a global concern in lakes, rivers and oceans. Hazardous algal blooms, the ones that contain microcystis a type of blue-green algae produce Microcystine or cyanobacteria toxins, that can lead to the poisoning of fish, shellfish, birds, livestock, domestic pets and other aquatic organisms that can lead to human health impact from eating fish or shellfish exposed to toxins as well as drinking water contaminated by toxins. We are killing the oceans. Toxic algae blooms and dead zones are just one impact on the planet from mankind.

For more than 100 years mankind has been burning ever increasing amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas to power their homes, factories, and vehicles. Burning these fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, also called greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere. They exist naturally in the atmosphere, where they help keep the Earth warm enough for plants and animals to live. But people are adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which is the main reason why the climate is changing.

The anticipated 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.

Surface water has throughout history served as the principal freshwater supply used by mankind. However, the importance of groundwater has increased in recent decades as mankind’s demand for water has surpassed surface water supplies and our ability to access groundwater has increased with technology. Regions of the earth have come to rely more heavily on groundwater as a dependable water supply source. Groundwater represents almost half of all drinking water worldwide, though a lesser proportion of irrigation water and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people [Famiglietti, 2015].

Although there is no measured basis, it is commonly accepted that groundwater comprises 30% of global freshwater. This percentage was estimated in a 1978 paper which assumed uniform groundwater supply across the entire global land area. This assumption is not likely to be accurate, but has been used to estimate groundwater supplies in critical regions. Nonetheless, groundwater is an essential portion of the water supply and ecology. For groundwater to remain available indefinitely there must be a balance between the volume of water that enters a groundwater system and the volume that leaves the system over time.

The climate of the planet has continually changed over the millennia and some groundwater aquifers are legacies of an earlier climate and are not being recharged. There are some groundwater systems that have no natural recharge; unless they are artificially recharged they have a limited life span. If the water from a groundwater basin is used faster than it is recharged, it is being used up and ultimately it will run out.

Mankind’s ecological impact on our planet is huge. The human population is currently estimated at about 7.8 billion people, but cannot continue to grow indefinitely. There are limits earth’s resources and how efficient we can be in using them. Scientists believe there is maximum number of a species an environment can support indefinitely. There is a carrying capacity for life on earth, but no agreement on what that number is. It is very difficult for ecologists to estimate what the human carrying capacity of earth is. We are a complex species and do not consume resources and interact with the environment in a uniform way. According to an article from the Australian Academy of Science, ‘An average middle-class American consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and almost 250 times the subsistence level of clean water.” Thus, “if everyone on Earth lived like a middle class American, then the planet might have a carrying capacity of around 2 billion.” The lower the quality of life to subsistence consumption the more people earth can support.

In April 1973, a dystopian film called Soylent Green was released. In this film the omniscient Soylent Corporation is responsible for nearly all food production. Everyone eats wafers made from plankton called Soylent Green. In the course of investigating a death the protagonist a police officer discovers in the climactic scene that Soylent Green is being made from people. “Solent Green is people! The ocean's dying, the plankton's dying. It's people. Soylent green is made out of people.” The movie took place in the year 2022 in New York. I do not expect that dystopian vision of the future to occur, but I do expect that in a century or two the human population on earth will be smaller than it is now.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas Air Quality

Air pollution in New Delhi has hit crisis levels. According to reports from the New York Times, on the worst air quality day last month, fine particulate levels in New Delhi reached over 900 µg/m3. This morning the level was 376 AQI . For comparison, Long Park along Route 15 in Haymarket, VA (really close to my house) had barely within the good  level at 49 AQI. You can see that overnight the level had been higher in the moderate air quality range.

This happens to be one of the higher levels I have seen at this monitoring station, though still within the U.S. EPA standard. In 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the reduction in the fine particle pollution, PM2.5, average annual allowed level to 12 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) or an AQI of 39. The 24-hr standard was recently revised to a level of 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99) and in truth not all cities in the United States currently meet that standard. 

PM2.5 particles are a major contributing factor to lung disease. A study of children in Southern California showed lung damage associated with long-term particulate exposure, and a multi-city study found decreased lung function in children associated with long term particulate exposure. The United States particulate levels are a small fraction of the levels in the worst areas of the world-Beijing, New Delhi, Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Cairo (Egypt), Chongqing (China), Guangzhou (China), Hong Kong, and Kabul (Afghanistan).

PM2.5 particles can be either directly emitted by burning fuel or formed via atmospheric reactions. Primary particles are emitted from cars, trucks, and heavy equipment, as well as residential wood combustion, forest fires, and agricultural waste burning as is still common in India. The main components of particulate pollution formed when pollutants like NOx and SO2 react in the atmosphere to form particles. These particles are emitted from coal fired power plants and other combustion engines. The increase in automobiles and coal fired power plants in both India and China and along the Chinese belt of influence where they have financed coal fired power plants has exacerbated this problem in India, China and other areas of the world because particulates can travel great distances.

The wild fires that burnt across California carried smoke and particulate pollution to the other parts of California and particaulat pollution reached “very unhealthy” levels (near 250 AQI more than 100 miles away), The “very unhealthy” range is when people are advised to limit outdoor activity.

So, if you want to take a look at real time particulate pollution levels you can see what the monitors nearest your home or any where else in the world are reporting at this link.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Drought and Man Made Water Crisis in Zimbabwe

Once considered the bread basket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is facing a hunger crisis with half of the population, 7.7 million people, food insecure, the World Food Programme (WFP) said in early December. The days of the large plantations is long gone, and the increasingly unreliable rainy season a result of climate change and shifting weather patterns affects subsistence farmers in particular. Maize is a very water-intensive crop and a staple of their diet.

On top of food insecurity and growing malnutrition, in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, has a water crisis. Over 2 million people there are suffering from acute water shortage at home after the main water treatment plant, the Morton Jaffray waterworks, was shut down on Sept 24, 2019. The plant was reopened briefly and shut down again. Currently Morton Jaffray waterworks uses nine chemicals to treat water which is heavily polluted with domestic and industrial effluent at a cost of US$3 million/month.

City authorities say the drinking water crisis is caused by a lack of foreign currency to pay for the water purification chemicals necessary to purify drinking water that is supplied by dam reservoirs. The hyper inflation (490%) that Zimbabwe has experienced has resulted in the need to pay for imported goods like the water treatment chemicals with foreign currency. Zimbabwe has little to export to get foreign currency. A drought is drying up nearby reservoirs, making the situation worse.

