Thursday, February 28, 2019

2019 Legislative Session Results for Soil and Water

Last Saturday the General Assembly closed its 2019 session. HB 2786 (Ingram), SB 1355 and Coal combustion residuals ponds; closure passed. These are identical bills to clean up the state’s legacy coal ash within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The new law would require Dominion to excavate the ponds and recycle at least a quarter (6.8 million cubic yards) of the 27 million cubic yards of existing coal ash at Bremo Power Station, Chesapeake Energy Center, Chesterfield Power Station, and Possum Point Power Station. The remainder would be deposited in a permitted and lined landfills that meets current federal standards. The closure project shall be completed within 15 years of its initiation and shall be accompanied by an offer by the owner or operator to provide connection to a municipal water supply for every residence within one-half mile if feasible, otherwise Dominion will provide water testing. The costs will be recovered in a rate adjustment which is why Dominion agreed to the deal.

Other legislation impacting water was the passing of SB 1414 Potomac Aquifer recharge monitoring; advisory board; laboratory established; SWIFT Project. Creates an advisory board and a laboratory to monitor the effects of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Project being undertaken by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) to artificially recharge the Potomac Aquifer.

The bill establishes a 10-member advisory board called the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Oversight Committee (the Committee), directing it to ensure that the SWIFT Project is monitored independently. The bill also creates the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Monitoring Laboratory, placing it under the co-direction of one Old Dominion University faculty member and one Virginia Tech faculty member. The bill provides that the Laboratory shall monitor the impact of the SWIFT Project on the Potomac Aquifer, manage testing data, and conduct water sampling and analysis to ensure proper protection of this valuable water resource.

Finally, the Budget passed included money for Natural Resources than in the Governor’s proposed budget with the following impacts for soil and water conservation districts:

  • Maintains current levels of essential operational funding for the 47 Soil and Water Conservation Districts at $7,291,091 each year. 
  • The Governor’s budget includes the mandatory deposit to the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) of the FY19 year-end surplus of $72,800,000. 
  • Unfortunately, but not surprisingly other funding for the Soil and Water Conservation District programs in the original budget were reduced by $35,031,151 that was intended to finish the remaining SL-6 (stream exclusion fencing) backlog, jump start Watershed Implementation Plane III (WIP3) to achieve the 2025 pollution reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay, for CREP, and for  Ag BMPs and other non-point source projects and technical assistance. 

There were a few additions to the budget:
  • Remote Monitoring of District Flood Control Dams. $400,000 was appropriated to the Soil and Water Conservation District Dam Maintenance, Repair and Rehabilitation Fund to install remote monitoring equipment for District-owned high and significant hazard dams. Recent flooding have highlighted the need for remote monitoring of District-owned dams typically in remote locations during storms.
  • Engineering Study of Pittsylvania Dams. $100,000 was appropriated for an engineering study of these dams.
  • The Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP). $1,000,000was appropriated for VCAP, an urban cost-share program that provides financial incentives and technical assistance to private property used for residential, commercial, or recreational purposes installing eligible Best Management Practices (BMP’s) in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed to solve problems like erosion and poor drainage.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Potomac Basin- Is the Water Adequate?

The Potomac River is 383-miles long and contains 14,670 square miles that makes up the Potomac Basin. The largest portion of the Potomac basin is in Virginia -5,723 square miles; while Maryland contains 3,818 square miles, West Virginia-3,490 miles, Pennsylvania -1,570 square miles, and 69 square miles that constitute the District of Columbia. The Potomac basin is made up of wetlands, streams, rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and the Potomac estuary.
The entire Potomac Basin from the ICPRB. The orange dot is my house. 
The Potomac River, its tributaries, and the associated groundwater resources are vital to the region, it is the source of drinking water for the over 6,000,000 people in the Washington Metropolitan area. The Potomac River is the main supply of water for WSSC and the Washington Aqueduct and the major source of water for Loudoun Water and Fairfax Water. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) manages the allocation of the Potomac River waters in time of drought or low flow, but also conducts studies on pollution, emerging contaminants and other water problems; from water supply adequacy, population growth patterns, to climate change impact on drought frequency and water supply.

Every five years the ICPRB working with the stakeholders (regulators, local and state governments, businesses, farmers and citizens) creates the Potomac Basin Comprehensive Water Resources Plan (Water Plan) that is an serves as an important portion of planning for the future of the Washington Metropolitan area region. As part of the Water Plan, the ICPRB seeks to identify surface water and groundwater resource issues of interstate or basin-wide significance. The Water Plan is the sole regional tool that attempts to ensure sustainable and reliable drinking water supplies for the entire region while protecting and improving water quality and managing land use for sustainable water and ecological health.