Morton Jaffray was constructed in the 1950’s to serve a then population of 300,000 people, now Harare has over 4 Million people. In addition, deferred maintenance has resulted in the deterioration of the water services infrastructure, which in turn has impacted on service delivery. Currently, the Harare city Government is attempting to purchase better water treatment technology solutions for the city. But this is Zimbabwe and the contract process has been fraught with corruption. Two Government ministers have been implicated in a massive scandal after they allegedly directed the local authority to award a multi-million dollar water treatment contract to two separate unqualified companies without following official bid procedures.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Madrid Climate Talks End in Disappointment

The UN climate conference, COP25 in Madrid, ran two extra days into Sunday, but failed to accomplished its goals. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges failed to reach any agreement and were pushed into 2020. UN secretary general António Guterres tweeted “I am disappointed with the results of #COP25. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis. But we must not give up, and I will not give up.”

This year’s talks were unable to reach consensus in many areas, pushing decisions into next year. The talks had aimed to finalize the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement essentially creating the operating manual needed to set rules for carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation when the Paris Agreement goes into effect in 2020. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges failed to reach any agreement and were pushed into 2020, when countries are also due to increase their pledges of reduction in CO2 equivalents. The meeting had been scheduled to wrap up on Friday, but dragged on two more days attempting to accomplish something.

So as not to end on a total downer, progress was made by the private sector, and by national, regional and local governments. The UN Global Compact, which works with the private sector, announced that 177 companies have now agreed to set science-based climate targets and will reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That is double the number of companies that signed up to the pledge at the Climate Action Summit, and is equivalent to the annual total CO2 emissions of France. In addition, the European Union committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, and 73 nations announced that they will submit an enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution. A groundswell of ambition for a cleaner economy was found on the regional and local level, with 14 regions, 398 cities, 786 businesses and 16 investors are working towards achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, California among them.

The chart below was in the Wall Street Journal on December 16th its source: Climate Action Tracker.  The chart shows the annual greenhouse gas emissions, historic and targets pledged under the Paris Accord. You can see that the current pledges are inadequate to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C.  India emission are tagged to their GDP and China plans to stop growing by 2030. The  U.S. target based on Obama administration Mid-Century Strategy, but while the US is pulling out of the accord (until the next administration puts us in) states are pledging carbon neutrality by 2050.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Clean Water Initiatives in the Governor's Budget

Last week our Governor, Ralph Northam, began releasing to committees the pertinent portions for each committee of his proposed 2020-2022 biennial budget which will be released on December 17th in an address to the Joint Money Committees of the state General Assembly.

The Governor has proposed $400 million in clean water funding to be used to actually follow through with the third Phase of the Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP III) to meet the 2025 nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection.

In 2010 the EPA set a limit for release of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This limit is called a TMDL and was about a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels that was to be achieved by 2025. 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 WIPs are the road maps on how to get to that level that each state was required to submit to and be approved by the EPA. These days in a rebranding, the WIPs are being referred to as "the clean water blueprint" for the Bay.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution can be from either a point source or a non-point source. Point source pollution is from an identifiable source, such as a waste water treatment plant. Non-point source pollution is more diffuse and harder to track, as runoff from lawns, farmlands and paved surfaces carry pollutants into streams draining to the Chesapeake Bay. A growing human population and increased development adds to pollution and stresses the forests and natural areas, which function as filtration and surface and groundwater recharge areas.

The Governor’s budget will have $400 million for clean water divided between better storm water management, continued improvements in waste water treatment in the Commonwealth, and continued reduction in agricultural runoff. The new WIP III targets more areas of non-point source pollution that the Governor did not address in his budget talk. The WIPs identifies dozens of small reductions in sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus released from our homes and communities that each of us will have to make and keep making every years as well as reductions from our communities, schools, public buildings, parks, roads that will all need local action.

The Governor’s budget targets :
  • Better storm water management especially from the unregulated urbanized lands. To that end the Governor’s budget will increase DEQ’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) and fully fund DEQ.
  • The Governor’s budget and additional legislation proposed by the Governor will require all farmers to participate. All farmers will be required by law to sign up for Nutrient Management Plans on their land and all animal operations to sign up for stream exclusion fencing. The Governor stated in his speech that implementation of these programs would take place as funds became available to the cost share program, though not all costs are paid by the cost share program, the farmers will cover the other costs. The Governor is proposing to fund the cost share programs with $150 million in this budget.
With control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion it is expected that all these plans will be implemented. Your can listen to the Governor's comments on his Facebook page. It is open to even nonmember like me. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Curbside Recycling in Prince William 2019

Markets for recyclable materials have drastically changed over the past year. Many of the items accepted in the past for recycling are no longer accepted. Last Spring Prince William County changed the rules for curbside recycling. Recycling creates jobs, saves energy, reduces water and air pollution, and conserves landfill space. It is easy and something we can all make part of our everyday lives. In addition, though it is rarely enforced, recycling is mandatory for residents and businesses in Prince William County. Currently, we recycle 34.6% of our waste.

Remember, if you put items that do not meet the new strict standards for recycling the entire truck load will have to be disposed of as trash. So, do it right. Now seems like a good time to review the changes so that you can fill your bin properly.

In Prince William County you CANNOT recycle glass. You can only recycle:
  • Plastic bottles and jugs with a triangle with the number 1 or 2 on the bottom
  • Aluminum and steel food and drink cans
  • Newspapers and mixed paper
  • Cardboard and paperboard boxes (cereal boxes, tissue boxes etc. )

 That’s it.
Remember to rinse out all bottles and cans. DO NOT recycle bottles that previously contained hazardous materials (such as oil, flammable materials, chemicals, etc.). Newspaper and mixed paper  white/colored paper, magazines, catalogs, books, junk mail (even envelopes with clear windows) and paperboard boxes (e.g. cereal tissue etc.), paper towel and toilet tissue cores. Flattened cardboard and paperboard up to 2 ft. X 2 ft. in size. Do not include cardboard with food residue or plastic liners. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

Some States Require the Testing of Private Wells

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015,” which is the latest data available from the USGS, approximately 42.5 million people (more than 13 % of the U.S. population) obtain their drinking water from private wells. This is an estimate. private well water use is rarely reported.

The quality and safety of water from private wells are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act or, in most cases, by state laws. Instead, individual homeowners are responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for monitoring water quality. However, there are three states and several health districts within the 10 “home-rule” states have some sort of regulation requiring private well testing. 

Public health and environmental experts seem to agree that engaging private well owners about testing is the first step and key to building a relationship with well owners. Outreach and education though difficult are necessary for building trust within a community and to support effective well testing initiatives. Barriers to engagement identified included the costs of testing and treatment, general mistrust of government, and perceptions that well water is “natural” and therefore believed to be healthy. 

However, testing has found that groundwater is becoming impacted by the actions of man. The Safe Drinking Water Act (Public Law 93-523) that empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based, enforceable standards for natural or man-made contaminants in drinking water excludes private wells serving fewer than 25 people. In absence of federal standards it is up to the private water well owners themselves to request and pay for the tests and to implement any necessary remediation.

New Jersey, Rhode Island and Oregon have enacted legislation that requires private well testing at the point of a real estate transaction. New Jersey was he first state to require well testing and requires the most analysis. Rhode Island regulations also require the broad testing of wells at the time of a sale, but also suggest annual testing with different substances testing suggested at different frequency. In “home-rule” states many health districts can have unique requirements that might be of concern in the local area. Other states like Virginia and Pennsylvania utilize water clinics to facilitate the testing and understanding of test results.   

The New Jersey Private Well Testing Act (PWTA) is the oldest of the laws. Its regulations became effective in September 2002. The PWTA is a consumer information law that requires sellers (or buyers) of property with a potable private well in New Jersey to test the untreated groundwater for a variety of water quality parameters, including up to 32 human health concern, and to review the test results prior to closing of title. Landlords are also required to test their well water once every five years and to provide each tenant with a copy of the test results.

Under the PWTA all wells must be tested for: total coliform bacteria, iron, manganese, pH, all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with established Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), nitrate, arsenic, 48-hour rapid gross alpha particle activity, lead, 1,2,3-trichloropropane, ethylene dibromide, and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane If total coliform bacteria are detected, a test must also be conducted for E. coli. Private wells located in certain counties will also have to test for uranium and mercury. However, the law only requires that both the buyer and seller have received and reviewed a copy of the water test results, and have signed a paper certifying that they have received and reviewed a copy of the results before closing.

There is no requirement that the water be “safe.” The law does not prohibit the sale of property if the water fails one or more drinking water standards. The law mainly ensures that all parties to the real estate transaction know the facts about the well water so that they can make well-informed decisions. The test data is also submitted electronically by the test laboratories to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for retention, notifying health department of water quality issues, and statewide analysis of groundwater quality. To date New Jersey has collected more than 220,000 data points and expanded the analysis.

In Oregon well owners are not required by law to test their wells unless you plan to sell the property (ORS 448.271). When a purchase offer is accepted, the seller must have the well tested for arsenic, nitrates and total coliform bacteria. This is a very limited look at water quality.

The Rhode Island Department of Health now requires water testing on any Real Estate Transaction and on any newly drilled well. It is required that the well be tested for: total coliform, alkalinity, hardness, chloride, fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate/nitrite, pH, specific conductance, sulfate, TDS, turbidity, VOC (w/MTBE).

Annual testing of well water is recommended by the  Rhode Island Department of Health. Substances you should test for each year, including Nitrate, Nitrite, Color, Turbidity, and Coliform Bacteria. In addition, the Department of Health recommends that every 3-5 years a well be tested for: fluoride, iron, lead, manganese, sulfate, pH, alkalinity, Total Dissolved Solids, hardness, and specific conductance. Then every 5-10 years a well should also be tested for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and MtBE.

In a 2009 study from the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessed the water-quality for about 2,100 domestic wells. The sampled wells are were located in 48 states and up to 219 properties and contaminants, including pH, nutrients, trace elements, radon, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were measured. The large number of contaminants assessed and the broad geographic coverage of the study provided the beginning of an understanding of the quality of water from the major aquifers tapped by domestic supply wells in the United States.

The USGS found that 23% of private wells had at least one contaminant present at concentrations exceeding federal drinking water standards or other health-based levels of concern ,and numerous emerging contaminants that lacked health-based standards were detected in groundwater nation-wide (DeSimone, L.A., Hamilton, P.A., Gilliom, R.J., 2009, Quality of water from domestic wells in principal aquifers of the United States, 1991–2004—Overview of major findings: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1332, 48 p.) 

Not only should you test the raw well water before purchasing a home with a well, it is also important to verify that any treatment is doing its job correctly and that water remains safe each year. It remains to be seen if mandated testing programs are the way to achieve safer private well drinking water.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Preventing Frozen Pipes

Because of the usually mild winters here in Virginia, we do not often think of frozen pipes until an artic frost is forecast or when it’s too late and the pipes are already frozen. Now is a good time to prepare to avoid frozen pipes. The typical advice on very cold nights is to let a small stream of water run in the bathroom furthest from the water main entry. Do not do this if you have a septic system, it will overload the septic system. If you are on public water and sewer this can work, but will increase our water cost for the month.

In Virginia bathrooms are often build above garages or have pipes that run through dormers. If you have a bathroom above a garage keep a small ceramic electric heater ($40) connected to a thermocouple that turns it on when the temperature in the garage falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn on the heating cube in the garage and check it functioning. It goes without saying that the garage door should be closed on cold days.

After garages and dormers the most likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. When the weather is forecast to fall into the single digits or lower open the cabinet doors below sinks located on outside walls or against attic dormers, and keep the heat set over 60 degrees.

By this time of year you should have turned off the water to your outside hoses, there should be a valve for each in the basement next to the main water line. In older homes this is not always true. Next, unscrew the hoses. Most modern homes have frost-free sillcocks (hose bibs) installed, and if they are properly installed with a correct angel to drain the water back they should be fine all winter; however, sometimes they are simply not installed right.

If you have a well, your well supply line can freeze. In sub-zero weather wells with and without separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing or your well pipe insulated can prevent this. It used to be that an inefficient 100 watt incandescent bulb gave off enough heat to do the job, but now with more efficient bulbs insulation and other sources of heat have to be used. An electric blanket can do the job. Deep wells are unlikely to freeze, it’s usually a supply line that was not buried deep enough, but the turn at the pitless adaptor can freeze.

When there is a thick layer of snow on the ground the snow actually helps to insulate the water well line and the septic system and keep them from freezing. Unfortunately, the rare artic freeze we get in Virginia does not always come with a thick snow cover. Dropping temperatures without snow cover can allow the pipes in septic systems to freeze and/or can identify a well line that was not buried deep enough.

The typical advice on very cold nights is to let a small stream of water run in the bathroom furthest from the water main entry, but this will overload your septic system. However, do use the water especially hot water if you are worried your system is starting to freeze. This would be an excellent night to run a load of hot water laundry before bed followed up by the dishwasher.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Testing the Well Before Purchase

If you are thinking about buying a home with a private water well you need to understand at a minimum the basics about the well and groundwater, and know the quality and quantity of water available from the well. In many locations private wells are not regulated or only minimally regulated. Virginia now has well drilling regulations and standards, but those only apply to wells drilled after 1992. If you buy a home with an existing well- buyer beware. Any well, groundwater or septic problems not detected by the buyer during the sale process become the home buyer's problem upon closing the sale. There is no legal recourse back to the seller. It would be a real shame to discover after closing on home that the drinking water well does not supply enough water for you to do laundry in the summer, goes dry in a drought or that the water is contaminated or has an unpleasant taste or smell.