Water comes into the Potomac basin from rainfall (and melting snow). In the Potomac basin rainfall averages approximately 42 inches per year, but precipitation varies from year to year and across the basin (it tends to rain more in the eastern portion of the basin). Water management in the Potomac basins requires preparation for summers and autumns when river flow is typically low and water demand is highest. Balanced, well-functioning ecosystems not impacted by man are able to handle fluctuations in streamflow and groundwater availability. Mankind’s impacts to natural hydrologic variability often has negative impacts most commonly the increase in impervious cover from development results in higher flood stages from increased storm runoff and excessive surface water withdrawal which both reduce groundwater recharge.

The groundwater resources above and below the Fall Line differ. In the Coastal Plain Province, groundwater is contained in a confined aquifer system. Recharge of these aquifers primarily occurs by infiltration from overlying aquifers and through outcroppings near the Fall Line. Above the Fall Line, in the Piedmont Province, groundwater aquifers consist of fractured rock. Fractured bedrock aquifers consist of a thin layer of unconsolidated soil and weathered rock overlying the bedrock. These unconsolidated contain the largest volume of groundwater in the fractured rock aquifer. The vastly different physical properties of the groundwater systems above and below the Fall Line result in unique characteristics like recharge rates and water storage. The fractured rock system has limited ability to store water and can easily become overdrawn in a drought. The confined aquifer system of the Coastal Plain has for decades been over drawn and it’s level in falling.

Water use data for the Potomac basin has been compiled by the ICPRB. Water uses above the Fall Line are typically from surface water sources given the relatively small amount of storage available in the groundwater systems. Conversely, the water uses below the Fall Line are typically from groundwater. However, the water use data used is based on analyzing readily available data sets. This means that the regions water use is estimated by the data reported by large water users (>10,000 gallons per day) and public drinking water supplies.

The data from the water utilities and large users is regulated and reported, but knowing how much water is being used by smaller users like private household wells and small agricultural operations needs to be accounted for when assessing the basin’s water supply. These small users are a significant portion of the population even in the densely populated Washington Metropolitan region ICPRB is trying to estimate the unreported volumes from the small users using data sets such as population statistics, land use/ land cover data, and well locations that have to be compiled on a local basis. However, while they are trying to fully estimate the total regional water demand, they are not making any attempt to estimate the groundwater resources its adequacy and sustainability. The changing land use is impacting the regional hydrology and groundwater recharge so the quantity of available groundwater may even be decreasing.

In order to secure a sustainable water future for the Potomac basin we need better data. We have a relatively small amount of regional water storage for surface water and very limited alternate water sources. Historical events have demonstrated the vulnerability of current water supplies to drought and other types of disruptions –like chemical spills in the Potomac. A water supply alternatives study was conducted in 2017 by the ICPRB to evaluate options for dealing with potential future shortages due to severe drought, but it still did not address groundwater impact and availability. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) Redundancy Study in 2016 looked at impacts to the region from a chemical spill in the Potomac upstream of the intakes for Loudoun Water, Fairfax Water, WSSC and the Aqueduct, but there has been no systematic, comprehensive evaluation of the vulnerabilities of the basin water supply as a whole and planning for the future demand and supply of water. We need to do better.
The water storage in the public water supply system.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Sustainable Water is Local

Though 71 % of the earth’s surface is covered in water (the oceans, the ice caps, the atmospheric water), it makes up only 0.025 percent of the mass of the planet — 25/100,000ths of Earth. Scientists believe that the water on Earth is somewhere between 4.3 to 4.5 billion years old, the most astonishing things about water is that all the water on Earth arrived here when Earth was formed, or shortly thereafter. “There is, in fact, no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water. The water we have is what's been here, literally, forever…”

These facts are all from Charles Fishman’s book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. It’s a good read; however, it does not clearly focus on the sustainability of our water supply. The need for water is constant it does not come and go with the weather. The need for water grows with population and wealth (though water demand in the United States has flattened out). While overall there is adequate fresh water in the United States, it is not available uniformly or when and where we need it. Water adequacy and sustainability is a local issue.

Water never rests entering the atmosphere through evaporation and exits as precipitation -rain or snow. Climate and weather patterns determine where it will snow or rain. Typically, water remains in the atmosphere as vapor for about 10 days allowing water molecules to move from the oceans to the land mass where it condenses -becoming rain, snow, or mist. The pattern of precipitation changes over time responding to changes in the climate of the planet.

Rain drops falls fall to earth and will evaporate, infiltrate into the soil, recharge groundwater or flow along the ground to a stream and ultimately flow into rivers and to the ocean-moving always moving. Mankind has interrupted the flow of streams and rivers to the oceans by diverting water for irrigation, withdrawing drinking water and building reservoirs, thus interrupting its flow to the ocean. We have also interrupted the recharge of groundwater. Changing the use of the land, covering it with buildings, driveways, roads, walkway and other impervious surfaces will change the hydrology of the site reducing groundwater recharge in the surrounding area. Once the hydrology is destroyed by development, it cannot be easily restored, if at all.