About 21% of homes in Virginia get their drinking water from a private well, and homes with wells have septic systems. Wells in Virginia are the owner's responsibility. Regulations from the Virginia Department of Health only address the constructions of wells; there are no regulations for the maintenance or testing of wells. Though there are no Virginia regulations to test well water before a sale, mortgage lenders typically require testing for bacteria for a mortgage to be approved. Testing a well for coliform bacteria and E. coli are not enough to make sure that you have a good source of drinking water for a home. Quite frankly, it is fairly easy to cheat the bacteria test.

When you are considering buying a home with a well, you need to understand the water and make sure that it is acceptable to you. As a matter of fact, water test results acceptable to me was one of the two contingencies for my house. For purchase I would recommend a broad stroke water test that looks at all the primary and secondary contaminants regulated under the safe drinking water act as well as pesticides.

These kinds of tests exist. An example is the WaterCheck Deluxe plus pesticides test kit from National Testing Laboratories which is an EPA certified laboratory would work. Buying a package reduces the cost though the drawback is these packages are performed at a lower sensitivity level and this was the most economical test I found. (I paid around 8 times the cost of their WaterCheck with pesticides to test my water before we bought the house.) It comes with sampling bottles, an ice pack that needs to be frozen and a cooler to use when you FedEx the water samples back. Time is of the essence when dealing with bacteria samples. If the home has any water treatment or filters it is important to test both the raw water coming from the well and the water after treatment. This allows you evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of any treatment. You will need two water test packages.

The WaterCheck Deluxe with pesticides is a broad stroke test, testing the water for 103 items including Bacteria (Total Coliform and E-Coli), 19 heavy metals and minerals including lead, iron, arsenic and copper (many which are naturally occurring, but can impact health); 6 other inorganic compounds including nitrates and nitrites (can indicate fertilizer residue or animal waste); 5 physical factors including pH, hardness, alkalinity; 4 Trihalomethanes (THMs) and 47 Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) including Benzene, Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) and Trichloroethene (TCE). The pesticide option adds 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. The package costs $229.99. You will also have to pay overnight shipping cost ($40-$70) to return the package. You may also have to purchase a local Bacteria test if there was a delay in the shipping.

The WaterCheck package compares their results to the The US EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act limits for the primary and secondary contaminants are a good standard to compare water to when testing a well. Since there are no regulation for private well water, that is a reasonable standard to compare the water test results to. However, be alert to anything that should not be in groundwater. The presence of low levels of man made contaminants may be an indication of a bigger problem. Also, make sure you check for residual levels of chlorine. The presence of residual levels of chlorine could indicate that someone had recently chlorinated the well or had tried to cheat the bacteria test- not nice. So, be alert when you review your results.

Not all of the impurities and contaminants in groundwater are bad, some make water taste good. However, any traces of solvents or hydrocarbons or contaminants that are not naturally occurring would be concerning. Penn State Extension has an online tool to compare testing results to EPA Safe Drinking Water Standards and offers some suggestions. Once you have the information the question is when is water acceptable. The water should also taste good. While most contaminates can be addressed using water treatment systems that are properly designed, installed and maintained, but there are tradeoffs that you might not want to make. When I purchased my home, it was important to me to have water that was safe and entirely acceptable to me without any treatment. I particularly dislike water softeners so I needed that my water not be too hard.

The levels of nitrate in groundwater tends to increase over time from the presence of fertilizer and human and animal waste. The Safe Drinking Water Act maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate in public drinking water supplies in the United States is 10 mg/L as nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N). However in recent studies scientists have found a relationship between drinking water with elevated nitrate concentrations and colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects. “Many of the studies observed increased health risks with ingestion of water nitrate levels that were below regulatory limits.” So, having nitrate concentrations below 10 mg/L is no protection against increased cancer risk or birth defects.

The most common contamination problem for a well is an adjacent septic system. Research done in Duchess county New York identified density of septic systems as an easy indicator of nitrate contamination to groundwater. The Dutchess County study and another study performed in North Carolina found that overall average density of on-site waste disposal (traditional septic or alternative) should not exceed one unit per 2-3 acres for an average size house to ensure water quality and recharge in groundwater supplies. The controlling factor in minimum lot size requirements in the northeast appears to be maintaining water quality, not groundwater recharge. The measure they used to test water quality was nitrate level. Adequate dilution, soil filtration and time are necessary to ensure that the nitrate level did not rise. This is why in 10 Rules for Buying a Home with a Well and Septic System, is state not to buy a home without at least 2-3 acres of land if it depends on a well and septic system.

In most locations you can get some help in interpreting water test results from the department of health.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Klein Development Public Hearing will be held in 2020

Last week the Prince William Planning Commission recommended the current iteration of the development of the Klein property for approval. Stanley Martin Homes wants a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to change the long-range land use designation for the over 100. acres from CEC, Community Employment Center, and SRR, Semi-Rural Residential, to CEC with a Center of Community Overlay and with an expanded study area. These changes would allow Stanley Martin build in this version 74 townhomes, 56 single-family homes, 120 low rise condominiums and 145,000 square feet of commercial space and an elementary school. The properties in the development will be connected to public water from supplied by Prince William Public Service Authority and with surface water as the source supply. So, there will be no increase in the use of groundwater in the immediate area.

This change requires a public hearing before the PW County Board of Supervisors. It was announced by Marty Nohe that hearing will now be held in the new year before the newly elected Board. Stanley Martin Homes made the request for the delay. It was impractical to hold the hearing in the middle of December. 

The Kline Farm property encompasses a bit more than 100 acres and is generally located south and southeast of the intersection of Prince William Parkway and Liberia Avenue, and north of Buckhall Road. The property is located in a transitional area of the county that is adjacent to the City of Manassas. North of the site and across the Prince William Parkway is the Prince William Commerce Center, still under development and will contain mixed retail/commercial/office uses, as well as the suburban residential neighborhood of Arrowood and the semi-rural residential neighborhood of Hyson Knolls to the northeast. East and southeast of the site is semi-rural residential communities and A-1 zoned property. To the west and northwest is the City of Manassas with existing retail service/commercial strip development. Southwest of the subject site is existing suburban residential development.

Water sustainability needs to be addressed. The residents within the abutting Hynson Knolls community, homeowners bordering Buckhall Road and homes along Lake Jackson Drive rely on private wells for water. In a “Preliminary Hydrogeological Assessment-Klein Site” prepared by SES/TrueNorth they do a preliminary look at whether the development of the site is likely to have an adverse impact on surrounding private wells and septic systems. The properties in the development will be connected to public water from supplied by Prince William Public Service Authority and with surface water as the source supply. So, there will be no increase in the use of groundwater in the immediate area.

In developing the theoretical groundwater budget the Stanley Martin Homes consultant assumed that the groundwater recharge rate for the site was equivalent to the average groundwater recharge for Prince William County when it was more than half open space. Changing ground cover changes groundwater recharge. We’ve recently seen that based on the work of the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Fauquier County where they found groundwater recharge at less than 2.5 inches a year near Route 29.  