The available supply of fresh water is limited to that naturally renewed by the hydrologic cycle or artificially replenished by the activities of mankind. The recharge rate, the amount of natural replenishment, varies with weather and can exceed water demands during unusually wet periods like last year or fall far below demands during drought periods. A community or society becomes unstable if water resources are “used up” –groundwater used up, reservoirs pumped dry.

The Rural Crescent was created in 1998 and originally intended as an urban growth boundary for the county was designed to preserve the agricultural heritage and force redevelopment along the Route 1 corridor rather than development in the remaining rural areas. This was to be accomplished by limiting development to one home per 10 acres with no access to public sewers. To adequately judge the usefulness of the Rural Crescent the study must consider its impact on water resources and water ecology. While the Rural Crescent may have been the wrong policy to preserve our agricultural heritage, it has been a success at preserving water resources, protecting our groundwater and supporting the ecosystem of our region.

Preserving the Rural Crescent is essential to a sustainable Prince William County. The first half of sustainable development is the redevelopment of Brownfields along the Route 1 corridor rather than Greenfield development in rural areas where there is no existing infrastructure. Redevelopment along Route 1 would help Prince William County to improve storm water management as well as revitalize these older areas of the county. This redevelopment would take place without significantly increasing pavement and impervious surfaces. The second portion of sustainable development is to ensure adequate water for our county now and in the future.

The Rural Crescent is about water, specifically groundwater, though it also protects the Occoquan Watershed that is part of the primary supply of Fairfax Water. Residents within Rural Crescent rely on private wells for water and septic systems for wastewater disposal. Increased development can have an adverse impact on surrounding private wells and septic systems. There are limits to the amount of groundwater available for extraction from the aquifer. To be sustainable, the amount of groundwater removed from an aquifer match the recharge rate. Increasing the direct demand by pumping to supply water to commercial or residential users or reducing the recharge rate by diverting surface flow and adding pavement and roads will result in changes in the local or regional hydraulic balance- a reduction in discharge to surface water at, an increase in recharge from surface water, or a loss of storage in the aquifer by falling water table or some combination of these effects.

Prince William County is engaged in revising the sections of the Comprehensive Plan that pertain to the Rural Crescent. The details of the revisions being considered have not been finalized or released, but I am lead to believe that allowing significantly increased housing densities and clustered development within what is now the Rural Crescent is being considered. We need to study how any proposed land use change will impact water and groundwater sustainability for existing homes. The right of existing property owners to their water is primary and valuable and should not be compromised or impaired. Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view.

Changing the character of the Rural Crescent to include cluster development could impact water availability to the existing residents and impact base flow to our rivers. Bringing in public water and sewer connections even if they are limited to cluster development along what is being called the transition area, such expansion may exceed the capacity of the current systems and require water and sewer infrastructure expansion. Clustered properties cannot rely on well and septic- they are simply too close together, clustered development will be connected to public water supplied by Prince William Service Authority.

Currently, public water in the areas adjacent to the Rural Crescent is supplied by a combination of groundwater wells and surface water supply that is purchased from Fairfax Water and Lake Manassas. There is a cost to purchase additional capacity from Fairfax Water and that water is not unlimited. The viability of using groundwater wells to expand public supply from the Evergreen System is unknown. In addition, piping and pumps will have to carry water from its source to any new development. This would force the County to find additional sources of water at greater incremental cost to all ratepayers and such sources may not even be available. In addition, water mains and sewage piping are costly not only to build, but also to maintain.

For more than two centuries the waters of the Potomac seemed unlimited. It is not, Fairfax Water, Loudoun Water, WSSC, and the Washington Aqueduct all share the waters of the Potomac. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, manages the Potomac River allocation of the regional water supply during times of low flow and plan for future water supply. The Washington DC region has reached the point in population density and development that during times of drought, natural flows on the Potomac are not always sufficient to allow water withdrawals by the utilities (including power generation which takes an awesome amount of water) while still maintaining a minimum flow in the river for sustaining aquatic resources.

Last winter the Virginia Legislature amended the  comprehensive planning process (§§ 15.2-2223 and 15.2-2224 of the Code of Virginia ) to include planning for the continued availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources on a County level. State law now requires that the County plan to have good quality water for all its residents (present and future). Let's make sure that we carefully carry out that goal.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Baby Steps towards Regulating PFOA and PFOS

Late last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced their Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan, taking the first steps in the process to create a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to regulate these chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA press release stated that the EPA plans to move forward with the MCL process required under the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS the two most prevalent PFAS chemicals. According to the EPA, they will propose a regulatory determination by the end of the year, which is the next step in the Safe Drinking Water Act process for establishing an MCL, but far from taking action. When the MCL will be established is unknown, EPA has yet to determine a MCL for perchlorate that it decide and announced its intent to regulate in 2011.