Geology varies across the county with different water bearing and storage potential in the different hydrogeologic groups, but the changing amount of open space in this area Prince William county will impact the future recharge of the groundwater in the immediate area. The actual groundwater recharge for the area needs to be determined and the impact that the development will have on the future recharge of groundwater needs to be estimated to ensure the existing residents will continue to have adequate water for their homes. It could take years, but changing land use has the potential to disrupt groundwater recharge.

Monday, November 25, 2019

As Winter Comes Should VDOT Use Salt?

In the last week of October NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center released the long range weather forecast through February for the country. Northern Virginia is predicted to have warmer-than-average temperatures combined with a wetter-than-average winter. Nonetheless, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District covering Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William Counties and Arlington is preparing for winter.

The Northern Virginia District serves a region with almost 2.4 million people and 13,585 lane miles of roadways that are maintained by VDOT. In the winter VDOT needs to clear the roads of snow in a timely fashion to keep the government open and community services operational, while still protecting the source water for the region. VDOT will have a snow budget this winter of almost $54 million to cover the costs of contracting road treatment and snow removal and maintaining a limited amount of staff and equipment.

The Northern Virginia District of VDOT also has 120,000 tons of salt, 25,000 tons of sand and 250,000 gallons of brine or magnesium chloride. While salt (sodium chloride and magnesium chloride) products are cheap and effective at helping to keep us safe during winter storms, they have a number of harmful impacts to the environment, water quality, infrastructure and public health. VDOT has to balance public safety during winter storms and environmental impacts.

VDOT uses sprayed on salt solution that is only about 23% salt to pretreat the interstates (66, 95, 395 and 495) and the major roads (for example Routes 1, 7, 28, 50, 15 etc.) In total VDOT only applies brine to pretreat 2,150 lane miles of interstates, major roads and bridges- just the interstates and major roads, none of the suburban communities. You’ve seen the brine as light white lines sprayed in roadway lanes before storms. The anti-icing treatment is most effective during the first hour when it prevents the snow from bonding to the roadway. This makes it easier and more effective to plow a road.

Pretreating the roadway is most effective when temperature are above 20 degrees Fahrenheit and there is no rain forecast. Pretreating is not effective if a storm starts with rain. The brine is simply washed off the road and into our water ways. VDOT has its own MS4 permit to prevent pollution to the storm sewer system or our streams, waterways and groundwater. VDOT has a pollution prevention and mitigation program to minimize the infiltration and runoff of brine solution from storing, mixing, loading and washing equipment.

The source water protection program and addressing deicing salts in particular are currently a top priority for Fairfax Water and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). None of the local water utilities have the equipment to remove salt from their source water. The only available technology to remove salt from the source water is reverse osmosis which is cost prohibitive and requires a significant amount of energy to run. The brine solution currently in use by VDOT have reduced the salt use by 30%-65% depending on storm duration, temperature and storm intensity. To further protect the waterways VDOT will not be pretreating any of the suburban communities/ development roads.

DEQ and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission have gathered together stake holder to tackle the challenge of striking a balance between benefits and impacts in a Salt Management Strategy (SaMS). This strategy will be under development throughout 2020, but VDEQ is holding a meeting to hear the concerns of the communities. There will be a meeting at Kings Park Library on December 3, 2019 at 6:30 pm where DEQ is going to listen to the community. You can sign up at the link. If you want to read about what has been going on at the meetings you can at this link.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Water and Qatar

Using data collected over a 15 year period from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) scientists have increased their knowledge of how water moves and is stored on Earth. In the coming years the GRACE follow up mission satellites that were launched in 2018 will increase that understanding of water resources and how the global climate is changing rainfall and water storage and man’s actions are impacting water availability and sustainability.

Qatar is mostly an example of man’s impact. Qatar is an arid country with no perennial rivers or lakes and is one of the most water stressed country on earth. It receives an average annual rainfall of less than 3 ¼ inches per year, in adequate to supply even 5% of its population. Historically there was barely enough water for survival of the small population. What little water was available came from wells in the desert. Yet, the nation now uses 157 gallons a day of water per person. How does a nation with virtually no water resources end up using water as if they have an unlimited supply? The wealth to desalinate water, and subsidize its price. Oil and gas resources were discovered around 1940 that changed the population growth and trajectory of the nation.

In 1968, Britain announced its plans of withdrawing its military east of the Suez canal. When Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi failed to form a federation, Qatar declared its independence in September 1971 and became an independent state. When Qatar gained independence, its population was under 120,000. Even then the renewable water resources (groundwater recharged from rain) were inadequate to support the population.

Qatar used the vast natural gas and oil wealth to bring water to their dessert. Qatar has relied upon desalination to meet the increasing domestic water demand since 1953. Today, the population of Qatar is 2.8 million and the nation relies primarily on the older thermal desalination method which uses much more energy than reverse osmosis. The average annual rainfall recharge to groundwater is around 53 million cubic meters. The current capacity of desalination plants in Qatar is around 474 million cubic meters per year. Around 30% of the expensive desalinated water is reportedly to leakage in the water distribution system, and the rest is used for domestic purposes. Agriculture depends on groundwater. Qatar abstracts about 220 million cubic meters of groundwater per year. As a result, groundwater level drops about a meter a year even with the nation using waste water to recharge the groundwater. The groundwater aquifer is shared with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Desalination provides almost all domestic water. The demand for water increases continuously as a result of the influx of migrants into the country and the government subsidizing the cost of power and water. Desalination, especially the older thermal method consumes massive amounts of energy. Groundwater continues to be used for agricultural irrigation. In 2017, a number of countries led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (collectively referred to as the 'Quartet') severed their ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade due to their funding and active support of Syrian fractions.

The blockade limited food importation. Qatar began a program to increase their food production which required increasing water production and storage. Until that time, Qatar had about 3 days of water storage for the nation- highly vulnerable to water attack. The state utility, Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation called Kahramaa is engaged in a project to ensure 7 days of reserve water supply, but the water situation is not sustainable and nearing crisis. With the money from oil and gas Qatar may be able to sidestep disaster. Qatar is moving forward with building new desalination plants using the lasts technology and is testing treating the water produced from oil and gas production for use. Produced water tends to have high salinity and also contains radioactive trace contaminants as well as other contaminants.

The challenges of water security in Qatar is easily visible, but it is becoming more common in other water stressed parts of the world where changes in rainfall can have catastrophic impact on nations or even states.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Climate Talks are Moved to Spain

Though the Chilean protests were sparked by a subway fare hike, the protests and violence have spread during the past month. According to the BBC, ”At least 20 people have died and about 1,000 have been injured in protests...” The protests and violence have prompted a relocation of the 25th United Nations climate change summit to Madrid, Spain.

The United States will be present at the Madrid meeting, though President Trump formally announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement in one year (right after the election next year). This is the amount of time that is required to withdraw. However, any signatory that withdraws from the pact can apply for readmission to the United Nations and can be back in within 30 days. With both New York and California aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nation will continue to move in that direction and other states will join in without a federal mandate. Basically, any time in the future a President can ask to be readmitted to the Paris climate agreement.
This graph is from the Global Carbon Project a cool presentation you might want to take a look at
Under the Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, many countries pledged carbon emissions caps. It was a hopeful moment with many nations pledging to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. However, neither China nor India promised any reductions. China promised to reach peak carbon emissions around 2030, and meanwhile to increase the non-fossil share of its primary energy to 20%. It is reported that China continues on that path, though, China has been financing coal fired generation in other countries. Nonetheless, earths carbon equivalent emissions continue to rise.
This graph is from Carbonbried and was posted by Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Robbie Andrew and Glen Peters from CICERO Center for International Research in Norway
The reductions promised are not enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that U. S. CO2 emissions will reach 5,237 million tonnes in 2018, then remain virtually unchanged in 2019 (this is expected to be about half of China’s emissions in 2019). China’s CO2 emissions grew by 2.3% in 2018, to more than 10,726 million tonnes while GDP grew by 6.6%. The EIA is projecting global CO2 emissions grew 21% from 2005 to 2017 and will continue to rise reaching 23% above 2005 levels in 2019. We have long ago passed the tipping point where climate change could be prevented. We need to plan to survive in the future climate of this planet.
from EIA

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Maryland Regulating Your Suburban Lawn Fertilization

The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) sent out a news release announcing that the winter blackout date for lawn fertilization, November 15 was upon us and reminding lawn professionals and homeowners not to apply fertilizer to their lawns until March 1. So, in case you were planning on fertilizing your lawn this weekend, don't.

In order to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay and meet the nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) reductions mandated by the U.S. EPA, Maryland passed their lawn fertilizer law in 2011 and it took effect October 1, 2013. Maryland's lawn fertilizer law is intended to help protect the Chesapeake Bay from excess nutrients entering its waters from a variety of urban an suburban sources, including golf courses, parks, recreation areas, businesses and hundreds of thousands of lawns. This law extends to homeowners. Homeowners and do-it-yourselfers are required to obey fertilizer application restrictions, use best management practices when applying fertilizer, observe fertilizer blackout dates and follow University of Maryland recommendations when fertilizing lawns. Did you know that?

A county, municipality or the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) may choose to enforce these requirements for homeowners. This is a civil violation, not criminal. Violators are subject to civil penalties of up to $1,000 for the first violation and $2,000 for each subsequent violation if the law is enforced. It is unlikely that the typical homeowner is familiar with the requirements of the law or how the county, municipality or the MDA would be aware of the violations. For example did you apply fertilizer on a day when rain was predicted? Did you run your fertilizer spreader across your front walk when spreading fertilizer. In case you have no clue what the requirements are:
  • A single fertilizer application may not exceed 0.9 pound total nitrogen per 1,000 sq ft which can include no more than 0.7 pound of soluble nitrogen per 1,000 sq ft.
  • Visit for seasonal and yearly nitrogen recommendations.
  • Phosphorus may only be applied when a soil test indicates that it is needed or when a lawn is being established, patched or renovated.
  • Fertilizer may not be used to de-ice walkways and driveways.
  • It is against the law to apply fertilizer to sidewalks or other impervious surfaces. Fertilizer that lands on these surfaces must be swept back onto the grass or cleaned up. 
  • No fertilizer applications within 10 to 15 feet of waterways. 
  • Do not fertilize lawns if heavy rain is predicted or the ground is frozen.
  • Do not apply lawn fertilizer between November 15 and March 1. 
  • Enhanced efficiency controlled release products may be applied at no more than 2.5 pounds per year, with a maximum monthly release rate of 0.7 pound of N per 1,000 sq ft.
Got that? The rule of law is what governs our way of life and safeguards our freedom. A society with too many laws unevenly enforced encourages lawlessness because no one has respect for the law anymore. There are some carve outs for lawn professionals and for phosphorus application with soil testing and weather conditions, but really just don’t fertilize your lawn in the winter. Put up holiday decorations, trim your bushes or do something else.

According to the University of Maryland Extension, fertilizer sold for suburban lawns accounts for approximately 44% of all fertilizer sold in Maryland. Turf grasses are ubiquitous in the suburban and urban landscape of the Washington Metropolitan Area and the rest of the United States. There are various types of environmental impacts from lawns, especially on water resources. We do tend to over fertilize and should not, but regulating homeowners with vague and inconsistent enforcement does not seem quite fair.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Study Groundwater Resources Before Developing Rural Area

Prince William County’s Rural Crescent is nestled into the eastern edge of the Fauquier County. Groundwater does not abide by county lines, but sometimes rivers, streams and changes in geology are where the counties were divided. For example Bull Run Mountain separates Prince William County from Fauquier County north of Waterfall Road. The geology and water resources differ on either side of Bull Run Mountain. South of Route 66 the County line was simply drawn through what was once all farm land without regard to water sheds. Prince William County needs to learn from the experience of our neighbors before we blunder into unsustainable development and water use.

Fauquier County planned for most of their future development in what they call their "service districts." The County has eight Service Districts. The Service Districts include: Bealeton, Catlett, Marshall, Midland, New Baltimore, Opal, Remington and Warrenton. Portions of Warrenton, Bealeton, New Baltimore, Marshall, and Remington are currently served by public water and sewer, Catlett is served by public water and in Opal water service is under development.

Much of Fauquier’s water supply is from groundwater drawn from fractured bedrock aquifers for drinking and irrigation water. Currently, the county uses 3.9 million gallons of water a day for public supply. The water demand for agricultural and private use are not counted in that number, but those needs must continue to be met. The availability of groundwater is dependent upon subsurface geologic conditions which are not uniform throughout Fauquier County, the rainfall and the ground cover. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability, availability and quality of groundwater resources, Fauquier has discovered that they must manage their groundwater resources including paying attention to the natural watershed drainage areas and protect their well head areas from contamination.

Fauquier Water and Sanitation Authority (FCWSA) and Fauquier County have invested more than$100 million in wells and water infrastructure throughout the county. The County built out their public water supply system without identifying the groundwater recharge areas for its system of wells. Until recently there had been no money spent on protecting the wells and their recharge zones. Changes in land use have impacted the water quality and availability most notably in Marshall.

Suburban development has increased water-supply demands, added impervious surfaces that may have reduced groundwater recharge, and possibly caused transfers of water between water basins through water distribution and sewer systems. When the county designed and built the service areas for the various communities natural watershed and water availability was not considered. At the time little was know about the groundwater hydrology of the area.

With a groundwater wells a key factor isn’t just how much water you’re pumping out of the ground, but rather where in the watershed and in what geologic formations you are pumping. Different locations within the county have different water availability. The County can’t change the underlying geology or control the rate or pattern of groundwater recharge. Instead Fauquier must yield to nature.