The manufacture and import of PFOA has been phased out in United States as part of the PFOA Stewardship program. The last time PFOS manufacture was reported to EPA was 2002, existing stocks of PFOA might still exist and there might be PFOA in some imported articles. However, ceasing to manufacture these chemicals did not begin to solve this widespread problem. PFOA waste was buried in unlined pits and has contaminated Parkersburg, West Virgina migrated into streams and groundwater contaminating parts of the Ohio River and the groundwater basin.  In addition, there are many different types of PFAS besides PFOA and PFOS.

PFAS was used to keep food from sticking to cookware (original Teflon pans), to make sofas and carpets resistant to stains (Scotchguard), to make clothes and mattresses more waterproof, and to make some food packaging resistant to grease absorption as well as use in some fireproof materials like baby cloths. Because PFAS help reduce friction, they are also used in a variety of other industries, including aerospace, automotive, building and construction, and electronics.

PFAS are synthetic chemicals that do not occur naturally in the environment. PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment and resistant to typical environmental degradation processes. Some long-chain PFAS bioaccumulate in animals and can enter the human food chain. PFOS and PFOA are two of the most studied PFAS. Exposure to PFOA and PFOS is widespred. More than 95% of the U.S. Population has measurable blood levels of PFOS and PFOA. Babies are born with PFOA in their blood. These chemicals persist in the human body and are eliminated very slowly. 

According to a an Interim Guidance from the CDC, there are many routes to exposure:

  • Drinking contaminated water.
  • Ingesting food contaminated with PFAS, such as certain types of fish and shellfish.
  • Until recently, eating food packaged in materials containing PFAS (e.g., popcorn bags, fast food containers, and pizza boxes).  Using PFAS compounds has been largely phased out of food packaging materials.
  • Hand-to-mouth transfer from surfaces treated with PFAS-containing stain protectants, such as carpets and upholstery.
  • Individuals can also be exposed by breathing air that contains dust contaminated with PFAS (from soil, carpets, upholstery, clothing, etc.), or from certain fabric sprays containing this substance.
  • And finally, workers in industries that manufacture  or use products containing PFAS may be exposed to higher levels than the general population as in the very sad story of “The Devil We Know.”

 Much of what we know about the health impacts of PFOAs if from “The C8 Health Project.” “This was a large epidemiological study conducted because drinking water in six water districts across two states near Parkersburg, West Virginia were contaminated by release of PFOA (also called C8) from the 1950s until 2002 (when the contamination was discovered). These releases migrated and contaminated the air, parts of the Ohio River, and ground water. The study included 69,030 persons >18 years of age. The C8 Science Panel analyzed study data and found ... links as determined by litigation. between elevated PFOA blood levels and high cholesterol (hypercholesteremia), ulcerative colitis, thyroid function, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, preeclampsia, as well as elevated blood pressure during pregnancy. Residents in the area of these releases showed 500% higher PFOA-concentrations in blood compared to a representative U.S. population...” The film “The Devil We Know” can be purchased at this link. 

Over the years I came know that Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon) starts to dissociate at about 300 degrees Celsius or about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, releasing PFOA into the air. An empty pan can reach 500 degrees F in less than 2 minutes on a high flame. For almost twenty years nonstick pans made with ceramic coatings, anodized aluminum, silicone that do not contain Teflon have been available, buy those. I did because Teflon never stuck to the pan very well.

Because of the extensive public interest since the film was released, the agency has begun the process of taking action. According to the EPA Press Release: “EPA’s Action Plan identifies both short-term solutions for addressing these chemicals and long-term strategies that will help provide the tools and technologies needed to provide clean and safe drinking water and to address PFAS at the source—even before it gets into the water.” The press release went on to say: “Together, these efforts will help EPA and its partners identify and better understand PFAS contaminants generally, clean up current PFAS contamination, prevent future contamination, and effectively communicate risk with the public. To implement the Action Plan, EPA will continue to work in close coordination with multiple entities, including other federal agencies, states, tribes, local governments, water utilities, industry, and the public.”

Action on PFOA and the other PFAS compounds has momentum. Now is the time to act, not back off and wait. In the interest of full disclosure: 40 years ago I worked in Research and Development at DuPont in the Chemicals and Pigments Division at a New Jersey chemical plant for a couple of years when my husband was in graduate school. I was involved in reducing waste and yield improvement on Pyromellitic dianhydride. My work was entirely unrelated to Teflon or its manufacture or that plant’s specific waste practices, but waste practices in the industry at that time were just entering the age of regulation under RCRA.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reverse Osmosis