Fauquier County is in the midst of a groundwater study estimated to cost half a million dollars. The study was designed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and spearheaded by the USGS and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The goals of the study were:
  • Develop a county-wide water-budget model to adequately characterize the range of past and current hydrologic conditions affecting aquifers;
  • Couple groundwater and surface-water monitoring to permit assessment of the relationships between groundwater withdrawals and base flow in streams, and the effects of new or increased groundwater withdrawals;
  • Develop tools and collect data to estimate the impacts of the overall trends in development and population growth on the water resources. This information would ultimately contribute to a future decision mechanism for allocation of water resources based on a physically-based, technical flow model.
Early results from the study found differences in the presumed soil-water balance. The USGS reported that with and actual annual precipitation of 40-56 inches a year the 20 year average recharge in the county varied between 2-10 inches a year NOT the presumed 10-14 inches a year that the FCWSA and their consultants had been using. In addition, during a drought years recharge in the county was less than 2-6 inches and the crystalline rock in the northern portion of the county dries out quickly in a drought-it has limited water storage. Differences were significant among the aquifers in the county.

The study is expected to be completed in mid-2021 and should address most of the issues and challenges to the development of the County’s water supply and the professional management of its water resources. Fauquier County waited to begin the study until Marshall had inadequate water to meet the demands for fire protection. To identify an uncontaminated additional water supply, FCWSA installed a well located outside the service area and added two water storage tanks to solve the immediate problem. Prince William County needs to learn from the experience of Fauquier County and study the groundwater and water resources before we plan for further development in the rural area.

In the USGS slide below you can see that the areas covered that are in Prince William County have an annual groundwater recharge of less than 2.5 inches a year. This is despite rainfall that ranged between 40-56 inches a year during the period covered. Impervious surfaces that added to a watershed by development will significantly reduce the groundwater recharge rate.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Occoquan Dam Siren Test

Next Wednesday, November 13, 2019 Fairfax Water will test the Occoquan Dam siren system. The sirens are installed along the banks of the Occoquan River between the Town of Occoquan and Belmont Bay. People living and commuting in the area will hear a loud siren at 10 am on Wednesday November 13th .

The Occoquan Dam, also known as “the High Dam” was built in the 1950s to create the Occoquan Reservoir that now holds approximately 8.3 billion gallons of water. The dam is owned and maintained by Fairfax Water who performs regular maintenance inspects the dam regularly. Fairfax Water states that “Rigorous maintenance and improvements to the dam have made it even stronger today than when it was constructed. It is extremely unlikely that the dam would become structurally compromised but we still want everyone to be prepared and safe.”

In 2012 Fairfax Water, Town of Occoquan, Fairfax County, and Prince William County installed the siren warning system as a precaution in the unlikely event of a structural failure. The siren is to alert folks downstream of the dam of the failure so they can evacuated to higher ground. The sirens are used because the Town of Occoquan felt that a siren system would be the most effective way to alert people in the unlikely event of a dam failure. You can also sign up to receive news and updates from either Fairfax and or Prince William Counties on your devices. You may choose to receive notifications via phone calls, text messaging, e-mail and more.

To sign up for Fairfax Alerts, visit:
To sign up for Prince William County Alerts, visit:

In the unlikely event of a structural failure at the dam, a loud siren will sound, and residents and visitors in the impact zone indicated in red should immediately evacuated to higher elevations to avoid the torrent of 8.3 billion gallons of water. Those on the water should get to land.
from Fairfax Water to see if your home is in impact zone 

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Rural Crescent May Not Always Have Water

Virginia State law requires that Counties plan to have good quality water for all its residents present and future. This became part of the law in 2018 when the Virginia Legislature amended the enabling legislation for the comprehensive planning process (§§ 15.2-2223 and 15.2-2224 of the Code of Virginia ) to require planning for the continued availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources. However, the current proposals from the Prince William County Planning Office, and from various community groups and landowners for the future of the Rural Area do not address this extremely important issue. Our water supply is NOT unlimited and without planning and management it is not sustainable. Without a sustainable supply of water there is no future for the existing and future residents of the Rural Crescent.

Changing the character of the Rural Crescent (or Rural Area as it's also called) to include cluster development houses clustered in “transition areas” or even increasing the current population could further impact water availability to the existing residents and impact base flow to our rivers.  There are already indications that groundwater resources have been decreasing in the past 15 years despite having normal or higher rainfall for most of that period. Without proper planning and management of impervious surfaces, density of development and water demand, groundwater resources may prove to be inadequate to supply reliable and sustainable well water to all current and future residents. There are indications from the Prince William Service Authority, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA research that a problem with groundwater supplies is beginning to appear in Prince William County.

Currently, public water in the Evergreen area in the northwest edge of the Rural Crescent is supplied by a series of groundwater wells. Based on the recent PW Service Authority study of the Evergreen water system,  that system does not have adequate capacity to withstand a leak nor to recover from a problem, let alone provide supply to a larger area. While groundwater is a renewable resource it is NOT unlimited. The sad truth is that we do not know how much water we have in the groundwater basin underlying the Rural Crescent, the Culpeper basin. We do not know what the sustainable rate of ground water use is for the area, but we seem to have exceeded that rate.

The USGS and NASA tells us that our groundwater basin is under stress. In a study published in 2013 in Science, "Water in the Balance," researchers looked at the ten year trend in groundwater in the United States. The lead author was Jay Famiglietti, a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, and Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM). and co-author Matt Rodell, Chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Using data from the NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)  satellites collected over a 10 year period they were able to track changing groundwater availability all over the United States and the world. The GRACE satellites were launched in 2002 and were replaced in 2018 with the second mission satellites. The data set was for 2003 throught 2013.
from Famiglietti et al  "Water in the Balance" 1