In drinking water treatment reverse osmosis is a method of treatment that uses an external pump to push water through a membrane with microscopic holes (semi-permeable) to remove larger particles from drinking water. Selection of the proper membrane will ensure that the holes are large enough to allow water molecules to pass through, but will small enough to block most inorganic impurities. For the system to work it is important that the membrane is not clogged (fouled). To prevent fouling it is essential that oxidation then filtration to remove the common contaminants, iron and manganese takes place before the reverse osmosis unit. If the water is hard, then it needs to be softened or an anti-scalant to prevent mineral build-up on the membranes. 
from VA Tech
Reverse osmosis systems can be used to reduce the levels of total dissolved solids and suspended matter in drinking water. The principal uses of reverse osmosis in are for the reduction of high levels of nitrate, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, sulfate, sodium and total dissolved solids. Removal effectiveness depends on the contaminant and its concentration, the membrane selected, the water pressure and proper installation. Proper selection of the membrane and pressure is essential when selecting a reverse osmosis system. The membrane must be selected based on complete water analysis otherwise the entire system might be useless.

In addition, reverse osmosis systems require regular maintenance and monitoring to continue to function properly over an extended period of time. Reverse osmosis has been shown to remove 83%-92% of nitrates from drinking water in both field and laboratory test. This is probably the most appropriate use of reverse osmosis systems. There are two types of systems: point of use and whole house. The point-of-use systems are typically installed under a kitchen sink with a separate dispenser. Point of use systems typically deliver small amounts (2 to 10 gallons per day) of treated water. Whole- house-systems treats all of the water as it comes into your home. A whole-house reverse osmosis system would require a treatment train to treat the water ahead of the reverse osmosis membrane and holding tank. Also, it would require a booster pump and UV light to ensure that the stored water remained contaminant free.

There is no single “best” treatment for home use, only treatment types appropriate for certain problems. The water treatment the industry has expanded to marketing treatment systems designed treat (or at least sold to treat) contaminants that may pose a health hazards. According to the on-going studies by the U.S. Geological Survey micro-contaminants are appearing is groundwater supplies. Unfortunately, the home water treatment industry is inconsistent in the skill and knowledge of the companies and their employees and many of the systems installed are inappropriate, unnecessary or have side effects that create other problems. The free in-home water testing provided by water treatment companies is very limited in scope. The only things that they can test for in the in-home tests are hardness, pH, iron and sulfur. In addition, the sensitivity and accuracy of the tests can be limited. Analysis for organics and bacterial contaminants must be performed in a certified laboratory and before you buy any treatment system you should do a full analysis yourself.

I am not a fan of reverse osmosis systems in many applications. They are often sold as accessory item to solve the taste and sodium problem created when a whole house water softener is installed or for feared problems without proper testing. Reverse osmosis systems use a lot of water. They recover only 5 to 15 percent of the water entering the system. The remainder is discharged as waste water.

The waste water carries with it the rejected contaminants, and methods to re-cover this water are not practical for household systems. Waste water is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system. A reverse osmosis system delivering 5 gallons of treated water per day may discharge 40 to 90 gallons of waste water per day to the septic system. This is a significant additional load and could impact the life and functioning of your septic system. In addition, the waste water often carries the salt from the water softener and is damaging to the environment. It is to be noted that a whole house reverse osmosis system installed with a storage tank or two and a booster pump wastes much less water. It is estimated to waste only 1 gallon for every 4 gallons it makes.

Effectiveness of reverse osmosis system depends on initial levels of contamination, membrane size and type and water pressure. The application of pressure reverses the natural flow of the flow of water in osmosis from high concentration so that water passes from a more concentrated solution to a more dilute solution through a semi-permeable membrane. As stated above, reverse osmosis systems incorporate pre and post-filters along with the membrane itself in order for a reverse osmosis system to function properly. It is common to have a whole house filter system utilizing activated carbon installed in series with the reverse osmosis system. In addition, because contaminants are removed by forcing water through a membrane, the membrane requires regular maintenance and cleaning. Reverse osmosis systems are normally used to treat only drinking and cooking water in homes; however, it is the method used for desalinization plants.

Reverse osmosis systems are never not appropriate for treating water supplies that are contaminated by coliform bacteria (neither nuisance nor fecal) because they do not remove bacteria. Reverse osmosis units on the market range in cost from $1,000 to over $10,000 for a whole house unit with an anti-scalant. The units vary in quality and effectiveness. Homes on well water need to purchase low pressure units which are slightly more expensive than the systems designed for municipal water. The size and membrane type are one of the factors that will determine cost. Replacement membranes cost $100 to $200 and filter cartridges around $50. Reverse osmosis is a proven technology that has been used successfully on a commercial basis most famously for removing salt from seawater.

Monday, February 11, 2019

2018 a Warm and Wet Year in the United States

On February 6th 2019 NOAA announced that 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record ranking just behind 2016 (the warmest), 2015 (the second warmest) and 2017 (the third warmest). The land surface temperature was 2.02 degrees above average, both the fourth highest on record While the globally averaged sea surface temperature was 1.19 degrees F above average. 
from NOAA
However, the average temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 53.5 degrees F (1.5 degrees above average). Most of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest experienced near-normal temperatures, while the west of the Rockies and across the coastal Southeast was warmer than average. Overall, 2018 was the 14th warmest year on record. The United States has now had 22 consecutive warmer-than-average years.

Record high annual temperatures were experienced elsewhere on the globe- across much of Europe, New Zealand, and parts of the Middle East and Russia. No land areas were record cold for the year. The diagram below from NOAA shows the full picture of earth’s annual average temperature.

As most of you know, in the U.S., last year’s weather story was more about wetness than heat. Precipitation for the contiguous U.S. averaged 34.63 inches (4.69 inches above average), the third wettest year in the 124-year record. Here in my corner of Virginia total precipitation was almost 71 inches in my yard. I know this because I am a member of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network known as CoCoRaHS, a non-profit, community-based network of volunteer citizen scientists working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow).

Extreme weather events were attributed to the changing climate. In 2018, the U.S. experienced 14 weather and climate disasters, each with losses exceeding $1 billion and in all totaling around $91 billion in damages. Both the number of events and their cumulative cost ranked fourth highest since records began in 1980. Extreme event attribution seeks to determine whether climate change altered the likelihood of occurrence of a given extreme event. A long-term, high-quality records and a computer model capable of producing a realistic simulation are being used to assess the influence of climate change on extreme rainfall, drought, wildfires etc. Currently, scientists a better able to detect the influence of human-caused global warming on heat waves and, to a lesser extent, heavy rainfall events than our ability to detect its influence on tornadoes or hurricanes. Scientists look to be able to quantify cause and-effect relationships in the climate system in the future. 
from NOAA
Nonetheless, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume I and II the impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future. The severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur. Unfortunately, control of global greenhouse gas emissions is not in our hands. The United States represents about 13% of global emissions. In order to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C of warming, the recent The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ,the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, says carbon pollution must be cut almost in half by 2030, less than 12 years away, and then reach "net zero" by mid-century. The greenhouse gas emissions from the United States have been decreasing. As you can see below the trajectory of emissions is not good. 
from Oliver et al

The problem is that under the Paris Agreement China has only agreed to stop growing their CO2 emissions by 2030 and the reduction in emissions pledged so far are nowhere near sufficient to hold temperature change to 2 degrees C let along attempt 1.5 degrees according to the climate models.

With China in 2016 as the largest CO2 emitter at slightly more than 26% of the total- twice the United States level, the goals of the Paris Agreement cannot be met without reductions in China and the other nations still growing their emissions and all other nations must increase the level of emissions cut pledged to even meet the 2 degree C goal, let along the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees C.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fracking- Menace or Boon?

From Florida, Ohio and New Jersey the movement to ban “fracking” has picked up this winter. At this time New York and Maryland have banned fracking. Vermont has also banned fracking, but that was symbolic since they have no know shale gas reserves. To fully understand the issue in order to make well informed decisions we should revisit the most cited scholarly article on the costs and benefits of fracking.

Robert Jackson, the Kevin and Michelle Douglas Professor of Environment and Energy at Stanford University, has done considerable work examining the environmental impacts from fracking. A couple of years back, he and a group of co-authors published a paper entitled: “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking” in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.( Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2014. 39:7.1–7.36) that is a fabulous summary of everything we do and do not know about the impacts of fracking.

In this paper Robert B. Jackson of Stanford University, Avner Vengosh, from Duke University, J. William Carey, from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Richard J. Davies, from Durham University, Thomas H. Darrah, for Ohio State University, Francis O’Sullivan, from MIT and Gabrielle P´etron from the University of Colorado at Boulder reviewed all 166 fracking studies that have been performed and peer reviewed to consolidate all that we know about fracking and identify the areas where more research needs to be performed. This paper is a complete and thorough review of all the risks and benefits associated with the hydrocarbon extraction method known as fracking.

Fracking is the current method of extracting unconventional oil and natural gas that is locked inside impermeable geological formations. Fracking is enabled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (thus the name fracking). Fracking or hydraulic fracturing as it is more properly known involves the pressurized injection of fluids made up of mostly water and chemical additives into a geologic formation. The pressure used exceeds the rock strength and the fluid opens or enlarges fractures in the rock. As the formation is fractured, a “propping agent,” such as sand or ceramic beads, is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing as the pumping pressure is released. The fracturing fluids (water and chemical additives) are partially recovered and returned to the surface or deep well injected for disposal. Natural gas or oil will flow from pores and fractures in the rock into the wells allowing for improved access to the methane or oil reserves.