The GRACE mission is able to monitor monthly water storage changes within river basins and aquifers that are 200,000 km2 or larger in area using small changes in gravity. Though their resolution is improving, more data needs to be gathered to study groundwater at a smaller scale. In the image above from their study, the yellow and orange area seen in the Virginia Piedmont region is indicating that the groundwater mass decreased over the ten years of the study.  Using GRACE data, the researchers were able to identify several water ‘hotspots’ in the United States, including our own Mid-Atlantic region as can be seen on the image below and the graph.
from Famiglietti et al  "Water in the Balance"1
In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, maintains a group of groundwater monitoring wells in Virginia that measure groundwater conditions daily and can be viewed online. Only one of the Virginia wells is within the Rural Crescent. That well is in the northwest portion of the Rural Area just west or Route 15 in the Culpeper groundwater basin. Daily monitoring data available from that well go back to 2004 (other records exist further back and appear in the table below covering 39 years 1975-2014). What can be seen in the graph below is the slow decline in the water level despite not experiencing any significant droughts since 2008 and having the wettest year on record in 2018. The decline is modest over this period, but will continue and get worse over time especially if demand for groundwater is increased and impervious surfaces continue to grow, reducing recharge.
USGS monitoring well 49V Prince William County VA
The water level in a groundwater well usually fluctuates naturally during the year which is seen in the above data. Groundwater levels tend to be highest in the early spring in response to winter snow melt and spring rainfall when the groundwater is recharged. Groundwater levels begin to fall in May and typically continue to decline during summer as plants and trees use the available shallow groundwater to grow and streamflow draws water. Natural groundwater levels usually reach their lowest point in late September or October when fall rains begin to recharge the groundwater again. In the monitoring well the fall lows have been getting lower and the recharge even in 2018, the wettest year on record, did not reach the level of recharge during a drought in 2007-8. We appear to have a problem in this area. There is no information available in any other area of the Rural Crescent.
drought in Virginia from 2000-2019 from US Drought Monitor
Land use changes that significantly (more than 10%) increase impervious cover from roads, pavement and buildings does two things. It reduces the open area for rain and snow to seep into the ground and percolate into the groundwater and  the impervious surfaces cause stormwater velocity to increase preventing water from having enough time to to percolate into the earth, increasing storm flooding and preventing recharge of groundwater from occurring. Slowly, this can reduce water supply over time. Increasing population density as we have been doing increases water use. Significant increases in groundwater use and reduction in aquifer recharge can result in the slowly falling water levels over time showing that the water is being used up. Unless there is an earthquake or other geological event groundwater changes are not abrupt and problems with water supply tend to happen slowly as demand increases with construction and recharge is impacted by adding paved roads, driveways, houses and other impervious surfaces. That appears to be what is happening in this area of Prince William County.

Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local. Little is known about the sustainability of our groundwater basins, but potential problems are still at a manageable stage. Groundwater models and data from more monitoring wells can help develop a picture of the volume of the water within the groundwater basin and at what rate it is being used and at what rate it is being recharged. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. We need to understand how ground cover by roads, parking lots and buildings will impact groundwater recharge and what level of groundwater withdrawals are sustainable on site to determine if a proposed change in land use or additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted.

As Drs. Famiglietti and Rodell point out in their paper without coordinated and proactive management, the aquifers supplying our region will be depleted.

All the lows have been exceeded in the past 5 years.
The above data was "clipped" from the old USGS site for well 49 v before they changed over. It's useful because its got decades of data tracking and the lowest groundwater levels in the past few years have fallen below the lowest levels recorded in the 35-40 years before that.

1. Water in the Balance;By James S. Famiglietti, Matthew Rodell

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Free Training for Small Water Systems in Mid Atlantic

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is offering free compliance assistance to smaller water and wastewater treatment facilities to Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. The goal is to help improve water quality protection throughout Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the Mid Atlantic Region.

EPA will be offering two training sessions in November, including a Wastewater Exam Preparation Course on November 7 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and a Process Control Course on December 12 in Cumberland, Maryland. These session will offer valuable technical assistance and training to operators of smaller public and private treatment facilities to help bring them into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The goal is to improve waterways throughout the mid-Atlantic region. However, plants that optimize their treatment performance often experience costs savings through reduced energy and chemical treatment usage. EPA is also working with state partners and other technical assistance providers to increase the number of facilities reached through this effort.

EPA has already had success in assisting smaller communities including Adamstown Borough, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where technical assistance and training from EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also led to a 40 % reduction in electrical costs. EPA continues to work with Adamstown on new technologies to remove total nitrogen from water.

Facilities and system operators that are seeking compliance assistance and training opportunities can contact Walter Higgins of the Water Division’s Infrastructure and Assistance Section at 215-814-5476 or

Monday, October 28, 2019

Water Rates Increased in Most of the Region

Recently, Fairfax Water announced its intention to raise their water rates next spring. There will be a public hearing on Thursday, December 12, 2019, on the proposed rate increase held at Fairfax Water’s main office at 8570 Executive Park Avenue in Fairfax. This rate increase is part of their ongoing program to ensure that the water infrastructure in Fairfax County is maintained. Proposed revisions include a change in the commodity charge from $3.07 to $3.20 per 1,000 gallons, effective on April 1, 2020.

As they do every time they propose to raise water rates, Fairfax Water performed a comparison of the water costs throughout the Washington Metropolitan region. This comparison is based on rates as of July 1, 2018 and on 18,000 gallons of residential water use for an established account over a three month period. I also compared these rates to the comparison that was done in 2017 and 2018.

Most water and sewer utilities in our region are a separate, government enterprise fund established to be self-supporting. That means that the majority of their revenue is from charges for services provided to customers, including account charges, new connection charges and the charges for water and sewage by the gallon. These charges, both variable and fixed, are to cover the costs of renewing the buried pipes and distribution networks as well as the costs to operate and maintain the treatment plants. Towns like Manassas Park use water revenue to service other debt. 

As you can see above the City of Bowie had the largest percentage increase in their water rates over the past two years, increasing 41% . The next largest was Virginia American Water (Alexandria) which increased rates 38%  over the past two years and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) which increased rates 32% over the past two years. The highest water rates were City of Manassas Park still at $205.50 (they had no increases in the past two years), the Town of Leesburg (outside town limits) at $185.47 (18% increase), Virginia American Water (Prince William) at $150.25 (13% increase), followed by WSSC at $146.16 (32% increase).  Clearly, water rates are most part increasing faster than inflation and Fairfax Water provides the data because it still makes them look good.

The bulk of revenue has historically been from gallons of water sold.  However, water use in the region peaked about 30 years ago so, there has been more reliance on fixed fees and increasing rates to increase revenue.  In the past to keep water prices low some water distribution companies have cut their investments in maintaining their distribution systems (water treatment plants had to meet U.S.EPA standards), repairing piping after it failed instead of maintaining a planned repair schedule that Fairfax water has maintained. The Fairfax system is still relatively young and still growing. 

DC Water is a small system and has some of the oldest pipes in the region; some that still contain lead. Yet, their capital program was for many years designed to replace the distribution piping over a 300 year cycle. Pipes and valves are designed to last about 80 years. Pretty much DC water was planning for the failure of the system. In the past decade or so the replacement cycle has been shortened to 100 years, but that is too slow a pace for the aging system and unless additional investments are made. Last January over an 11 day period there were more than 150 broken water mains and service lines..  DC Water has reduced rates over the past two years.

WSSC is 101 years old and about a quarter of their 5,600 miles of water mains in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are over 50 years old. The WSSC is currently replacing 55 miles of water pipe each year making approximately $1.5 billion in capital investments and have an operation and maintenance budget of approximately $1.3 billion per year and a debt schedule to meet. They are still working hard to catch up. Last January alone there were 803 water main breaks.