Over the past 15 years, the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas extraction has increased and has expanded over a wide diversity of geographic regions and geologic formations throughout the United States and Canada. The annual production of methane (CH4) in the United States had increased over 40% from 2005 to about 33,357 billion cubic feet of gas a year in 2017. The ability to frack oil and natural gas deposits has profoundly changed the estimates of recoverable oil and gas resources and the energy future of our country. The United States is the largest producer of methane. There is now known to be adequate natural gas resources for the foreseeable future.

Fracked oil and gas can result in an economic boom as it generates income. If fracking is done carefully and properly the safely extracted gas can reduce air pollution and even water use compared with other fossil fuels. However, the authors point out that availability of vast quantities of natural gas is likely to slow the adoption of renewable energy sources; and if fracking is done poorly toxic chemicals from fracking fluid could be released into our water supplies and methane could be release to the air.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas and during drilling leaks from oil and gas wells. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methane accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has more than 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it escapes into the atmosphere. In 2018 the administration proposed weakening a yet to be implemented Obama-era policy to require testing and repairing methane leaks during drilling operations.

As fracking has expanded, so has a public and regulatory concern about the possible environmental consequences of fracking and horizontal drilling. Fracking is banned in in the New York State and Maryland portions of the Marcellus Shale basin based primarily on health and environmental concerns. These concerns include air pollution from the operation of heavy equipment, human health effects for workers and people living near well pads from chemical exposure, noise and dust, induced seismicity from the disposal of fracking fluids, and increased greenhouse gas emissions from poor well head control and continued use of hydrocarbons. However, the biggest health and environmental concerns remains the potential for drinking water contamination from fracturing fluids, natural formation waters, and stray gases. Vermont has also banned fracking though it has no gas reserves.

In the drought plagued west the amount of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well can be a significant drain on already strained water resources. On average takes 3.8 million gallons of water for each well. Though about half the water will be returned as “flowback,” the recovered water will contain chemical and radiological contaminants. The study found that surprisingly, shale-gas extraction and processing are less water intensive than many other forms of energy extraction. The water intensities for coal, nuclear, and oil extraction are approximately 2 times, 3 times, and 10 times greater than for shale gas, respectively. Corn ethanol production uses substantially more water because of the evapotranspiration of the plants, and 1,000 times more water than shale gas if the plants are irrigated. However, renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar consume almost no water.

Maintaining well integrity and reducing surface spills and improper wastewater disposal have been found to be the way to minimize contamination from the chemicals used in fracking fluid and from naturally occurring contaminants such as salts, metals, and radioactivity found in oil and gas wastewaters that are returned to the surface. Though, there have been few definitive studies of the frequency, consequences, and severity of well integrity failure. Studies done in Ohio and Texas found over a 25-year period on a mix of traditional and shale gas wells found an extremely low level of incidence of groundwater contamination. In Ohio they found 185 cases of groundwater contamination caused primarily by failures of wastewater pits or well integrity out of about 60,000 producing wells, for an incident rate of about 0.1%.The rate for Texas was found to be even lower at about 0.02%. The Texas study included 16,000 horizontal shale-gas wells with none reporting groundwater contamination.

A significant concern is that hydraulic fracturing could open small cracks thousands of feet underground, connecting shallow drinking-water aquifers to deeper layers and providing a pathway for the chemicals used in fracking and naturally occurring geological formational brines to migrate upward. In practice, according to Dr. Jackson and the others this is unlikely because of the depths of most (but not all) shale formations tends to be 3,000-10,000 feet below ground level, and man-made hydro-fractures rarely propagate more than 2,000 feet. According to Dr. Jackson a more plausible scenario would be for man-made fractures to connect to a natural fault or fracture, an abandoned well, or some other underground pathway, allowing fluids to migrate upward). A simpler pathway for groundwater contamination, though, is through poor well construction and integrity. In the first study to test for potential drinking-water contamination associated with unconventional energy extraction overlying the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania that is what was found.

The scientists found that the number of peer-reviewed studies that have examined potential water contamination is surprisingly low, though it may be the most important risk. Wastewater from oil and gas exploration is generally classified into flowback and produced waters. Flowback water is the fluids that are return to the surface after the hydraulic fracturing and before oil and gas production begins, primarily when the well is completed. Typically it consists of 10–40% of the injected fracturing fluids and chemicals pumped underground that return to the surface mixed with an increasing proportion of natural brines from the shale formations over time. Produced water is the fluid that flows to the surface during extended oil and gas production. It primarily reflects the chemistry and geology of deep formation waters. These naturally occurring brines are often saline to hypersaline and can contain toxic levels of elements such as barium, arsenic, and radioactive radium. However, more work still needs to be done to understand fracking’s impact and gather the data necessary for improved geo-mechanical models for how hydraulic fracturing affects the well hole environment and how fluids move through rock formations.

Clearly, in some geology and circumstances fracking is undesirable or high risk. In Pavillion, Wyoming, it is clear that the drinking water aquifer has been impacted, but whether it was caused by the fracking is not clear. These were drinking water wells in a coal producing area, and contamination could have been introduced into the water by previous generations of oil and gas development. Hydraulic fracturing in this tight sandstone formation occurred as shallowly as 322 meters. A lack of vertical separation between fracking activity and drinking water increases hydraulic connectivity and the opportunities for contamination of drinking water supplies.

Throughout their study the scientist recommend a series of research questions that should be answered to more fully model and understand fracking. In addition they emphasize the need for greater transparency from companies and regulating agencies in information and the need for baseline studies prior to drilling is critical to even know if water or human health has been impacted. Predrilling data needs to include measurements of groundwater and surface-water quality and quantity as well as air quality, and human health. The scientists pointed out that there have been virtually no comprehensive studies on the impact of fracking on human health while state regulators and law in some instances allow fracking virtually in people’s backyards. The fact that the Pavillion, Wyoming field with no vertical separation could be legally fracked highlights the problem. Fracking needs to be well understood and the risks managed to make sure that is a benefit to mankind and is only used in appropriate and low risk locations.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Pipes Froze Overnight What to Do

Where I live in Virginia is a lovely place with moderate four season weather. Though we have snow, it usually doesn’t stay on the ground too long because it is rare to have more than a week of freezing weather. This past week artic cold descended on much of the mid-west and low single digits arrived in Virginia. Nothing ever dies on the internet, so my home phone number and email address are out there and I got lots of calls for what sounded like frozen pipes from near and far.

Once you have a frozen pipe, the best strategy is to slowly warm it up and let it melt. A frozen pipe does not have to mean a burst pipe, but the only way you will know if the pipe has burst (other than ripping out the ceiling or wallboard) is to defrost the pipe and run the water and look for the leak. Water expands when it freezes applying force in all directions, but damage done by the ice usually occurs at elbows and joints where the force is constrained. Some plumbers believe that toilet valves and pressure tanks (used in homes with private wells) can allow a plumbing system to absorb the increased pressure and reduce the likelihood of a burst pipe.

If on a very cold day you turn on a faucet and either get nothing or just a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Usually, this happens when the temperature drops overnight and there was no water being used. If you have a frozen pipe you need to identify which part of your piping is frozen. If it is the supply line, there will be no water to any part of the house. If however, after checking you find that there is water in parts of the house, then the frozen pipe is on an exterior wall or above an unheated space.

The 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, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing.

If there is no water anywhere, then it is either the well or the supply line into the house. In sub-zero weather wells with separate well houses can freeze. Back in the day, an inefficient 100 watt incandescent bulb provided enough wasted heat to keep a well house from freezing, modern efficient bulbs do not. You are going to need to put a heat source in the well house to warm it up.

A well with an immersion pump and a couple feet of pipe above ground and exposed might also freeze. Covering an exposed well pipe with an insulating tarp can help it warm up, though the last time I had to help someone do that we ended up using an electric blanket under a black mover pad using the electric heat and the midday sun to warm up their well.

If it is the supply line from the well then you need to warm the well house or the well pipe and try to warm the area where the pipe enters the home, for example under the garage. Hopefully, the pipe froze in the most vulnerable areas at the two ends. If your pipe is not buried deep enough, there is simply nothing you can do but wait for the weather to warm up.

Once you had addressed the well house or well head, then you need to do is raise the temperature in the garage or where the pipe enters the house (it might be a crawl space). A ceramic heating cube ($39 from Lowes) in the garage or crawl space can help warm up a frozen pipe entering the home or a water pipe that runs above of adjacent to a garage.

To defrost interior pipes the first thing you need to do is raise the temperature in the house to at least 68 degrees. Open the cabinet doors under the sinks, and ceramic heating cubes in any bathroom that is adjacent to an unheated space (like a dormer, over a garage, etc.). You need to get the pipes warm enough for the ice to melt. Open a faucet a touch in the sinks or tub. The open faucets are intended to offer another source of relief of pressure as the pipes defrosted and allow the water to flow as the pipe defrosted. Basically, you need to get the pipes warm enough for the ice to melt. If you have plastic piping that is considerably more tolerant of freezing than copper pipes. There is a real shot that a plastic pipe can freeze without bursting if all the connections and elbows are sound.

Okay, what next. Patience. It took me almost 24 hours to defrost my pipes the last time I had to do it. With any luck, when the water starts to flow, it will be into the sink and not a burst pipe. Repeatedly freezing and thawing a plastic pipe can cause it to stress fracture. So, in the future, plan for freezing weather. Turn on the heating cube in the garage open the cabinet below the sink and run the extra heaters overnight to prevent the pipes from freezing in the first place. For those of you with separate well houses that are far more likely to freeze overnight and no longer have access to the 100 watt bulb that kept the old below grade well house warm enough during New England winters, there are Thermocubes, heating tape and heating pads.